(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on January 6, 2009. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to respond to your questions.)
Aunt Bett told me I should wait until I was at least 16 before I decided just who it was that I wanted to marry. I was only 12 at the time, and I had already made up my mind who I was going to marry, but he didn't know it yet. I was trying to get Aunt Bett to fix up a magic love potion so that I could give it to him, just to make sure there would be no doubt in his mind about our future. I already knew that my Gramma Ell had married when she was only 14, and she had been happily married until my grandfather passed away. The same was true of Granny Ninna, though I think she waited till she was about 16.
I had been reading up on love potions, and I didn't want anything that would be very obvious or difficult. I just wanted something I could sprinkle on the grilled cheese sandwiches I made for my best boyfriend whenever he came to my house to go sledding, or build a snowman, or to shoot my bow and arrow. It was winter and I didn't have anything important to do except to plan my wedding. I had it very nearly planned, but the groom just didn't know it yet, so the love potion was to make sure he was of the same mind that I was.
Even though there is nothing significant about its appearance, and even though it is not at all rare, vervain was long regarded with awe. The Romans considered it a sacred herb, and used it to purify their homes and their temples. They also used it medicinally. Druid priests considered it sacred. The ancients used it to treat colds, fevers, gout, skin infections, jaundice, asthma; the list of its cures was impressively long, much longer than I have indicated here. When I was 12, I had searched the old set of Compton's encyclopedias and found that the Romans had dedicated the herb to their Goddess of birth, Isis, and they considered vervain the most important ingredient in a love potion.
Verbena officinalis grows alongside roads and in pastures. It is native to the Mediterranean region, but is widely naturalized in temperate North America. It is a perennial herb, one to two feet tall with thin, erect, stiff stems. The leaves are opposite; the lower ones are oblong and coarsely toothed, the upper ones slender, lance shaped and deeply lobed. Small lilac flowers with five petals bloom from a slender spike from June through October.
Various preparations of the plant were used medicinally all those years ago. Chewing the plant and its root was supposed to strengthen gums and teeth. It was both an ingredient of medieval witches' love potions and a charm against their evil spells. It made its way into Christian lore as the plant that had served to stanch Christ's wounds on Calvary, and some folks still called it herb of the cross. It was a plant that had a reputation as a virtual panacea.
I don't think Aunt Bett put much stock in vervain as a treatment for anything, but she knew it was not toxic, and when people asked her for her spring tonic, she supplied them with an infusion of vervain. Herbalists still recommend vervain tea occasionally as a tonic, astringent, and diuretic. There are those who also offer it as an appetite suppressant. Many of its medicinal uses have been subject to scientific scrutiny and pharmacologists find no evidence to support the plant's use for any of the ancient claims, but they do find that it is effective as a diuretic, gout remedy and an appetite suppressant.
So when I was 12, I was hoping Aunt Bett would give me a love potion that would help me with my marriage plans. She told me I was too young, but I always liked to have things in place so that I knew what to expect. I kept lists, I kept calendars, I had an orderly mind for important things. I might not have known the day of the week, but I knew for certain who I was going to marry. Aunt Bett was a little hesitant, until I finally said: "Aunt Bett, I already know that vervain is a love potion, so would you please just let me have a little of your dried leaves. I won't need much 'cause it won't take much, but I just want to be sure that Billy's ready when the time comes."
Aunt Bett gave me a little pouch of dried vervain, and I took it home all prepared to sprinkle it on the next grilled cheese sandwich that I made. I can tell you it worked fine for several years, but time passes as time always does, and my boyfriend and I went our separate ways as sometimes happens when college intervenes. I don't think he ever knew that I sprinkled vervain on his grilled cheese sandwiches.
I did find one other interesting legend concerning vervain, it is considered the ally of poets and writers for its relaxing effects. Maybe I should start sprinkling it on my own grilled cheese sandwiches.
All photos are from Plant Files. Thanks to these photographers: Trois, Baa, and Floridian.