Vervain or verbena officinalis is a medium sized perennial, it’s very dainty purple flower spikes shoot up to a height of around 18inches, 80cm during the summer months. A native to most of Europe, Southern England and Wales, it can, it is said, be found on waste areas and roadside verges,(although I have never done so, but would be overjoyed if I did) however I have spotted it, although rather stunted, growing amongst the rocks of a disused quarry in Somerset. Yet, as you may have guessed, it can be found growing happily in my garden. The idea that vervain needs a well drained rich soil, as many books indicate, appears disproved by my experience. It grows very well in a slightly shaded border, and a rather waterlogged tub whose lack of drainage was an oversight on my part. So it may be that vervain prefers a well drained rich soil, yet will happily push forth its purple spires more or less anywhere, providing it has sufficient sunlight.
The classical world knew it as verbena, and English herbals tended to call it vervain and strangely both names appear to have welded themselves into common usage. Mrs Grieve states that ‘The name Vervain is derived from the Celtic ferfaen, from fer (to drive away) and faen (a stone), as the plant was much used for the affections of the bladder, especially calculus.’ (in medicine a stone or concretion, especially one in the kidney, gall bladder, or urinary bladder) She continues by pointing to another title, Herba veneris due to its suggested aphrodisiac potencies.
A rather better known crown that it has been awarded is Herba Sacra; the herb, according to Mrs Grieve, used during the sacrificial act. However she does add that the name Verbena is said to have been the classical Roman name for ‘altar-plants’ in general. Yet there does appear to be a distinction as Pliny referred to verbenae in the plural, referring to sacred plants, whereas the hiera botane or ‘sacred plant’ of the Romans was the verbenaca singular. (http://blog.metmuseum.org/cloistersgardens/2011/07/01/holy-vervain/)
Donald Law indicates that the flower festivals held by the Romans were called ‘verbanalia.’ Law also indicates that its status of herba sacra was due to its virtue as ‘one which older writers considered a panacea, you name the illness, they said Verbena will heal it.’ It is also said that Roman soldiers were said to have carried verbena as an amulet in their packs for protection. Law also states that
‘Pliny says that it was used to tell fortunes, but doesn’t say how’. Law adds that ‘Beasts for sacrifice in Ancient Rome, were decorated with verbena.’ and therefore ‘Was it a coincidence that they greeted foreign embassies with verbena also?’
It’s flowers, it is said are ‘formed from the tears of Juno.’ (Law) Cunningham also gives ‘Juno’s Tears’ as one of its folk names.
Thomas Firminger Thistleton Dyer (1889) in The Folk-Lore of Plants mentions ‘Gerarde’ who when, describing the vervain, points to ‘its manifold mystic virtues,’ as ‘ “the devil did reveal it as a secret and divine medicine”.’
Mrs Grieve states that ‘the druids included it in their lustral water, and was second in import, following the mistletoe; adding that ‘magicians and sorcerers employed it largely’. Donald Law states that ‘The Druids are known to have used it to ward off evil.’ However, as Cunningham puts it anything ‘ ”Druidic” has to be looked upon as poetic, rather than historic fact.’
A plant of the planet Venus; and all sources appear to be in agreement on this, a feminine plant, of the element earth, said by Cunningham to be an aid in invoking ‘Love, Protection, Purification, Peace, Money, Youth, Chastity, Sleep, Healing’; According to Cunningham it is ‘Traditionally gathered at Midsummer, or at the rising of the Dog Star when neither sun nor moon is out, but this is not necessary.’ He adds that it is ‘a common ingredient in love mixtures and protective spells.’ Adding that ‘A crown of vervain on the head protects the magician whilst invoking spirits.’ plus ‘The infusion sprinkled around the premises chases off evil spirits and malignant forces.’
