Vervain is a very old companion of the human race. A member of the Verbenaceae family, vervain was considered sacred and powerful to the Romans. The Latin name of the genus comes from “sacred boughs” and Romans placed vervain on altars in honor of Venus and Diana. King Solomon is said to have cleansed the temple with vervain. Roman soldiers also carried vervain with them into battle as a protection, and homes were sprinkled with an infusion of the herb to keep out evil. It was used medicinally as a remedy for snakebite and diarrhea; chewing the plant and root was believed to strengthen gums and teeth.
In ancient Egypt, vervain was said to have originated from the tears of Isis as she wept for the dead god Osiris. Druids revered vervain with the same regard as mistletoe, a holy herb for sacrificial rites. In the ancient British Isles, people held vervain over fire to protect their livestock and strewed it over their fields at summer solstice to insure fertility and a good harvest. The concept of vervain as a sacred, purifying, protective plant later carried over into Christian culture, and folk legend stated that vervain was used to stanch the wounds of Jesus after he was taken down from the cross. Thereafter it became known in the British Isles as “holy herb” or “devil’s bane.”
Medicinally, vervain has a long list of uses and a broad range of healing powers from febrifuge to astringent to blood tonic. While most early medicinal uses of vervain have been either refuted or replaced, there are people in several cultures who continue to use the herb as a tonic, for calming nerves and tension, to break fevers, as a digestive aid, to lift depression, lethargy and migraines, to stimulate breast milk production, as an astringent for bleeding gums and mouth ulcers, and a poultice for insect bites and wounds.
There are over 250 species in the Verbenaceae family. While at my house for the August meeting, several Herb Society members asked me about a tall blooming plant down by the pond in and among the grasses. Verbena hastata, also known as American blue vervain or swamp verbena, is native to the eastern part of the U.S. and is actually found in every county in Illinois. It is hardy in zones 3-8, prefers full sun and moist soil. It is often found in moist meadows and along stream banks; it is a good choice for rain gardens since it can survive “wet feet” for some time with no problem. It grows from 2 to 5 feet tall with serrated narrow leaves. The flowers are distinct; they form candelabra-like inflorescences with small, tubular, 5-lobed purple-blue flowers opening from bottom to top, blooming from July to September.
Historically, blue vervain was used as a mild sedative as well as for treating lung ailments. Some Native American tribes used blue vervain to treat fevers, colds and coughs; the Cherokee used it as a remedy for dysentery. Presently, tincture of blue vervain can be found as a medicinal herb used in the treatment of anxiety and nervous exhaustion (not recommended during pregnancy or lactation).