Where later writers have included any of the older indications, they are likely to have come from Culpeper. This includes Dioscorides’ indication for jaundice in the British Herbal Pharmacopoeia, and references to lung conditions (Robinson 1868), but these are negligible compared to the importance of the descriptions by Coffin and Cook of the American Verbena hastata. Take vervain’s use in gynecology: Cook discusses vervain as a relaxant tonic with mild laxative effects indicated in recent obstructions of the menses, from which is derived an emmenogogue action and an indication of amenorrhoea (Priest & Priest, Bartram, Hoffmann), which has nothing to do with Culpeper’s original assertion, that vervain is a sympathetic remedy for the womb correcting all cold diseases of that organ. The relaxant effect becomes an anti-spasmodic action, useful in gall-bladder inflammation [British Herbal Pharmacopoeia, Hoffmann), acute spasms of bronchitis and pertussis as well as dysmenorrhoea (Priest & Priest), seizures (Hoffmann) muscle spasm, neuritis and ear neuralgia (Menzies-Trull) and labour pains (Coffin). None of these writers mentions abdominal colic cited by the old Byzantine writers, or repeats Parkinson’s ‘all inward pains’. Both Coffin and Cook note vervain also as a treatment for worms, with an action similar to that of balmony Chelone glabra. Coffin highlights vervain’s diaphoretic action ‘one of the strongest sweating medicines in nature. It is good for colds, coughs and pains in the head, and some years ago was highly esteemed as a remedy for consumption’. The National Botanic Pharmacopoeia advocates its use in some forms of fevers only and it remains a mild diaphoretic for coughs and colds in the British Herbal Pharmacopoeia, to be taken as a simple infusion of 1 oz of herb to 1 pint of water according to Wren and only for the early stages of fever for Hoffmann. Coffin is also full of praise for vervain’s emetic action ‘It ranks next to lobelia … As an emetic it supercedes the use of antimony and ipecacuanha … I generally give a teaspoon of the pulverized herb every half hour in a tea of pennyroyal (Mentha pulegium) or raspberry leaves (Rubus idaeus) until it operates, taking great care to keep the patient warm in bed, with a hot brick or stone to the feet, and use freely of cayenne or ginger tea, taken as hot as convenient during its operation’. Cook too relates that a warm infusion of vervain proves emetic if used freely. Chevallier thinks that the bitter terpenoid verbenalin may be responsible for the effect. Yet this action goes without mention or caution in Priest & Priest, Grieve, whose entry for vervain is short as if she could not be bothered with it, Bartram and the British Herbal Pharmacopoeia. Perhaps Cook’s conclusion that ‘this article is nearly overlooked by the profession, but deserves decided attention’ is just as true today. So, a recent survey by researchers looking at 16th and 17th century herbals for citations of herbs indicated for rheumatic disorders, which included vervain in that number, is most welcome. The uses mentioned in the herbals of Bock, Fuchs and Tabernaemontanus, of vervain decocted in wine for topical application to painful parts, including gout of the feet, is linked by the authors to ethnobotanical field studies in Italy and Serbia which report knowledge of vervain’s analgesic and antiphlogistic properties and topical use in rheumatic disorders, and to in vitro and in vivo evidence which may explain these effects.
Recent research identifies four types of constituent in vervain which have been shown to be antiinflammatory: iridoid glycosides, phenylpropanoid glycosides, flavonoids and triterpenoids, which has led to recommendations that the plant merits further research for use particularly as a tea.
Use of vervain is reported in recent ethnographic surveys for many disorders. Vervain is used in traditional Chinese medicine and is described as cold, bitter, anticoagulant, detoxifying and diuretic and used for amenorrhea, traumatic injuries; hepatitis, mastitis; liver cirrhosis and ascites, nephritic oedema and urinary tract infections (Revolutionary Health Committee of Hunan Province). A study of medicinal plant knowledge amongst the Bai people, in the Himalayan foothills in southwest China documented use of 176 plants. The whole plant of vervain is used, as a decoction or poultice, as an anthelmintic, to treat injuries and, eaten raw, to ‘strengthen bones and tendons’. The authors note the continuing influence of the herbal manuals distributed in the 1970s to improve rural healthcare. A survey of markets in Yunnan, southwest China documented use of 216 plants. Aerial parts of verbena are collected in the wild and used for cold-fever, hepatitis and enteritis. A European survey in rural northern Portugal documented use of 88 plants and found that verbena is used for depression, nervousness, stress and insomnia. Another survey in the Italian Alps documenting the use of 58 species found that the whole plant of vervain is collected and used for coughs and asthma. The dose given is 3 cups of tea daily for several weeks. A third survey in central Italy documented use of 96 plants. Aerial parts of vervain are used as a plaster to stop bleeding and aid in wound healing and for rheumatic pains in the knees and elbows. Aerial parts are used too as a poultice for thyroid problems. The herb is chopped together with Thymus longicaulis subsp. longicaulis and Parietaria diffusa, added to bean flour and beaten egg white and applied with a cloth to the neck for 4-5 hours or preferably overnight. It is applied for 3 days, stopped for 3 days and the cycle is repeated three times.
Western herbalists writing about vervain feature its relaxant tonic action on the nervous system. Perhaps more readily available in the shops is Lemon verbena Verbena triphylla, which makes a refreshing tea possessing nervine properties also. It is used in traditional medicine in South America for depression and to calm the nerves. It has similar constituents to vervain, including the iridoid glycoside verbenalin and the phenylpropanoid glycoside verbascoside. The concentration of verbascoside is substantially higher in lemon verbena. It is more aromatic with a lemony aroma as the volatile oil contains geranial, neral and limonene which renders the tea more pleasant to take.
However, our medicinal herb is Verbena officinalis and the writers variously describe its principal indications as a nervine agent: as a sedative and anxiolytic for nervous disorders and breakdowns, irritability, over-sensitivity withdrawal from tranquillizers or mood-altering drugs, paranoid tendency, hysteria, agoraphobia, generalized seizures, fits and convulsions; as a thymoleptic in depression and melancholia, and specifically for the depression and debility of convalescence after fevers such as influenza, in recovery from chronic illness or in post-natal or postoperative depression; as a nerve tonic in chronic fatigue syndrome, nervous exhaustion and insomnia, for which last it is often prescribed as an infusion with other relaxant herbs in Messegue’s (1981) ‘tea of happiness’: 2 parts vervain, chamomile Matricaria recutita and lime flowers Tilia x vulgaris; 1 part peppermint Mentha piperita and (additional to Messegue’s four herbs) lavender Lavandula angustifolia.