Vervain is rich in lore, both magical and religious. It is even said to have been used to stem the flow of Christ's crucifixion wounds.
Pronunciation: (Vur-BEE-nuh off-fiss-ih-NAL-iss)
Perennial; Hardy in Zones 4 through 8
Compared with its flashy garden verbena cousins, common vervain (Verbena officinalis) is an unprepossessing plain Jane. Yet according to Henry Beston, writing in Herbs and the Earth (1935), "To those interested in magic and religion, there is no herb in the garden more worthy of attention, for this simple plant without fragrance, without an outer look of power, without a flower of significance, was singled out from among all other plants and herbs as the most sacred of the growing things of earth between the Pillars of Hercules and the roots of the Caucasus."
Vervain is one of some 250 species of annuals, herbaceous perennials, and subshrubs in the genus Verbena. Although most members of the genus are native to tropical and subtropical America, vervain is native to southern Europe; it probably came to North America with the early English settlers.
The loosely branched stems are stiff, erect, and four-angled. They may grow to 2 1/2 feet tall. The leaves, opposite and rough in texture, are of three types. Those lowest on the stem are coarsely toothed and stalked; those in the middle, also stalked, are oval and deeply lobed or cut; while the leaves highest on the stem are oval or linear, stalkless, and irregularly toothed.
From early summer through early fall, tiny purplish flowers occur in narrow spikes at the tips of the stems or in the leaf axils. Each has five fused sepals that are covered with glandular hairs, five fused petals with spreading lobes, and four stamens. Only a few flowers are open at any time. They are insect pollinated. The dry fruits contain four nutlets that are dispersed by ants.
Vervain is hardy in Zones 4 through 8. As a landscape plant, its champion Beston avers, “It has enough garden presence of a rustic kind to justify its inclusion, being in no way boorish or uncivil, and it is easy to start from seed and easy to grow.”
Several members of the verbena family may be better known than common vervain to today’s herb enthusiasts. Blue vervain (V. hastata), an American native, has been used for both food and medicine. Lemon vervain is another name for the familiar fragrant herb lemon verbena (Aloysia triphylla). Chaste tree (Vitex agnus-castus), used to treat gynecological disorders, Aztec sweet herb (Phyla scaberrima), and Mexican oregano (Lippia graveolens) are other herbal relatives.
Vervain’s reputation as a sacred plant dates at least to ancient Egypt, where it was thought to have sprung from the tears of the goddess Isis as she mourned the death of the god Osiris. It was also sacred to the Persians, Druids, and worshippers of Thor in Scandinavia. The Greeks called it hierobotane, “holy plant;” the Roman version of the name was herba sacra. Both used the branches to brush the altars of the temples; the generic name Verbena, “leafy branch,” alludes to this practice. Legend has it that vervain was also used to stanch the bleeding of Christ’s wounds on the cross; the herb is sometimes known as herb-on-the-cross.
During the Middle Ages, vervain was an ingredient of magicians’ and witches’ potions, but common folk could use it for protection, as Gertrude Foster notes in Herbs for Every Garden (1966): “Vervain and Dill / Hinder witches from their will.” It was also highly regarded as an aphrodisiac, earning it the name herba veneris, “herb of love.”
Vervain is one of the classical medicinal herbs; it has been used to treat practically every known disorder from snakebite, nervous disorders, and headaches to “pain in the secret parts.” A medieval cure for a throat tumor called for tying part of a vervain root around the throat and drying the rest over a fire. As the fire shriveled the root, the tumor would shrivel, too, or so the theory went. James A. Duke’s Phytochemical and Ethnobotanical Databases (www.ars-grin.gov/duke/) list more than fifty medical conditions for which vervain has been used, but it has never been proven effective in alleviating them.
In China, vervain has been used experimentally to treat malaria, blood flukes, coughs, and inflammation. It is suspected of poisoning cattle in Australia, and touching it can cause dermatitis in humans.
The common name vervain is believed to come from the Celtic words fer, “to remove,” and faen, “stone,” in reference to its reputation for curing kidney stones. A 1994 study of vervain and six other herbs traditionally used to prevent and treat kidney stones did find some beneficial effects, but the researchers concluded that more effective and equally innocuous substitutes are well known.
The tender young leaves may be parboiled and eaten or brewed into a tea. A big batch of tea added to your bathwater is supposed to be soothing. The flowers may be made into wine, used as a garnish, or, as is done in Turkey, used to flavor salt. The seeds of blue vervain may be roasted and ground for use in fried cakes.
Or plant some vervain to keep the pigeons and turkeys happy. Two more common names, pigeon grass and turkey grass, commemorate these birds’ attraction to the herb, but both names have also been applied to other plants.
In Europe, vervain is found growing wild in well-drained or dry alkaline soil in sun or half shade. Beston says vervain is “not particular about soil but likes a sunny place.” He advises placing plants “well back in the border, planting them in a close-growing line, and facing them with some shorter and more compact perennial.”
Vervain reseeds readily. The Druids advised gathering plants when neither the sun nor the moon is in the sky and leaving honeycombs on the ground in exchange for the harvest.
• Goodwin Creek Gardens, PO Box 83, Williams, OR 97544. (541) 846-7357. Catalog $1. Plants.
• Richters, Goodwood, ON, Canada L0C 1A0. (905) 640-6677. Catalog free. Seeds, plants.
Herb lover Betsy Strauch is a former Herb Companion editor.
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