Verbena officinalis, the common vervain or common verbena, is a perennial herb native to Europe. It grows up to a metre/yard high, with an upright habitus. The lobed leaves are toothed, the delicate spikes hold mauve flowers.
This plant prefers limey soils; it is occasionally grown as an ornamental plant but perhaps more often for the powerful properties some herbalists ascribe to it. Propagation is by root cuttings or seed. It is widely naturalised outside its native range, for example in North America.
Common names and taxonomy
It is also known as Simpler's Joy or Holy Herb, or more ambiguously as "mosquito plant" or "wild hyssop". The common name "Blue Vervain" is also sometimes used, but properly refers to V. hastata. And of course, being the only member of its genus in much of its range, it is also simply known as "the vervain" locally.
The common names of V. officinalis in many Central and Eastern Europes languages often associate it with iron, for example:
- Echtes Eisenkraut (German: "true ironherb")
- IJzerhard (Dutch: "iron-hard")
- Læge-Jernurt (Danish: "medical ironwort")
- Železník lekársky (Slovak: ("medical ironherb")
- Rohtorautayrtti (Finnish: "medical ironherb")
Common Vervain was scientifically described by Carl Linnaeus his 1753 Species Plantarum. The scientific name references the Ancient Roman term verbena, used for any sacrificial herb considered very powerful (as described e.g. by Pliny the Elder). Officinalis, meanwhile, is Latin for "used in medicine or herbalism".
One of the few species of Verbena native to regions outside the Americas, it is derived from the lineage nowadays occurring widely across North America. It might be closest to a group including such species as the White Vervain (V. urticifolia), V. lasiostachys or V. menthifolia, and perhaps the Swamp Verbena (V. hastata). As these, it is diploid with 14 chromosomes altogether.
- Verbena officinalis var. africana (R. Fern. & Verdc.) Munir (= V. officinalis ssp. africana R.Fern. & Verdc.)
- Verbena officinalis var. eremicola Munir
- Verbena officinalis var. gaudichaudii Briq.
- Verbena officinalis var. macrostachya (F. Muell.) Benth. (= V. macrostachya)
- Verbena officinalis var. monticola Munir
- Verbena officinalis var. officinalis L. (= V. domingensis)
The Texas Vervain (V. halei) is sometimes included in V. officinalis as a subspecies or variety. But despite the outward similarity, biogeography alone strongly suggests there is really no justification to include this North American native here, and DNA sequence data agrees. Instead, V. halei seems to be closely related to V. macdougalii, perhaps with some interbreeding with the V. menthifolia lineage which might explain its Common Vervain-like traits.
Use by humans
Common Vervain is held in high esteem since the Classical Antiquity; it has long been associated with divine and other supernatural forces, and it has an equally long-standing use as a medicinal plant.
Verbena officinalis herb has been used in the traditional Austrian medicine internally (as tea or liqueur) for treatment of infections and fever. Medical use of Common Vervain is usually as a herbal tea; Nicholas Culpeper's 1652 The English Physitian discusses folk uses. "Vervain", presumably this species, is one of the original 38 Bach flower remedies, prescribed against "over-enthusiasm". In the Modern Era, it is sometimes considered a powerful "ally" of poets and writers, as its relaxing effects can relieve writer's block. It cannot be considered safe to use during pregnancy as it might cause miscarriages.
While Common Vervain is not native to North America, it has been introduced there and the Pawnee have adopted it as an entheogen enhancer and in oneiromancy, and is often referred to as the North American version of Calea zacatechichi.
In western Eurasia, the term "verbena" or "vervain" usually refers to this, the most widespread and common member of the mostly American genus occurring there. It was called "tears of Isis" in Ancient Egypt, and later on "Juno's tears". In Ancient Greece, it was dedicated to Eos Erigineia. In the early Christian era, folk legend stated that Common Vervain was used to staunch Jesus' wounds after his removal from the cross; hence names like "Holy Herb" or (e.g. in Wales) "Devil's bane"[verification needed].
Due to the association with the Passion of Christ, it came to be used in ointments to drive out and repel "demonic" illness. Vervain flowers are engraved on cimaruta, Italian anti-stregheria charms. In the 1870 The History and Practice of Magic by "Paul Christian" (Jean Baptiste Pitois) it is employed in the preparation of a mandragora charm.
Hazlitt's Faiths and Folklore (1905) quotes Aubrey's Miscellanies (1721), to wit:
A Royal Navy Arabis class sloop of the World War I era was named HMS Verbena, and in World War II a Group 1 Flower class corvette bore the same name; a Group 2 vessel of the latter class was called HMS Vervain. The only Verbena widely found in England in a native state is Common Vervain, though it is just as possible that the names reference the popular ornamental verbenas, such as the Garden Vervain.
Extracts exhibit antiinflammatory activity with the chloroform extract being the most active. Chemical investigations of petroleum ether and chloroform extracts led to the isolation of β-sitosterol, ursolic acid, oleanolic acid, 3-epiursolic acid, 3-epioleanolic acid and minor triterpenoids of derivatives of ursolic acid and oleanolic acids. Chromatographic purification of the methanol extract yield two iridoid glucosides, verbenalin and hastatoside, a phenylpropanoid glycoside, verbascoside and β-sitosterol-d-glucoside.
- USDA (2007)
- Yuan & Olmstead (2008)
- Vogl S, Picker P, Mihaly-Bison J, Fakhrudin N, Atanasov AG, Heiss EH, Wawrosch C, Reznicek G, Dirsch VM, Saukel J, Kopp B. Ethnopharmacological in vitro studies on Austria's folk medicine - An unexplored lore in vitro anti-inflammatory activities of 71 Austrian traditional herbal drugs. J Ethnopharmacol.2013 Jun13. doi:pii: S0378-8741(13)00410-8. 10.1016/j.jep.2013.06.007. [Epub ahead of print] PubMed PMID: 23770053. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23770053
- Hazlitt,William Carew; Brand, John (1905). "Faiths and folklore: a dictionary of national beliefs, Volume 2". citing(550, 569, 611), John Aubrey, Esq.'s Miscellanies (1857), p. 147 (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons). p. 611. Retrieved 2010-09-15.
- Aubrey, John, Esq. (1721). Miscellanies upon the following Subjects.... London: Bettesworth, Battley, Pemberton, Curll. Retrieved 2010-09-15.
- Antiinflammatory activity and chemical composition of extracts of Verbena officinalis. Mundkinajeddu Deepak and Sukhdev Swami Handa, Phytotherapy Research, September 2000, Volume 14, Issue 6, pages 463–465, doi:10.1002/1099-1573(200009)14:6<463::AID-PTR611>3.0.CO;2-G
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Verbena officinalis.|
- United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) (2007): Germplasm Resources Information Network - Verbena officinalis. Version of 2007-OCT-30. Retrieved 2008-AUG-07.
- Yuan, Yao-Wu & Olmstead, Richard G. (2008): A species-level phylogenetic study of the Verbena complex (Verbenaceae) indicates two independent intergeneric chloroplast transfers. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 48(1): 23-33.doi:10.1016/j.ympev.2008.04.004