Family Valerianaceae, Valerian
OTHER NAMES: Culpeper calls it Garden Valerian. Common valerian, all heal, garden heliotrope, St. George’s herb, bloody butcher, capon’s tail, capon’s trailer, cat’s valerian, vandal root, English valerian, fragrant valerian, sete wale (set well), red valerian.
DESCRIPTION: An attractive fern-like plant with fragrant pinkish flowers, and lance-shaped leaves that get progressively smaller at the top. It can reach 5 feet (1.5 m) in height.
PROPERTIES AND USES: Culpeper describes it: “This is under the influence of Mercury. Dioscorides says, that the Garden Valerian has a warming faculty, and that being dried and given to drink it provokes urine, and helps the stranguary. The decoction thereof taken, doth the like also, and takes away pains of the sides, provokes women’s courses, and is used in antidotes. Pliny says, that the powder of the root given in drink, or the decoction thereof taken, helps all stoppings and stranglings in any part of the body, whether they proceed of pains in the chest or sides, and takes them away. The root of Valerian boiled with liquorice, raisins, and aniseed, is singularly good for those that are short-winded, and for those that are troubled with the cough, and helps to open the passages, and to expectorate phlegm easily. It is given to those that are bitten or stung by any venomous creature, being boiled in wine. It is of a special virtue against the plague, the decoction thereof being drank, and the root being used to smell to. It helps to expel the wind in the belly. The green herb with the root taken fresh, being bruised and applied to the head, takes away the pains and prickings there, stays rheum and thin distillation, and being boiled in white wine, and a drop thereof put into the eyes, takes away the dimness of the sight, or any pin or web therein. It is of excellent property to heal any inward sores or wounds, and also for outward hurts or wounds, and drawing away splinters or thorns out of the flesh.” Valerian is the most widely recognized herbal sedative, used for insomnia, nervous anxiety and to help the body relax in the presence of pain. Although potent, fortunately it is neither habit-forming nor addictive. Additionally, it helps one sleep, but does not cause a morning hangover or interact with alcohol. Research shows that root extracts help one to fall asleep faster and also improve sleep quality. The strange, pungent odor of the root is an indicator of the strength of its medicinal properties. Valerian root does not lose effectiveness over time, so dried roots were often placed in linen cupboards and drawers to deter insects.
Valerian is sedative to humans, but excites cats, rats and mice. The roots smell strongly of new leather and are sometimes dug up by cats, being a cat attractant like catnip. Valerian is also attractive to rats, and has been used to bait traps. In one version of the legend of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, he lured the rodents with valerian to drive them out of the city.
St. Vitus’s Dance
Valerian was a traditional remedy for St. Vitus’s dance, now known as Sydenham’s chorea. It is a disorder associated with rheumatic fever, affecting children and characterized by jerky, uncontrollable movements, either of the face or of the arms and legs. There is no specific treatment, with sedatives and tranquilizers are helpful in suppressing the involuntary movements. Thus valerian would have been an effective choice of treatment. St. Vitus (died c.303) is the patron saint of Prague, Bohemia, dogs, domestic animals, young people, dancers, coppersmiths, actors, comedians, epileptics, mummers and those who oversleep. The help of the saint is invoked to protect against epilepsy, lightning, poisoning by dog bite or snake bite, sleeplessness, animal attacks, storm, and St. Vitus’s dance. Vitus is one of the Fourteen Holy Helpers, a collective cult of saints that originated in the 14th-century Rhineland, who were believed to intercede effectively against various diseases. His nurse and her husband, St. Crescentia and St. Modestus, martyred with St. Vitus, share his feast of June 15.
Sydenham’s chorea gets its name from the Graeco-Latin word implying the act of dancing, which we recognize in the word “choreography.” The term chorea was first applied by Paracelsus to the frenzied movements of religious fanatics who in the Middle Ages journeyed to the healing shrine of St. Vitus Cathedral in Prague.
HISTORY: Valerian is used in the 11th-century herbal recipes of the Anglo Saxon leeches, medical men who drew blood. In the Middle Ages it was known as amentilla or amantilla, and a 14th-century saying reads: “Men who begin to fight and when you wish to stop them, give to them the juice of Amantilla id est Valeriana and peace will be made immediately.” Thomas Hill in 1577 wrote: “…it provoketh sweat and urine, amendeth stitches, helpeth the straightness of breath, the headache, fluxes and Shingles, procureth clearness of sight and healeth the piles.” Valerian has traditionally been used as a nerve tonic, to cure anxiety, to relieve the symptoms of the falling sickness (epilepsy). The flowers were used in charm bags to encourage love, protection and sleep.
Family Verbenaceae, Vervain
OTHER NAMES: Common vervain, common verbena, herb of grace (as is rue), herb of the cross, holy herb, holy wort, herba sacra, herb of enchantment, Britannica, enchanter’s plant, enchanter’s herb, Juno’s tears, pigeon’s grass, pigeonwood, simpler’s joy, divine wood, wild hyssop, mosquito plant. It must be picked before flowering, and dried promptly. Do not confuse this with Verbena boniarensis, also known as blue vervain, the statuesque purple-topped plant we see in many gardens, which originated in the New World.
DESCRIPTION: A hardy perennial growing to 3 feet (90 cm), with small pale lilac flowers carried on slender spikes.
