When most people speak of Vervain, they usually refer to the European Blue Vervain (or occasionallyV. hastata, called American Vervain) but I have used our local Southwestern varieties of Verbena and Glandularia with the same indications and results so I am speaking here of a broader selection of spp. Some of them are low to the ground, nearly creepers with brilliant magenta flowers and others are spindly yet elegant plants up to two feet tall with violet blue flowers. They all seem to work in a very similar manner and I have become comfortable with mixing and matching them depending on the season and what’s available. The small pink species of Verbena tends to bloom year round here, even in the dead of Winter under significant snowfall. I’m not sure, but it may be a short-lived perennial as it seems to grow and bloom non-stop for a few years and then just disappear. All of our spp. prefer rocky areas, disturbed soil and roadsides. They have medium to dark green, dusty looking leaves, with a jagged form somewhat similar to the Artemisias. You can’t mistake the taste of Vervain, strongly bitter, somewhat acrid with a lingering aftertaste. The plant rarely has any scent whatsoever, but its lovely flowers draw the eye and the odd formation of the flowerhead itself, with all its semi-spiny underhangs make it easy enough to recognize.
My first experiences with Vervain were with as a simple relaxant nervine and antispasmodic, mostly combined with Skullcap. Blending it with other herbs tends to moderate and even out its effects, so I didn’t really notice it’s full personality until I began using it as a simple. Most people experience it as a mild to moderate relaxant, but a few feel it much more intensely, to the point of being mind altering. I’m one of those few, and in many cases found it to be so strongly relaxing and consciousness shifting that I had to lay down for a few hours after only two or three drops. My daughter calls it the sleepy flower, which goes very well with one of its Spanish names, Dormilón , which means “sleepy head”. Once respected as a very holy herb, these plants are now mostly thought of as weeds. Regardless of human perspective, they remain an important and powerful medicine
The individuals most prone to Vervain’s effects tend to be those who hold enormous amounts of tension and stress in their shoulders and neck, they are usually very intense, adrenally dominated, driven people who are highly critical and have a tendency to project their issues on other people. They are prone to blood sugar lability, and they are, as Michael Moore so aptly puts it, “metabolically brittle”. Their anxiety, while usually based in fear, mostly manifests as an aggravated, edgy attitude and an over-talkative brain that keeps them from restful sleep, good sex and general satisfaction with themselves or their lives. They may seem initially growly and unhappy, but in many cases it is simply the tremendous pressure of their internal tension that makes them so unapproachable and even haughty. It’s not unusual for their to be some level of alcoholism or addiction issues present. The herb will prove especially beneficial when people of this bent are recovering from exhaustion or convalescence.
Vervain’s medicine tends to be very much about relaxing tension so that a fragmented person can become whole again, and in the same way, allows them to see through unclouded eyes what their path and perspective really is, usually after a time of feeling blinded and short-changed by their anxiety, buried fear and sharp-edged hypercriticism. It’s not just a relaxant, it’s a touch-stone, a mender of broken edges and sometimes, a great giver of dreams. For those who most need its medicine, its effect can feel radical and even unpleasant at first, as if someone is rearranging the entire inside of your head. It is these people that Vervain will help the most but its capabilities are broad and it can be used for many people. As a general nervine in the average human being though, it will simply feel like a gentle touch, a bit of release and relaxation as you lean into its effect. It promotes an overall sense of well-being, and is well combined with many other “happy” herbs like Monkeyflower, Linden, St. John’s Wort or Lavender.
Vervain type women often have heightened anxiety and edginess during the week preceding their menstrual period, with increasing dissatisfaction and the feeling of being both exhausted and incredibly wired. They may also experience hot flashes (whatever their age), digestive upset, the need to “bathe in blood” (I have heard exactly that use of words from several clients now) and sensory hypersensitivity. This matches up well with Matthew Wood’s symptom picture (in The Book of Herbal Wisdom) for Vervain, along with William LeSassier’s excellent observation that these women often feel driven to eat, and indeed, there can be a sense of desperation to their food choices during PMS, often focusing around chocolate and other “feel good” substances that result in either binges or feelings of deep deprivation and frustration. Vervain tends to calm all these feelings back down to a manageable level, not simply through its relaxant effect, but also directly through the endocrine system. When the indications are clear, only a very small dosage will be needed, usually only one to five drops. Some will find Vervain alone to be too disorienting and mind altering, and that may be moderated by creating an appropriate formula. Scullcap and Milky Oats are often good companion herbs for the above indications, but there are endless possible variations. Because Vervain people tend to be so hypercritical towards themselves and others, there is often an element of insecurity and lack of self love, making Rose very appropriate here, reinforced by Rose’s endocrine system affinity. In addition, Vervain has been receiving some recognition in recent times as a thyroid modulator, able to gently adjust mild to moderate thyroid imbalance, regardless of whether hyperactive or hypoactive. I have now seen positive results in clients of both persuasions, and am impressed with it’s mild yet noticeable effect on the endocrine system.
