Herb to Know: Vervain

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.

| August/September 1999

  • Photo by M. Wall

  • Photo by Denis Barthel/Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Common Vervain
Verbena officinalis
Pronunciation: (Vur-BEE-nuh off-fiss-ih-NAL-iss)
Family: Verbenaceae
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.”

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