Dear Readers, what a small and overlooked plant this is! I was delighted to find it during my visit to Walthamstow Wetlands during my expedition last week, because as we all know new ‘weeds’ become increasingly difficult to find as autumn sets in.
With its delicate turrets of five-petalled white flowers, the species name ‘officinalis’ tells us that this is a medicinal plant, also known as ‘holy herb’ or ‘simplers joy’. It was believed to have been used to staunch Jesus’s wounds, hence another name ‘herb of the cross’, and because of these associations it was also believed to be useful in the casting out of demons. It has also been used by artists and writers to enhance their creativity and to relieve ‘blocks’. Medically it has been used for throat swellings and gum inflammation, stomach problems, headache and lung problems. It was known to the ancient Egyptians as the Tears of Isis, and Pliny the Elder considered it a powerful herb, used to purify temples. It was also felt to be helpful during negotiations, and in Greek and Roman times was often brought along for diplomatic purposes.
Well, that’s quite a lot of weight for such a delicate plant to bear. In many cultures, the local name for vervain includes the word ‘iron’ though I haven’t been able to ascertain exactly why. There is one suggestion that it was used in the iron smelting process, but this seems a bit unlikely to me. Pliny says that the ‘magicians’ who work with the plant insist that it should be surrounded by a circle of iron. Ironically (see what I did there?) some studies have suggested that it actually inhibits the absorption of iron in humans. Richard Mabey, in Flora Britannica, mentions that gun-flints were sometimes boiled with rue and vervain to make them more effective, so there is yet another explanation here.
Mabey also mentions that on the Isle of Man the plant is so important that it is called The Herb, as if there were no others. Getting hold of some vervain was quite a procedure:
‘It has medical uses, but mere possession of it conferred all manner of protection. A person going on a journey would carry a piece and many a Manxman would have a piece permanently sewn into his clothing. I have seen a number of plants growing in gardens, but so far I have not been successful in obtaining a plant for myself. The procedure for getting a piece is rather complicated. It cannot be asked for directly. Broad hints will be dropped and perhaps the possessor will take the hint and a plant will discreetly changed hands, usually wrapped in paper. No word should be exchanged. It must always change hands from man to woman or vice-versa. it can be stolen, but I have not stooped to that yet’. (Colin Jerry, Peel, Isle of Man)
For many years, wearing vervain in a bag around the neck was thought to be a protection for travellers and children, but these days its folkloric aspects seem to be largely forgotten: in Vickery’s Folk Flora, the author mentions that there is not a single reference to it on the Plantlore website, which collects such accounts in the UK. However, it was an ingredient in the ‘flying ointment’ used by witches (along with monkshood and deadly nightshade), and it was said that a tiny piece of the leaf placed into a cut on the hand would enable the opening of all locks. Plus, a piece of vervain included in a love potion would encourage someone to laugh, which is most certainly a good thing.
Vervain probably came to the UK during the Neolithic period, brought for protection and for medicinal purposes. It likes chalk cliffs, south-facing slopes and disturbed grassland, and in the UK is very much a plant of the south. Most members of the Verbena family come from the Americas or from Asia, and Verbena boniarensis, the Argentine vervain, is one of the more popular butterfly plants these days. However, our more modest vervain is also a popular bee plant, all the more so since ‘grandiflora’ varieties have been grown that beef up the flowering while retaining the appeal to pollinators. Let me know if you’ve grown it, I’d be fascinated.
As my thoughts generally turn to thoughts of food, I was checking to see if you could turn vervain into a curry or salad or, better still, a cake, but all I can find are references to tea. Certainly in France I’ve had a vervain infusion, but I’m not sure if it’s this plant. That’s the trouble with common names, they can lead to all sorts of confusion. I suspect that vervain is sometimes what we call lemon verbena. The flowers are allegedly edible, so you could always pop some into a salad if the urge came upon you.
But wait! Here is a peach and vervain tart, which I’m 100% certain actually contains lemon verbena and supports my thought about the French use of the word ‘vervaine’. It’s too pretty to leave out, even if it is completely the wrong plant.
And now, a poem. I am sure that the verbena in this work, translated from the French, is not ‘our’ flower, but I think the verses tell a sort of truth, and the image of the broken vase is an example of what can be done by focussing closely on just one thing. I hope you enjoy it. If you want to hear it being read with a lovely French accent, you can find it here.
“Le Vase Brisé (The Broken Vase)”
by Sully Prudhomme
Read by Jean-Luc Garneau
The vase where this verbena’s dying
Was cracked by a lady’s fan’s soft blow.
It must have been the merest grazing:
We heard no sound. The fissure grew.
The little wound spread while we slept,
Pried deep in the crystal, bit by bit.
A long, slow marching line, it crept
From spreading base to curving lip.
The water oozed out drop by drop,
Bled from the line we’d not seen etched.
The flowers drained out all their sap.
The vase is broken: do not touch.
The quick, sleek hand of one we love
Can tap us with a fan’s soft blow,
And we will break, as surely riven
As that cracked vase. And no one knows.
The world sees just the hard, curved surface
Of a vase a lady’s fan once grazed,
That slowly drips and bleeds with sadness.
Do not touch the broken vase.
Le vase où meurt cette verveine
D’un coup d’éventail fut fêlé;
Le coup dut l’effleurer à peine,
Aucun bruit ne l’a révélé.
Mais la légère meurtrissure,
Mordant le cristal chaque jour,
D’une marche invisible et sûre
En a fait lentement le tour.
Son eau fraîche a fui goutte à goutte,
Le suc des fleurs s’est épuisé;
Personne encore ne s’en doute,
N’y touchez pas, il est brisé.
Souvent aussi la main qu’on aime
Effleurant le coeur, le meurtrit;
Puis le coeur se fend de lui-même,
La fleur de son amour périt;
Toujours intact aux yeux du monde,
Il sent croître et pleurer tout bas
Sa blessure fine et profonde:
Il est brisé, n’y touchez pas.
Photo One by H. Zell / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)
Photo Four byCC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=48530