While some herbalists tend to emphasize these driven, intense Vervain people primarily as thin, small figured people, this has not always been my experience. There’s a fair amount of bigger-than-Barbie people in our culture who do not fit the standard dreamy-slow-sluggish kapha type. With the metabolic disorders so common in our time, I caution practitioners to assess a client’s whole constitution thoroughly before pronouncing them one thing or another based on current body shape. That said, it is the driven, edgy personality with tension held in the neck and shoulders that are the most important indications for Vervain in almost all cases.
For muscular tension, Vervain may be used internally as well as externally as a liniment. It has an uncanny capability to relax all sorts of knots and tweaks in that area, and can also provide relief for concurrent nerve pain. Many people are able to feel the muscles distinctly and rapidly relaxing within half an hour of taking the tincture (quicker if you take a couple drops directly on or under your tongue). If there are pronounced muscular spasms as well, then Goldenrod applied externally can be very effective, as can the addition of a very small amount of Lobelia internally.
In the treatment of cold and flues that present with chills, body aches, irritability, general tension and feverishness without active sweating a hot tea of Vervain can relax the individual, promote diaphoreses, ease aches and pains and make it possible to get some rest despite the discomfort. It’s really a wonderful and often overlooked diaphoretic deserving of much greater use in the US, especially considering how very common it is in many regions. It teams up nicely with Elderflower and Beebalm as well for an all around (and a bit more pleasant tasting) relaxing diaphoretic formula. It can also be helpful added to cough syrups and formulas for spasmodic coughs, and Tommie Bass almost always threw a handful or so of Vervain into his cough remedy.
Harvesting: Gather the flowering tops when they look fresh and vibrant. For most people this will be in the Summer, but in the SW, it could be year-round.
Preparation: Fresh plant tincture of the flowering tops. It’s traditional to use the root, but it seems to be more nauseating than the rest of the plant so I’ll stick with the flowers and leaves. Dried plant tincture also works just fine (1:5 50-60%) but lacks some the subtle vitality of the fresh. I have used very freshly dried plants for tincture as well and found them nearly identical to the fresh, but it will depend on your source. Hot tea works very well, though many can’t abide the taste unless blended with other herbs. Makes a fine liniment combined with Cottonwood, Sweet Clover and Goldenrod for general pain and achy-ness, especially where there specific neck involvement or nerve pain. People of the SW traditionally mix the dried powdered tops into lard for use on the neck and shoulders. This salve is also useful for a variety of wounds and other abrasions.
The tincture sometimes turns into a weird green gel after a while. It’s still fine, you can either drain off the liquid and use it or just try to deal with the consistency (hilarious in a dropper for the herbalist, likely alarming for the client). This bitter, acrid tasting green jello is a great way to scare small children as well.
Dosage: 1-5 drops of the fresh plant tincture as needed, or up to 20 drops of the dried plant tincture. Large doses may cause nausea (people with irritated livers seem especially prone to this effect). It may also be taken as a hot tea (1 tsp of dried herb per cup of water), and probably needs to be sweetened with honey or something similar to get a child to ingest it, adding Peppermint will sometimes help as well. As a diaphoretic, it’s best to sip the very hot tea slowly while thoroughly wrapped up and kept warm. Again, a large dosage (usually more than a few cups) can cause nausea in some people.
Cautions: Can cause nausea in large doses. Some people advise caution during pregnancy, although I’m not exactly sure why. If ingested in small doses I don’t know of any reason not to use it as needed.
References & Resources:
Medicinal Plants of the Mountain West by Michael Moore
Herbal Medicine of the American Southwest by Charles Kane
Backyard Medicine by Julie Bruton-Seal & Matthew Seal
The Book of Herbal Wisdom by Matthew Wood
The Practice of Traditional Western Herbalism my Matthew Wood