Having just read these words my ears pricked up at Saturdays ‘Summer of Love’ when I heard Peter Grey mention vervain in his talk entitled ‘In the skin of the beast’ so decided I needed to find a book that would tell me more, and happened upon Crossed Keys by Michael Cecchetelli. (Scarlet Imprint 2011) I was here returned to Pliny; who was also mentioned by Peter Grey; and thereby encouraged to reconsider the aforementioned gathering instructions which Cunningham dismisses. Cecchetelli states; ‘Pliny, the Naturalist, says that magicians claim this herb must be picked towards the beginning of the Dog Days, without the action being seen by the sun or the moon, having beforehand made atonement to the earth with a buried offering of honeycomb and honey; after, a circle must be drawn with iron around the plant, then it should be pulled up with the left hand and not allowed to touch the earth. The leaves, stem and root must be dried separately in the shade.’ So it appears that if vervain is to be used for magical purposes, it may be wise to follow recommendations, unless one is sufficiently knowledgeable to have found a better way. A sunny period during the Dog Days here in the UK seems to be a lot harder to find than a copy of Pliny’s Historia Naturalis.
Vervain, according to Cunningham, is also ‘added to exorcism incenses and sprinkling mixtures.’ He adds that ‘It is a common ingredient in purification bath sachets.’
As a ‘peace-bringer’, it can ‘calm the emotions’ allowing a peaceful night’s sleep if drunk before one retires.
It seems that Vervain is also used in money and prosperity spells, ‘if the plant is buried in the garden or placed in the house, wealth will flow and plants will thrive.’(Cunningham) He adds that ‘The undiluted juice of the juice of the vervain, smeared on the body cures diseases and guards against future health problems.’ Hmm, I may dig out my juice extractor from the murky depths of the kitchen cupboard and give it a go.
Hopman states that ‘Wearing or bathing in Vervain places one under the influence of Diana.’ She goes on to say ‘After washing your hands in the infusion, it will be possible to engender love in the one you touch.’ She adds, amongst other suggestions ‘Vervain is worn to recover stolen articles. Cunningham agrees with this; however it appears you need to know the person has taken the article in the first place.
Both Hopman and Cunningham share that ‘Tucked into a child’s cradle, the plant brings joy and lively intellect.’ or words to that effect.
Catherine Yronwode gives verbena many uses including love, protection and un-jinxing. She includes it in a nine-herb blend to use against evil, which includes ‘Verbena, Yarrow, Wood Betony, Elecampane, Rue, Mugwort, Celandine, Nettle and White Clover.’ Which she indicates is a ‘European-style protective tea used as a shielding bath against witches.’ She adds that to ‘Help School Children’ one should bathe the child in verbena tea, and ‘dress their heads with King Solomon Wisdom Oil.’
Then we have the Reverent John White’s view;
Hallowed be thou, Vervein, as thou growest on the ground,
For in the mount of Calvery there was thou found.
Thou healedst our Saviour Jesus Christ, and stanchedst his bleeding wound;
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the holy Ghost, I take thee from the ground.
(John White, The Way of The True Church, 1608) http://blog.metmuseum.org/cloistersgardens/2011/07/01/holy-vervain/
Vervain’s principle constituents are Glycosides, tannins, essential oils, saponins, organic acid, mineral compounds, and castine. So medicinally it is said be useful as a sedative, anti-spasmodic and can, it is said, be useful in the treatment of nervous exhaustion and depression. Adding to this list its use in the treatment of tension headaches and migraine; plus a mouthwash for infected gums. Is the list ever going to end? However as it may also promote menstruation, it obviously shouldn’t be taken internally during pregnancy It is recommended in the herbals, that the flower tips should be collected before they open. In the same way as you would lavender; I should imagine,
Let me in conclusion give the last words to Cunningham. ‘The Juice of vervain, smeared on the body, will allow the person to see the future, have every wish fulfilled, turn enemies into friends, attract lovers, and be protect against all enchantments.’ (Not to forget attracting everything including money. What more could one want?)