Verbena officinalis, vervain
Part used: aerial parts
Verbena officinalis L. is a hardy, herbaceous perennial found in Eurasia, North and South America. It is found on rough grassland on dry soils. The Flora of Turkey gives two Verbena species, including Verbena officinalis.
It forms an evergreen rosette which overwinters. Erect, hairy, woody, square stems (to 70 cm) bear opposite leaves with the lower leaves deeply lobed with serrated edges. Clusters of small pinkish lilac flowers with a two-lipped, five lobed tubular corolla occur on slender branched spikes in June to September. The calyx is long and tubular and the fruit contains four nutlets.
A study carried out on waste ground the UK over 13 years found that population density depended on winter temperature in that plants died below -17°C, and summer temperature as seed germination required a temperature of above 19°C.
Other species used
Verbena hastata is a taller North American species that is easy to cultivate. It has bright green, larger, toothed leaves, a dark stem and branching flowerheads of blue flowers. It is discussed in American texts. Lemon verbena Aloysia triphylla (syn. Lippia citriodora) is a half-hardy lemon scented member of the Verbenaceae that is native to South America. It is cultivated in Europe and flourishes in a warm climate.
In a study in Spain where aerial parts were collected every week in June and July, the concentration of the iridoid glycoside verbenalin was highest just before flowering.
Historical sources suggest a range of harvesting times. The herb is gathered in midsummer and the ‘dog days’ until the plant has gone to seed. To obtain the juice, collection early in the season is necessary since the stems later become long and woody.
Vervain is an example of an ancient medicine which has fallen out of, and back into, favour in our history of its 2000 years of use. It was one of the sacred herbs of the European tradition and according to Pliny no plant was more highly revered by the Romans than this. But our Arabic writers do not mention it, and the medieval sources emphasize its external usage, medicinal as well as magical. The latter uses were predictably condemned by Renaissance writers such as Gerard. Quincy notes in the early 18th century that vervain is little taken internally compared to its external use. Yet the first mention of the plant as a nerve tonic, its major action for herbal practitioners today is proposed by Parkinson nearly 80 years before Quincy. This does not prevent vervain from disappearing from conventional medicine, for Cullen does not mention it in his Lectures on Materia Medica. Then another seven decades pass before vervain is written about again, this time by the Americans Coffin and Cook concerning their native species Verbena hastata, for which they propose only internal administration. Wren reckons the European and
American species are synonymous as medicinal herbs and from this assertion a modern set of indications in herbal medicine is constructed. This parity is attested by the value placed on a bitterness and an opening action on the liver shared by both species: Dioscorides recommends 1 drachm (4 g) of ‘Hiera Botane’ or sacred herb Verbena officinalis mixed with half as much frankincense in 1 cotyle (274 mL) of aged wine, taken warm on an empty stomach for 4 days in cases of jaundice; Cook writes of blue vervain Verbena hastata that a ‘free use of a concentrated decoction many times will open and sustain the liver and gall-ducts so effectually as to cure intermittents’. In other respects, however, the American indications for blue vervain have dominated those few applications that have managed to pass down through the European tradition. We have used vervain Verbena officinalis on very many occasions as a nerve tonic with thymoleptic qualities for cases of depression, anxiety and insomnia, in convalescence and for chronic fatigue syndrome, cases of restless legs and headache and sometimes for abdominal pains.
Dioscorides (IV 60) presents us with two possible herbs named ‘peristerion’ which Beck names as separate species: the first peristerion, so-called because doves delight to be near it, ‘generally found with a single stem and a single root’ whose leaves are ‘split and whitish growing from the stem’ is identified as Lycopus europaeus, today called gypsywort; the second the holy vervain, ‘hiera botane’ Verbena officinalis, which ‘some called … peristerion. It sends out shoots … angular and knobby, surrounded at intervals by leaves resembling oak leaves except they are narrower, less indented at the periphery and grayish’. At the same time Pliny also records that there are two kinds of ‘hiera botane’, one of which has many leaves and thought to be a female plant, while the other male plant has fewer leaves, although he adds that some authorities see only one plant in the two forms, for they both have the same properties. These two contemporaneous opinions thus set up a continuing confusion concerning the identity of vervain. Later writers group the two plants together but distinguish them by form, name and powers, according to Bauhin: between the upright peristerion or verbena recta, and the sprawling hiera botane or verbena supina. As to form, writers such as Fuchs claim that it was Dioscorides who discriminated between upright and sprawling kinds, although his actual words quoted above fail to support this notion. Mattioli and Turner seem to take the plant named hiera botane as vervain and speculate on the true identity of the other peristerion. As to medicinal powers, Dioscorides writes of peristerion that its leaves applied in a pessary with rose ointment or fresh pig fat stop uterine pains, while as a poultice with vinegar it checks erysipelas and with honey it controls putrid humours and resolves and cicatrises wounds. Galen’s peristerion has a drying power enabling it to close up wounds. Where Dodoens makes an attempt to separate out the uses of peristerion from those of hiera botane, he attributes a Dioscoridean indication to the wrong one. Mostly he lists the indications without differentiation, noting that both kinds are of a drying power. Gerard makes no attempt at distinguishing separate indications, but reckons the temperature of both plants as very dry, binding and also cooling with a list of virtues in common.
