Name: Vervain (Verbena officinalis)
Otherwise known as: Holy Wort
Habitat: A perennial member of the Verbenaceae and native to Europe, growing to about lm in well-drained soil. It has stiff, thin stems containing deep-cut lower leaves which become smoother as they rise up the stem, which is topped by dense spikes of pale lilac coloured flowers.
What does it do: The plant has long been associated with witchcraft and featured in Druidic ceremonies in Britain. Dioscorides called it a ‘sacred herb’ and in Roman society it was regarded as a cure-all. Roman soldiers carried it when travelling in foreign countries to protect them from sorcery. The bored matrons of Rome served vervain tea to handsome young men in the belief that it would act as a love potion. In classical times it was worn as a garland to ward off the plague.
The name is derived from the Latin for altar plants that featured in religious ceremonies.
Among other things Vervain contains iridoids, alkaloids, mucilage and tannins. This makes it nervine, a tonic, mildly sedative, and a bile stimulant. In herbal medicine it is used to treat tension and stress, post viral fatigue, nervous exhaustion, epilepsy and convulsions, congested liver and jaundice; to promote production of milk in nursing mothers and to combat amenorrhoea. It has long been thought to have aphrodisiacal properties which may arise from the practice by shepherds of giving vervain to rams suffering from sexual exhaustion.
Recent research indicates that it may be valuable in relieving post-operative depression and paranoidal tendencies.
Chinese traditional medicine uses the plant to treat migraines connected to the menstrual cycle.
The bitters contained in vervain, which greatly aid the digestive process, have been a treatment for centuries for those recovering from long term chronic illness, however high doses may in some cases lead to vomiting .
The ancients used vervain as a tonic for the hair and as an eye wash. A poultice was used to cure skin ulcers and wounds. Currently extracts from the herb are being researched for possible heart strengthening and anti-tumour activity.
Alexander McCowan is author of The World’s most Dangeous Plants, available from Lulu and Amazon