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The Vagaries of Vervain

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The Vagaries of Vervain

Vervain is a very interesting and useful herb, the history of which is shrouded in mystery and mysticism.  The source of this lore is actually, fairly hard to nail down.  We are told that Vervain was used ceremonially  and medicinally by the ancient Egyptians, but there is no mention of it in the Ebers Papyrus and scant reference elsewhere.  The Ashkenazi Jews, from whom we get much knowledge of the herbal medicines of ancient Egypt and Babyon, make no mention of it (at least, in modern writings).  Several authors say that it was a favorite medicinal herb of Hippocrates, but I have found no support for this statement in his works.  We do know that it was used ceremonially in ancient Rome, but little is said of its medicinal use by most ancient writers.  The most detailed description of Vervain and its use is found in De Materia Medica by Dioscorides, indicating that it was a known and used herb among the Greeks and Romans.  Several pre-Christian European cultures seem to have associated Vervain with magic and mysticism.  Yet, the same herb became at least as  associated with Christianity through legends stating that it was the herb used to staunch the bleeding of the Christ’s wounds and is an herb dedicated to the Mother of God.  So, let's start with that of which we have a written record from the original source, Dioscorides.  

Frankly, so much of what has been written and taught about verbs and their use in the past hundred years ago is so remarkably and patently false, that I always start with the original sources.  Too often, one modern author simply quotes another modern author who said, “This herb was used by Hippocrates,” or “This herb was used by the ancient __________ culture/tribe as a magical herb.”  Those statements rarely prove to be true.  While it is true that citing historical use lends empirical credibility to the efficacy of the herb, such blatant falsehoods make us all look like fools and undermine the credibility of what we do.  It is your choice if you wish to live in a fantasy and legend, but please stop the hucksterism.  In my writings, I either state, “I use this herb for ______ and have found,” or I quote a source.  Those who speak as experts who seem to know everything from some deep, hidden well of knowledge are usually frauds… too often, frauds who sell more books due to guru type personalities.  For better or worse, I am both, confident enough in what I know, and aware enough of my own limitations,  that I have no need to guild my words in mystery or fable.  If I am to be proven a fool, at least I am an honest fool.

As for Vervain, Dioscorides made two entries:

Peristereon orthos grows in watery places. It seems to be named this because doves gladly stop around it. It is an herb with a height of twenty centimetres (or rather more) the whitish leaves cut-in, growing out of the stalk.  It is found for the most part with only one shoot and one root. It seems that the leaves (applied as a pessary with rosaceum or new swines’ grease) cause womb pains to stop. Applied with vinegar it represses erysipela [streptococcal skin infection] and rotten ulcers, and joins new wounds, and with honey it heals old ones with a new skin. The upright peristereon extends the pudendum [genitals], but that which bends is drying. The upright (tied to one) is good for pains of the eyes, dimness of sight, and headache, and it eases weariness. Bruised with vinegar it immediately dissolves scrofulous tumours [glandular swelling], goitres, and hardened tonsils. When anyone shivers with a fever let someone with branches from this stand before him and immediately he is cured. It is also called trygonium, bunion, sacra herba, or philtrodotes; the Egyptians say pempsempte, the Magi, Iunonis lachryma, some say the blood of the weasel, the Romans, crista gallinacea, and some, ferrea, trixalis, exupera, or herba sanguinalis.

Hierabotane sends out angular stems of a foot (or rather more) around which are the leaves at distances — similar to the oak, yet narrower, smaller and cut-in all around, drawing to an azure [blue]. The root is somewhat long and thin; the flowers purple and thin. The leaves and root (given to drink with wine or smeared on) are useful against snakes. A teaspoonful of a decoction of the leaves with thirty grains of frankincense in one half-pint of old wine is taken as a drink for jaundice by one fasting for forty days. The leaves (applied) lessen inflammation and long-lasting oedema, and clean foul ulcers. The whole herb (boiled with wine) breaks crusts all around in the tonsils. Gargled, it stops erosive ulcers in the mouth. An infusion of it sprinkled in feasts is said to make the guests merrier [relaxant]. The third joint from the earth (with all the leaves) is given to drink to those who have a paroxysm every third day. The fourth joint is given to those who have a paroxysm every fourth day. They call it sacra herba because it suitable for use as amulets in purification. It is also called peristereon [huption], erigenion, chamaelycon, sideritis, curitis, phersephonion, Iovis colum, dichromon, callesis, hipparison, or demetrias; the Egyptians say pemphthephtha; Pythagoras calls it erysisceptron, and the Romans, cincinnalis.

