VERVAIN… vampires, myths and medicine
Last week’s guilty pleasure was bindweed. This week, it’s Vampire Diaries. I blame Ian Somerhalder and his tongue-in-cheek charismatic portrayal of Damon the ‘bad’ bloodsucking brother, or maybe it’s just the Goth in me that made those annual treks to Whitby… home of the original vampire story.
The watered-down Netflix version of events is brimming with teenage angst and vampire antics, but there’s a plant in the series that’s sparked my interest. One that makes vampire skin burn and strength wane; a secret weapon preventing them from compelling humans to do their will. They call it ‘vervain’. But what’s the truth about this herb… is there any fact in the fiction?
Vervain, also known as ‘verbena’, has a long history of use as a magical and medicinal herb. Worldwide there are about 250 species of verbena, and today the one most often grown in our garden borders is ‘purpletop vervain’ (Verbena bonariensis); prized for its tall branching stems with dense clusters of small purple flowers. I have some in my garden and it earns its place by flowering from late spring to early autumn, thriving in harsh seaside conditions, and providing a rich source of nectar for all kind of insects.
Purpletop vervain is also classified as a ‘see-through’ plant, which makes it a great companion for other plants sharing the border. It actually allows the other plants the light and space that they need to flourish.
The mythical vervain variety, is most likely Verbena officinalis, otherwise known as the ‘Herb of the Cross’. Used to staunch the wounds of Christ after the crucifixion, vervain thereafter took on healing super powers in myth and in legend.
This species was introduced to Europe in Neolithic times and became widely cultivated as a medicinal herb in Medieval gardens. Like many of our wildflowers and ‘weeds’, it became a garden escape artist.
Across time and religions, vervain kept making appearances… in ancient Egyptian mythology, it was sacred to the goddess Isis who wept vervain tears… in ancient Rome, it was used to purify homes and altars… in the Middle Ages, families kept it in their home for protection and to ward off lightning.
The closest reference I could find though to vervain being used to repel vampires, was the pagans who wore it as an amulet to ward off evil spirits. Hazlitt’s Faiths and Folklore (1905) also quotes Miscellanies (1721):
“Vervain and Dill – Hinder witches from their will”
So the Vampire Diaries author, L J Smith, knew her folklore and simply extended vervain’s fabled magic-suppresssion powers from witches to vampires. Evidence-based binge watching!
Many medical studies have been conducted into vervain. The plant has a long history of being used as a medicinal herb across cultures, and over 20 beneficial plant compounds, including iridoid glycosides, flavonoids, and triterpenoids, may be responsible for its purported benefits including: soothing mood, reducing anxiety, curing migraine, boosting heart health, fighting inflammation, improving digestive health, treating menstrual pain, and protecting the liver and kidneys. Research is still ongoing but Greek physician, Hippocrates, was an ancient advocate for the herb and used it to treat fever and plague.