PROPERTIES AND USES: Culpeper notes: “This is an herb of Venus, and excellent for the womb to strengthen and remedy all the cold griefs of it, as plantain does the hot. Vervain is hot and dry, opening obstructions, cleansing and healing. It helps the yellow jaundice, the dropsy and the gout; it kills and expels worms in the belly, and causes a good colour in the face and body, strengthens as well as corrects the diseases of the stomach, liver, and spleen; helps the cough, wheezings, and shortness of breath, and all the defects of the reins and bladder, expelling the gravel and stone. It is held to be good against the biting of serpents, and other venomous beasts, against the plague, and both tertian and quartian agues. It consolidates and heals also all wounds, both inward and outward, stays bleedings, and used with some honey, heals all old ulcers and fistulas in the legs or other parts of the body; as also those ulcers that happen in the mouth; or used with hog’s grease, it helps the swellings and pains in the secret parts in man or woman, also for the piles or hæmorrhoids; applied with some oil of roses and vinegar unto the forehead and temples, it eases the inveterate pains and ache of the head, and is good for those that are frantic. The leaves bruised, or the juice of them mixed with some vinegar, does wonderfully cleanse the skin, and takes away morphew [facial scurf], freckles, fistulas, and other such like inflammations and deformities of the skin in any parts of the body. The distilled water of the herb when it is in full strength, dropped into the eyes, cleanses them from films, clouds, or mists, that darken the sight, and wonderfully strengthens the optic nerves. The said water is very powerful in all the diseases aforesaid, either inward or outward, whether they be old corroding sores, or green wounds.” An infusion cured insomnia and stress, prevented stones and boosted the immune system, and its diuretic qualities aided lactation. Vervain is useful as a pain reliever and natural tranquilizer, an expectorant used to treat chronic bronchitis, and as an antirheumatic used to relieve joint pain. Herbalists consider vervain helpful when depression is related to chronic illness. As an added benefit, it can help to heal any damage that has occurred to the liver. It is a noted honey plant.
Found at Calvary
Its multiple virtues may be due to the legend of its discovery on the Mount of Calvary, where it staunched the wounds of the crucified Savior. Hence, it was crossed and blessed with a commemorative verse when it is gathered.
HISTORY: Vervain is said to be derived from the Welsh ferfaen, from ferri (to drive away or ferry) and faen (the soft mutation of maen, stone), as the plant was popularly used for afflictions of the bladder, especially calculus (stones). Another derivation is possibly from herba veneris, because of the aphrodisiac qualities attributed to it. Romans used it as an altar plant, as it was the “sacred bough” used in their sacrifices, and Druids also revered it. Associated with the Passion of Christ, it was used in ointments to make demons fly away. Pliny the Elder relates that in Rome the bridal wreath was of verbena, gathered by the bride herself. Bruised, it was worn round the neck for general good luck, as a charm against headaches, and against snake and other venomous bites. Vervain was thought to be good for the sight. According to Maud Grieve: “It is recommended in upwards of thirty complaints, being astringent, diaphoretic, antispasmodic, etc. It is said to be useful in intermittent fevers, ulcers, ophthalmia, pleurisy, etc., and to be a good galactogogue [promoting lactation]. It is still used as a febrifuge in autumn fevers. As a poultice it is good in headache, ear neuralgia, rheumatism, etc. In this form it colours the skin a fine red, giving rise to the idea that it had the power of drawing the blood outside.” Today vervain is used to treat stress-induced conditions and nervous exhaustion.
Vervain was placed around fields to prevent bad weather and was sacred to the mighty Thor, the Norse thunder god. The ancient smiths used vervain in a procedure for hardening steel, so it comes as no surprise to learn that this herb was mixed into love potions to make love as hot as burning iron. In Holland, Germany, Denmark, Slovakia and Finland it is known as “iron herb.”
Family Violaceae, Violet
OTHER NAMES: Scented violet, dog violet, English violet, common violet, garden violet. Culpeper also includes the common dog-violet or wood violet (Viola riviniana), the early dog-violet (Viola reichenbachiana) and the yellow violet or field pansy (Viola arvensis).
DESCRIPTION: The leaves are heart-shaped, slightly downy beneath and the wonderfully scented flowers are generally deep purple or violet like their name, but lilac, pale rose-colored or white variations are also common.
PROPERTIES AND USES: Culpeper says: “All the Violets are cold and moist, while they are fresh and green, and are used to cool any heat or distemperature of the body, either inwardly or outwardly, as the inflammation in the eyes, to drink the decoction of the leaves and flowers made with water or wine, or to apply them poultice wise to the grieved places; it likewise eases pains in the head caused through want of sleep, or any pains arising of heat if applied in the same manner or with oil of Roses. A dram weight of the dried leaves or flowers of Violets, but the leaves more strongly, doth purge the body of choleric humours and assuages the heat if taken in a draught of wine or other drink; the powder of the purple leaves of the flowers only picked and dried and drank in water helps the quinsy and the falling sickness in children, especially at the beginning of the disease. It is also good for jaundice. The flowers of the Violets ripen and dissolve swellings. The herbs or flowers while they are fresh or the flowers that are dry are effectual in the pleurisy and all diseases of the lungs. The green leaves are used with other herbs to make plasters and poultices for inflammation and swellings and to ease all pains whatsoever arising of heat and for piles, being fried with yoke of egg and applied thereto.”
HISTORY: The violet was thought to have been present at the Crucifixion and, having been touched by the shadow of the Cross, now hangs its sweet head in mourning. To the Greeks, it was the flower of the goddess of love, Aphrodite and the symbol of Athens. Aristophanes called Athens the “violet-crowned city” because its king had the same name as the violet, Ion. Petals were strewn as air fresheners, and they are an old popular remedy for bruises.
“The common dark-blue violet makes a slimy tea, which is excellent for the canker. Leaves and blossoms are both good. Those who have families should take some pains to dry these flowers.”
American Frugal Housewife, 1833