As for the believed magical use of this herb, it is likely that much of it also comes from pre-Christian Celtic use.  Several sources claim this was a sacred herb of the Druids.  That is likely the case as it is so thoroughly incorporated into Irish legend and folk use.  However, most of what we know about Druid practices comes from oral legend or the historians, who found my ancestors particularly fascinating, noble and ferocious.  A more reliable source for the Irish Folk Medicine use of Vervain comes from John K’eogh, who wrote in 1735:

It is good for ulcers of the mouth and jaw, if the mouth is washed with a decoction.  Such a decoction will also secure loose teeth and alleviate the pain of a toothache if the liquid is held in the mouth for a while.  If it is mixed with the oil of roses and vinegar, it cures the headache.  If the leaves are pounded with honey, they cure and heal fresh wounds.  It is very good for all disorders of the brain and is excellent for strengthening sight.

So, now we have two cultural sources for medicinal (as opposed to mystical or ceremonial use) of Vervain, essentially on two opposite ends of European herbal Medicine.  From this point on, we find Vervain in use among almost the entire western herbal tradition.  Among the Benedictine monks, who founded monasteries and charitable hospitals throughout Europe, we find Vervain listed as Verbena officinalis, meaning that it was an herb of the Officina, the monastic apothecaries of the Middle Ages.  From Ireland, we have the first Patron Saint of Herbal Medicine, Saint Fiacre.  Saint Fiacre was born around 600 AD in Ireland.  This was an Ireland thoroughly Christianized by Saint Patrick who proved the power of God before the Celtic Kings and “drove the snakes from Ireland”, a legend that has much more to do with ridding the island of paganism than serpents.  Saint Fiacre, did have access to the writings of the ancient Greek and Roman herbalists, as Ireland was the center of knowledge that was key in preserving western civilization after the fall of Rome.  However, it would be very unlikely that this native Irishman did not utilize his native herbs and knowledge, as he was known as the greatest herbalist of his day, above the European monks, and as anyone knows who has a drop of Celtic blood, we are a very proud and stubborn people.  Saint Fiacre, in fact, became so famous as a healer that he relocated to what was then a very rural and wild part of France hoping to find more seclusion in his monastic life of prayer and meditation.  The next Patron Saint of Herbal Medicine came from Belgium.  Saint Gertrude of Nivelles was born only 26 years after Saint Fiacre, and whether his work had any influence on her own is unknown.  What is evident is that as the Herbalist monks spread throughout Europe, they both incorporated new herbs that had folk use regionally and found new uses for the herbs in their officina from indigenous traditions.

Regardless, by the time of Saint Hildegard von Bingen (who wrote around 1100), the use of Vervain in the Monastic Medicine of central Europe was well established.   She recommends a poultice of vervain for worm eaten flesh and placed around the neck for sore throat.  800 years later, Brother Aloysius would recommend it for cramps of the spleen, liver and kidney complaints, as a febrifuge for fever, hoarseness, headache, mouth ulcers, loose teeth, migraines, liver disorders, jaundice colic, chest complaints and chronic cough.

Gerard wrote of the use of Vervain in England in the 1500s, and mentions a bit of its ancient history of use:

Vervain is called in Latin, Verbena, and Verbenaca, Herculania, Ferraria, and Exupera: of some, Matricalis, and Hiera botane: of others, Vervena, and Sacra herba: Verbenæ are herbs that were taken from the altar, or from some holy place, which because the Consul or Prætor did cut up, they were likewise called Sagmina, which oftentimes are mentioned in Livy to be grassy herbs cut up in the Capitol. Pliny also in his two and twentieth book, and eleventh Chapter witnesseth, That Verbena and Sagmina be all one: and this is manifest by that which we read in Andria in Terence: Ex ara verbenas hinc sume; Take herbs here from the altar: in which place Terence did not mean Vervain to be taken from the altar, but some certain herbs: for in Menander, out of whom this comedy was translated, is read Myrsine or Myrtle, as Donatus saith. In Spanish it is called Urgebaom: in Italian, Verminacula: in Dutch, Iser Cruijt:in French, Vervaine: in English, Juno's Tears, Mercury's Moist Blood, Holy-Herb; and of some, Pigeon's Grass, or Columbine, because pigeons are delighted to be amongst it, as also to eat thereof, as Apuleius writeth.

The Temperature.

           Both the Vervains are of temperature very dry, and do meanly bind and cool.

The Virtues.

           A. The leaves of Vervain pound with oil of Roses or hog's grease, doth mitigate and appease the pains of the mother, being applied thereto.

           B. The leaves of Vervain and Roses stamped with a little new hog's grease, and emplastered after the manner of a poultice, doth cease the inflammation and grievous pains of wounds, and suffereth them not to come to corruption: and the green leaves stamped with hog's grease takes away the swelling and pain of hot impostumes and tumors, and cleanseth corrupt and rotten ulcers.