It is the hiera botane of Dioscorides that treats jaundice as well as ague, its leaves applied in a plaster to the bites of reptiles, chronic swellings and inflammations and to clean filthy sores, and a decoction of the entire plant as a gargle to remove scabs from the tonsils and heal spreading mouth ulcers. It is a sacred herb because it is used in amulets during purificatory offerings. Also noted by Dioscorides is that the sprinkling around of an infusion of the plant at drinking parties seems to make the guests merrier, while the harvesting of specifically the third joint of the stem from the ground with its surrounding leaves is necessary to treat a tertian ague, and the fourth joint in a quartan ague. Pliny records only the treatment of snake bite by the herb crushed in wine but relates much more concerning sacred and magical uses. He too notes its benefit at parties, but only later, in the Crete Herbal of 1526, is a quantity specified: four leaves and four roots of vervain, to be steeped in wine and sprinkled about the house where the guests will be. Pliny notes that the altar of Zeus is cleansed by it, that it is carried by Rome’s envoys to her enemies, that the Gauls employ it in fortune-telling and sooth-saying and the Persian Magi ‘madly” imagine that those who have been rubbed with the plant win friends and obtain their wishes, banish fevers and cure all diseases.
• Nervous disorders: stress, anxiety and depression, withdrawal from tranquillizers or mood-altering drugs, agoraphobia, chronic fatigue syndrome, nervous exhaustion and insomnia; sexual neurosis; headache; restless leg syndrome.
• Convalescence: depression and debility after fevers such as influenza or in recovery from chronic illness; post-natal or post-operative depression.
• Digestion: abdominal colic, jaundice, gall-bladder inflammation, intestinal worms.
• Respiratory: colds and fevers, tightness of the chest, bronchitis, asthma, pertussis, sinusitis.
• Urinary: urinary stones, urinary tract infections.
• Reproductive: dysmenorrhoea.
• Topical: wounds, bites, oral and throat inflammation, muscle spasms and rheumatic conditions.
Daily dosage: the British Herbal Pharmacopoeia recommends 2-4 g three times a day of dried herb.
Verbenalin 0.34%, hastatoside 0.3% (tender parts, wild, India); dihydrocornin, aucubin.
Verbenalin, hastatoside (decoction, tea, ethanol tincture, wild, Italy).
Verbenalin 1.49-2.73%, hastatoside 0.5% (six samples, commercial, Switzerland).
Verbenalin was the most abundant constituent (cultivated, Spain).
Beta-sitosterol, ursolic acid, oleanolic acid; ursolic acid, two new triterpenes (collected, India).
Phenylpropanoid glycosides: verbascoside (acteoside) 0.24% (tender parts, wild, India). Verbascoside, isoverbascoside, eukovoside (wild, Italy). Concentration was higher in the ethanolic tincture than in the infusion or decoction.
Flavone glycosides: luteolin 7-diglucuronide, apigenin 7-diglucuronide.
Apigenin 7-glucoside, luteolin glycosides, diosmetin glycosides, chrysoeriol galactoside (wild, Egypt).
Luteolin 7-diglucuronide, apigenin 7-diglucuronide (decoction, wild, Italy). In this study the flavones glycosides were extracted into the tea but not into the ethanol tincture, whereas Calvo et al (1997) found the flavonoids were extracted into a methanolic tincture.
Luteolin and glycoside, 6-hydroxyluteolin and glycoside, apigenin and glycoside, 6-hydroxyapigenin and glycoside.
Recommendations On Safety
1. Do not use in pregnancy.
Several sources suggest that this herb should not be used in pregnancy and it has been investigated in China as a possible herb to terminate early pregnancy.
2. Vervain should not be drunk with meals by vegetarians and vegans.
Mills & Bone (2000) state that phenylpropanoids interfere with non-haem iron absorption and include vervain in the list of herbs where this may be of concern. A study in Morocco using an in vitro model of digestion found that non-haem iron absorption was decreased by vervain, although vervain had one third of the level of polyphenols in tea. This was an in vitro study designed to estimate the effect of drinking tea, vervain or mint teas on women weaning their babies and so would require further confirmation.