Photo of Verbena hastata just coming up in the garden, Spring 2015.
The alchemical catalytic action elicited when we take or use an herb allows us to view a plant beyond the edges of a book, beyond the doctrine of signatures, and in a way that even words can’t fully express. For as the plant interfaces with the many variables that we humans present with, it moves us emotionally, physically, and spiritually. It reaches us in these places by balancing us elementally, through humors, and affecting our tension. As things unfold, we are reminded that a plants range of motion is far from linear.
Taste and its affinity for moving energy is an excellent way to gain insight into a plants range of motion, and the acrid bitters are a fun place to begin this exploration. They have a curious manner of moving blood to balance hot and cold in the body, and can improve vitality by relaxing, not stimulating. They are complicated, to say the least.
One of my favorite plants to illustrate their unique nature is Verbena hastata (common name blue vervain). Before we speak of the plants specific virtues, however, lets talk about the acrid taste.
4 Things to Know About An Acrid Bitter (all of which apply to blue vervain)
Acrid bitters are one of my favorites, and I could talk about them all day. To keep it simple, I’m going to try to make 4 main points to illuminate their methods.
- Acrid bitters are powerful relaxants that decrease stimulation in the Autonomic and Central Nervous System, and the muscles (think heart, lungs, large intestine, stomach, and uterus). Sometimes, the taster feels a shiver or quake in response to the relaxation and release of energy.
- Acrid bitters are considered to be warming to the 1st degree by Culpeper. They warm, however, without stimulating or heating blood. Their ability to relax and improve circulation comes into play here, also allowing them to cool. Here’s how. When there is constriction/tension in the nervous system and muscles, it prevents blood from circulating properly. This adversely affects fluid circulation body wide, and causes wind. Wind polarizes hot and cold in the body and circulation, further driving tension. When an acrid relaxes, it improves the flow of blood, relieving cold and hot pockets caused by the wind and tension/constriction. Relaxation occurs without cooling or dampening vital function, and without heating or stimulating. The effect is a systemic balancing of hot and cold circulatory energy, thereby improving physical and emotional health.
- Acrids are relaxing diaphoretics. When they relax, the high windy fever is relieved as blood moves to the periphery, and pores open to release heat and lower temperature. With nervous system tension alleviated, the hypothalamus is no longer over stimulated, and immune function is balanced. This affects high fevers associated with acute viral infections, and the low-grade chronic fevers that come with autoimmune disease. (See this article for more information on acrids for autoimmune disease- http://www.redrootmountain.com/nervines-and-refrigerants-for-autoimmune-diseases-written-by-kathy-eich/774)
- Relaxation tension/constriction that relieves wind allows blood to flow more easily to tissue and organs, greatly strengthening the body’s vital force. This has a balancing effect on blood pressure. For this reason, I abstain from using acrid bitters when someone is on blood pressure medication. Many have contacted me to tell me that their blood pressure spiked dangerously high when they took blue vervain or motherwort with their blood pressure medications. I believe it is because of the plants effect on the heart muscle and nervous system as opposed to a chemical reaction between plant and drug.
Remember, taste is a spectrum, with some plants being more acrid than others. Examples of acrid bitters are: lobelia, passion flower, wild lettuce, Blessed Thistle, Boneset, blue/hoary vervain, Calendula, catnip, valerian, hops, chamomile, cramp bark and black haw.
Verbena hastata’s Namesake
Blue vervain’s common and Latin names (Verbena hastata) have quite a regal ring, and several interesting historical uses associated with them. According to Maude Grieve, vervain is derived from the Celtic ferfaen. Fer translates as ‘to drive away’, and faen, ‘a stone’. This translation identifies its ability to expel urinary gravel. The Iroquois tribe used the plant to drive away individuals who were obnoxious, though my studies did not reveal their methods.
Verbena translates from the Latin as ‘altar plant’, a title possibly given by Roman priests who believed it was a plant responsible for healing the wounds of Christ on the Mount of Calvary.
Using and Making the Medicine
Energy and Energetics
My personal fondness for blue vervain began back in the 90’s with the lovely herbalist Deborah Francis. She said that blue vervain allows the body to recycle energy, thereby improving adrenal gland function.
Blue vervain’s affinity for the circulatory system, and its ability to reduce tension to balance and improve circulatory energy is a strong testament to this. When we lessen nervous system stimulation and muscle tension, we improve how energy is produced and how it is used. We create a new feedback loop, in a sense.
Blue vervain also affects blood in unusual ways. It encourages the reabsorption of blood into the blood stream. When there has been either an acute injury, chronic tension that interferes with blood circulation, or heat with wind and tension that causes blood to be bound to one place (like the head, causing a heat headache from high hot blood), blue vervain relieves that which is binding blood in this holding pattern. The release allows blood to reabsorb and move, thereby relieving the swelling, pain and heat.
As for its energetics, blue vervain is an acrid relaxant, and embodies all the attributes of the acrid bitters, as spoken about previously. It’s actions are as follows: sedative, relaxing diaphoretic, diuretic, bitter tonic, mild antispasmodic, anti-anxiety, anti-inflammatory for headaches, and aphrodisiac. It has an affinity for the spine and Autonomic Nervous System, urinary tract, stomach, immune system, head, circulatory system, blood and adrenals.