           C. It is reported to be of singular force against the tertian and quartan fevers: but you must observe Mother Bomby's rules, to take just so many knots or sprigs, and no more, lest it fall out so that it do you no good, if you catch no harm by it. Many odd old wives' fables are written of Vervaine tending to witchcraft and sorcery, which you may read elsewhere, for I am not willing to trouble your ears with reporting such trifles, as honest ears abhor to hear.

           D. Archigenes maketh a garland of Vervain for the headache, when the cause of the infirmity proceedeth of heat.

           E. The herb stamped with oil of Roses and vinegar, or the decoction of it made in oil of Roses, keepeth the hairs from falling, being bathed or anointed therewith.

           F. It is a remedy against putrefied ulcers, it healeth up wounds, and perfectly cureth fistulas, it wasteth away old swellings, and taketh away the heat of inflammations.

           G. The decoction of the roots and leaves assuageth the toothache, and fasteneth them, and healeth the ulcers of the mouth.

           H. They report saith Pliny, that if the dining room be sprinkled with water in which the herb hath been steeped, the guests will be the merrier, which also Dioscorides mentioneth.

           I. Most of the latter physicians do give the juice or decoction hereof to them that hath the plague; but there men are deceived, not only in that they look for some truth from the father of falsehood and leasings, but also because instead of a good and sure remedy they minister no remedy at all; for it is reported, that the Devil did reveal it as a secret and divine medicine.

There is that “secret and devine”, Satanic bit again….yet, writing nearly 100 years later, the herbalist Culpepper who was an astronomer with a strong interest in the occult said of Vervain only:

This is an herb of Venus, and excellent for the womb to strengthen and remedy all the cold griefs of it, as plantain does the hot. Vervain is hot and dry, opening obstructions, cleansing and healing. It helps the yellow jaundice, the dropsy and the gout; it kills and expels worms in the belly, and causes a good colour in the face and body, strengthens as well as corrects the diseases of the stomach, liver, and spleen; helps the cough, wheezings, and shortness of breath, and all the defects of the reins and bladder, expelling the gravel and stone. It is held to be good against the biting of serpents, and other venomous beasts, against the plague, and both tertian and quartan agues. It consolidates and heals also all wounds, both inward and outward, stays bleedings, and used with some honey, heals all old ulcers and fistulas in the legs or other parts of the body; as also those ulcers that happen in the mouth; or used with hog's grease, it helps the swellings and pains in the secret parts in man or woman, also for the piles or hæmorrhoids; applied with some oil of roses and vinegar unto the forehead and temples, it eases the inveterate pains and ache of the head, and is good for those that are frantic. The leaves bruised, or the juice of them mixed with some vinegar, does wonderfully cleanse the skin, and takes away morphew, freckles, fistulas, and other such like inflammations and deformities of the skin in any parts of the body. The distilled water of the herb when it is in full strength, dropped into the eyes, cleanses them from films, clouds, or mists, that darken the sight, and wonderfully strengthens the optic nerves. The said water is very powerful in all the diseases aforesaid, either inward or outward, whether they be old corroding sores, or green wounds.

By 1930 or so, it seems the fascination with Vervain was almost passe in Herbal Medicine, as Mrs. Grieve wrote much more of its historical use in ceremonies and mysticism than of its medicinal qualities… although, being “useful in more than 30 complaints” is certainly no insult to its medicinal qualities:

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 affections of the bladder, especially calculus. Another derivation is given by some authors from Herba veneris, because of the aphrodisiac qualities attributed to it by the Ancients. Priests used it for sacrifices, and hence the name Herba Sacra. The name Verbena was the classical Roman name for 'altar-plants' in general, and for this species in particular. The druids included it in their lustral water, and magicians and sorcerers employed it largely. It was used in various rites and incantations, and by ambassadors in making leagues. Bruised, it was worn round the neck as a charm against headaches, and also against snake and other venomous bites as well as for general good luck. It was thought to be good for the sight. Its virtues in all these directions may be due to the legend of its discovery on the Mount of Calvary, where it staunched the wounds of the crucified Saviour. Hence, it is crossed and blessed with a commemorative verse when it is gathered. It must be picked before flowering, and dried promptly.

---Medicinal Action and Uses---It is recommended in upwards of thirty complaints, being astringent, diaphoretic, antispasmodic, etc. It is said to be useful in intermittent fevers, ulcers, ophthalmia, pleurisy, etc., and to be a good galactogogue. It is still used as a febrifuge in autumn fevers.

As a poultice it is good in headache, earneuralgia, rheumatism, etc. In this form it colours the skin a fine red, giving rise to the idea that it had the power of drawing the blood outside. A decoction of 2 OZ. to a quart, taken in the course of one day, is said to be a good medicine in purgings, easing pain in the bowels. It is often applied externally for piles. It is used in homoeopathy.

