I wonder where my vervain (Verbena officinalis) came from? I
really don’t know, for it has sat uncomplainingly in our garden-
as plain as Complan - for as long as I remember.
It has never sulked, never demanded attention and
never collapsed in a hysterical heap after a gale. It's never shown
signs of pallor, never needed dividing, is slug-proof and only seems
to attract beneficial insects.
Its stiff, square stems branch candelabra-like above
hairy, dark green, lobed leaves. Its miniscule, tubular flowers
– not quite white, not quite pink, not quite lilac –
open in rings up long, slender spikes during August in modest quantity,
as if each circle waited for the previous one to wither before stepping
into the limelight. You almost get the feeling it is embarrassed
to be blooming, hating to attract attention to itself.
Vervain - Verbena Officinalis
It has no scent, and releases no aroma when crushed
- and yet this unassuming herb has long been held in reverence by
cultures across Europe, the Middle and Far East.
The Egyptians believed that it had sprung from the
tears of Isis, the great mother goddess, whilst the Romans held
it sacred to Venus and used it in love potions for its aphrodisiac
qualities. Its Latin name ‘Verbena’ means any of the
alter plants that were employed during sacrifice and ‘officinalis’
means used by apothecaries. Greek priests wore vervain in their
vestments and Persian Magi believed it to be a herb of prophecy.
It was one of the ingredients of the ‘holy salve’ of
the Anglo Saxons, and was also sacred to the Celts, both in itself
and as an ingredient of lustral water. Even Christianity finds a
niche for this humble herb; it is said to have grown on Calvary
and to have been used to staunch the wounds of Jesus.
Its medicinal properties are many... including the
use of its dried leaves in a poultice to treat wounds – especially
those caused by iron. Perhaps because of this, it was often carried
by soldiers to protect against injury.
It is a digestive, sedative and is also used in
the treatment of liver and urinary tract problems – indeed
some say its common name comes from the Celtic ‘faerfaen’
– to drive away stones... Certainly in Welsh the single ‘f’
is pronounced as a ‘v’, and I never remember mum using
a ‘welsh’ name for this herb, suggesting to me that
perhaps the word vervain does have a Celtic root.
In Chinese medicine it is used to treat suppressed
menstruation – and for this reason this otherwise innocuous
herb should not be used by pregnant women.
Gentlemen of increasing years and decreasing thatch
may be interested to know that it has also been long valued as a
hair tonic - often used in conjunction with rosemary - an infusion
of the leaves being rubbed into the scalp daily. And when that morning
–after-the-night-before feeling is beating your skull from
the inside, vervain’s detoxifying properties will soothe and
refresh. Its other common use in physical medicine was as a bath
for tired and inflamed eyes and indeed this is the use it traditionally
had in our family.
Vervain has also been used for its sedative qualities
in the treatment of mental health problems, particularly stress
and nervous exhaustion.
In country lore it was a favourite ingredient of
love potions, even to the point of people believing it could be
used to turn enemies into friends. It has variously been planted
around homes for protection against witches, daemons, snakes and
lightning and suspended above beds to ward off nightmares. In the
Isle of Man it is still sometimes sewn into clothing before making
In Britain it is found growing wild along roadsides
and on waste ground – particularly on chalk - in the south
of England and in Wales. It is rare outside these areas and absent
from the wild in Scotland.
What fascinates me most about this quiet herb though
is the tradition that you must never, never, never request it directly.
You can drop strong hints relating to your need for vervain, be
given vervain as a gift – and even steal vervain, but it is
said it will never thrive in your garden if you have had to ask
As I said, I wonder where our vervain came from?