Vervain, from time immemorial, has been the floral symbol of enchantment. In ancient times it was much in request for all kinds of divinations and incantation. Virgil alludes to it as one of the charms used by an enchantress:
Bring running water, bind those altars round
With fillets and with vervain strew the ground (*)
Vervain is not a showy flower and could be easily missed among the grasses and the flowers growing, as it often does, by roadsides or on waste ground. This always seems to have been the case. An anonymous verse from around the year 1400 says that it may be found “by way or gate” and Gerarde’s Herball(1597) refers to it as growing “in untilled places neere unto hedges, high waies and commonly by ditches”. A Garden Dictionary of 1741 lists it as a medicinal plant gathered in the wild but “rarely cultivated in gardens”.
But as the quotation (from T F T Dyer*) above indicates, it has deep magical associations. Pliny associated it with the Gaulish druids and the word verbenae in Latin indicates boughs used in religious ceremonies, but Pliny also had a particular plant – verbena – in mind, which has since been taken to be vervain (Verbena officinalis). It was recognised in Anglo-Saxon herbalism as capable of driving away disease and also as a herb used by sorcerers. Gerarde had his reservations, and suggested that its widespread fame had evil origins: “The divell did reveale it as a secret and divine medecine”. In spite of this it continued to be used well into the 18th century. The Welsh herbal lore of the Physicians of Myddfai advised that the herb be gathered “in the name of God” and that no heed should be paid “to those who say it should be gathered in the name of the devil”. They recommended it to prevent dreams and to counter the effects of Scrophula. Perhaps Gerarde’s doubts about the plant simply reflect its magical uses
Here, to end, is a verse by the 18th century poet William Mason:
Lift your boughs of vervain blue
Dipt in cold September dew
And dash the moisture, chaste and clear,
O’er the ground, and through the air.
Now the place is purged and pure.
T F T Dyer The Folk Lore of Plants(1878)
David Hoffman Welsh Herbal Medicine (1960)
Geoffrey Grigson The Englishman’s Flora (1958)
J Grattan and C Singer Anglo-Saxon Medicine (1952)