Plants for A Future lists its current use:

Medicinal use of Vervain: Vervain, which has tonic and restorative properties, is sometimes used as a domestic herbal remedy. It is useful when taken internally in the treatment of headaches, fevers, nervous exhaustion, depression, gall bladder problems, insufficient lactation etc. It should not be given to pregnant women, though it can be used to assist contractions during labour. Externally, it is used to treat minor injuries, eczema, sores, neuralgia and gum disease. The leaves and flowering stems are analgesic, antibacterial, anticoagulant, antispasmodic, astringent, depurative, diaphoretic, mildly diuretic, emmenagogue, galactogogue, stimulant, tonic and vulnerary. The plant is harvested as flowering begins in the summer and dried for later use. Some remarkable results have been obtained when using this plant in the treatment of certain tumours, but further research needs to be carried out before definite claims can be made. The root is astringent, it is used in the treatment of dysentery. This species was ranked 12th in a Chinese survey of 250 potential antifertility plants. The plant is used in Bach flower remedies - the keywords for prescribing it are "Strain", "Stress", "Tension" and "Over-enthusiasm".

Sophie Hodorowicz Knab, in her beautiful book, Polish Herbs, Flowers and Folk Medicine explains the Vervain is not only an important medicinal herb in modern Poland (one of the few countries in which Monastic Medicine is still practiced in ancient monasteries by Catholic monks, nearly unchanged in their more than 1,000 year old tradition), but also continues to be an important herb in religious folk tradition.  Vervain is one of the herbs blessed by priests on the feast of The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, who is honored in Poland as Our Lady of THe Herbs.  It is an herb believed to have both medicinal and spiritual healing and protective powers when it has such been blessed.  She writes:

One of the much loved herbs dedicated to the Blessed Virgin, Vervain was often taken to church to be blessed on The Feast of Our Lady Of The Herbs (the Assumption).  Polish women believed it helpful in matters of the heart, but was chiefly used as a tea or tonic to promote easier childbirth.

And so, in keeping to original sources and tracing the development of this herb in both cultural and medicinal use, we have documented the value of this herb with no need to make up fantastical stories.  We have seen that Vervain is an herb that has been both revered for its medicinal use and has spiritual connotations for both pagan and Christian traditions.  Recorded history does not provide us with the origins of this herb’s use but, perhaps like many herbs that are strongly bitter, our ancestors first found it useful to settle the stomach and promote digestion.  While some have found an herb with which to conjure, I find the history of this herb one to ponder… the mysteries of nature and the means through which a loving God shows all of His diverse creation the virtues of the plants He made for our use and wellbeing.

Author: Judson Carroll.  Judson Carroll is an Herbalist from the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. His weekly articles may be read at http://southernappalachianherbs.blogspot.com/

His weekly podcast may be heard at: www.spreaker.com/show/southern-appalachian-herbs

He offers free, weekly herb classes: https://rumble.com/c/c-618325

His New Book is Christian Herbal Medicine, History and Practice

Read about his new book, Christian Medicine, History and Practice: https://southernappalachianherbs.blogspot.com/2022/01/christian-herbal-medicine-history-and.html

Available for purchase on Amazon: www.amazon.com/dp/B09P7RNCTB
His other works include:

Herbal Medicine for Preppers, Homesteaders and Permaculture People by Judson Carroll

You can read about and purchase Herbal Medicine for Preppers, Homesteaders and Permaculture People here: southernappalachianherbs.blogspot.com/2021/10/herbal-medicine-for-preppers.html

Also available on Amazon: Herbal Medicine for Preppers, Homesteaders and Permaculture People: Carroll, Judson: 9798491252923: Amazon.com: Books

Look Up: The Medicinal Trees of the American South, An Herbalist's Guide: https://southernappalachianherbs.blogspot.com/2021/06/paypal-safer-easier-way-to-pay-online.html

The Herbs and Weeds of Fr. Johannes Künzle: https://southernappalachianherbs.blogspot.com/2021/05/announcing-new-book-herbs-and-weeds-of.html


The information on this site is not intended to diagnose or treat any disease or condition. Nothing on this site has been evaluated or approved by the FDA. I am not a doctor. The US government does not recognize the practice of herbal medicine and their is no governing body regulating herbalists. Therefore, I'm just a guy who studies herbs. I am not offering any advice. I won't even claim that anything I write is accurate or true! I can tell you what herbs have "traditionally been used for." I can tell you my own experience and if I believe an herb helped me. I cannot, nor would I tell you to do the same. If you use any herb I, or anyone else, mentions you are treating yourself. You take full responsibility for your health. Humans are individuals and no two are identical. What works for me may not work for you. You may have an allergy, sensitivity or underlying condition that no one else shares and you don't even know about. Be careful with your health. By continuing to read my blog you agree to be responsible for yourself, do your own research, make your own choices and not to blame me for anything, ever.
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