March 16, 2021 • 4 Comments
Forget using stinky old garlic against vampires. The Vampire Diaries ushered in a new era of preternatural pest control with vervain, making a plot device from a relatively common herb long associated with warding off unwanted magic.
Curiosity prompted me to take a closer look at this plant, and what I found piqued my interest—especially since I feature herbalists in my upcoming books. Who doesn’t like a useful research rabbit hole?
Alternate names for vervain include enchanter’s plant, herb of the cross, and Juno’s tears. Some legends claim druids used it to purify their ritual waters. Others say Romans used bundles of vervain to cleanse their altars.
The Romans also called vervain herba sacra, or the “divine weed.” They believed it could cure the bites of all rabid animals, arrest the progress of venom, cure the plague, and avert sorcery. They even held verbenalia, a feast in the plant’s honor. Another name for vervain was herba veneris, so called because of the aphrodisiac qualities ascribed to it by the Ancients (presumably also the Romans).
Lore has it that vervain grew on the Mount of Calvary, where the faithful used it to staunch the wounds of the Saviour. For this reason, “Herb of Grace” is another popular name for vervain, although this term is also applied to rue.
This is the difficulty with studying herbs—proper plant identification is everything. Common names are confusing and using the wrong plant (especially in medications) could be hazardous.
Speaking of nomenclature, A Modern Herbal says the name vervain possibly comes from the Celtic languages, fer meaning “to drive away” and faen meaning “stone.” The name might reflect the herb’s early use in treating bladder ailments.
There are two kinds of vervain
Blue Vervain (Verbena hastata) is known as American vervain or false vervain and is native to North America. It has medicinal properties, but they are different from European vervain (Verbena officinalis), which is the kind I’m writing about here.
Verbena officinalis hails from the Mediterranean region and has escaped gardens to run wild in North America. This perennial likes roadsides and sunny pastures. It has white or lilac spiky flowers that bloom from June to October. Its stems are quadrangular and branch. The leaves grow in opposite pairs. It has little scent and a slightly bitter taste. When harvesting, pick the plant before it flowers and dry it immediately. Typically this happens in July, though this could vary with climate.
Don’t confuse these members of the verbena family with lemon verbena, an altogether different (and delightful) plant.
Uses of Vervain
Modern herbalists use Verbena officinalis as a stimulant, astringent, diuretic, nerve tonic, and fever medication. They employ it in the treatment of skin ailments and for depression following illness. It can be used as a tea to calm nerves and promote sleep or in a mouthwash against gum disease.
IMPORTANT DISCLAIMER: herbal medicines should be prepared and taken under the supervision of a trained professional (and that does not include me or this blog).
But back to the paranormal stuff.
Magically (or Magickally, depending on your preference) speaking, vervain assists purification, protection, blessings, and communication with nature spirits. Ruled by Venus, vervain belongs to the earth element. A crown of vervain worn by the magician will protect against evil spirits. It is used in ritual incense for exorcism and in prosperity spells.
I never met an herbal dictionary I didn’t like, so I have a lot of them—some from when I was a teenager, some barely out the Amazon carton. I consulted quite a few books to put this post together, so this is just a short list of the main sources.
Beyerl, Paul. The Master Book of Herbalism. Blaine, Washington: Phoenix Publishing Inc., 1984.
Easley, Thomas, and Steven Horne. The Modern Herbal Dispensatory. Berkeley, California: North Atlantic Books, 2016.
Evans, Ivor H. Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, 14th edition. Markham, Ontario: Fitzhenry and Whiteside Limited, 1989.
Grieve, Mrs. M. A Modern Herbal. London: Tiger Books International, 1992.
Lust, John. The Herb Book. New York: Bantam, 1974.