In my experience, I feel that blue vervain should be contraindicated for those on high blood pressure medications (except diuretics). As described in the section 4 Things to Know About An Acrid Bitter, its stimulation of circulatory energy coupled with it’s ability to relax muscle and nervous system function causes medications to attempt to counteract the plant, instigating a sometimes dangerous rise in blood pressure.
I have also found that many people with dry hot skin conditions, such as very dry eczema and psoriasis, are irritated when blue vervain acts to improve blood flow and move hot blood to the periphery. When the pores of the skin open to vent heat, the diaphoretic action aggravates hot dry skin conditions.
Applications of Blue Vervain
Adrenal exhaustion, muscle, and nervous system – Blue vervain is specific for hard tension in the neck, shoulders and spine. This tension can also cause muscle aches, insomnia, high or low blood pressure, and alternating constipation with diarrhea. The agitation and periods of depression with nervous anxiety can also cause exhaustion due to depleted adrenal energy. Poor blood flow will also adversely affect digestion, and organs of elimination.
Blue vervain relaxes nerves that are functioning in excess. It inspires energy to disperse, improving blood circulation, opening the pores of the skin, and supporting digestive and urinary function. Blue vervain, being acrid, sometimes makes one shiver as it relaxes the nervous system. I have seen big strong men quake after taking just a few simple drops.
Immune System- High fevers respond beautifully to blue vervain, especially if viral. It works for bacterial infections, too, but in those cases the bacteria is driving the fever. Therefore, the fever will not manage well unless the bacterial infection is being treated.
Blue vervain and other acrid bitters are relaxing diaphoretics. In other words, they work by relaxing the over stimulated nervous system and hypothalamus, allowing bound hot blood to flow easily to the surface of the skin. The pores open so that heat can exit. I recommend it in a formula for high fevers. Sample formulas are at the end of the article.
Acute Stomach Troubles– When struck with food poisoning or a stomach virus, blue vervain helps eliminate the pain and irritation associated with these two ailments that affect the stomach.
High Hot Headaches– Whether due to a high fever, PMS, or heat exposure, blue vervain is specific for high hot headaches. It helps the blood to circulate freely, drawing blood from the head down to relieve the heat from high hot blood that is stuck in the head.
Nervine for autoimmune conditions: For the same reason that blue vervain relieves high hot headaches, coupled with the manner in which it relaxes the nervous system, this plant assists autoimmune disease to help manage heat from an overactive immune system. In autoimmune disease, heat localizes, often, to the site of affliction. Blue vervain aids blood reabsorption, thereby relieving heat. Because it improves blood flow to the skins surface, the chronic low grade fever is relieved, too. I believe that in autoimmune disease there is an overstimulation due to heat not simply affecting the immune system and blood, but also wind and tension in the nervous system. I have used blue vervain and other acrids to successfully help manage Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, fibromyalgia, Multiple Sclerosis, and Chron’s disease.
Blue vervain as a medicine should be made from the fresh flowering tops and leaves of the plant. I use the smaller stems, but take out the larger ones. I find that it is best effective as a fresh plant tincture, especially if using it to treat high fevers, or high hot headaches. The dilution should be1:2 (one part plant, to 2 parts menstruum of 95% alcohol).
A good tonic dose for chronic conditions ages 5 and up is 3-15 drops, 2-4 times daily (lower doses for lower ages). For acute conditions larger doses that are more frequent are necessary- 5-20 drops for ages 5 and up 3-6 times daily.
While it is important to formulate specific per person, it’s also nice to have formula ideas. Feel free to try one of these if you like, or to use it to generate ideas your own formula. The following formulas are ones that I use in my clinical practice.
- Kidney Stones: Tincture: blue vervain, gravel root, cleavers, hydrangea root, and yarrow; if there is blood add yarrow or shepherds purse
- High Fever: Tincture: blue vervain, yarrow, catnip (augment with a strong tea of yarrow and catnip)
- High hot headaches: Tinctures: feverfew and blue vervain; if very hot blooded by nature, use blue vervain, yarrow and elderflower (dried plant tincture only; fresh plant of elderflower heats blood)
- Autoimmune nervine formula: blue vervain, skullcap (may want to add motherwort if sever anxiety is an issue; add hawthorn flower and leaf tincture if there is heart deficiency with low or high blood pressure)
- Food poisoning: blue vervain, anise hyssop, peppermint
- Stomach virus: blue vervain tincture- about 10 drops as needed
Blue vervain works in the name of balance, making the plant a great asset for those suffering Cold-Wind-Constriction or Heat-Wind-Excitation. It is specific for unbreakable patterns of tension, and heat that is not dispersing. It is Yin and Yang in motion.
With a plant that moves energy in so many ways, one must appreciate it for being alchemical. When we are pinched by stress and tension, it is difficult to be the all of who we are. We tend to feel a lack of vital force from within, and our sense of self worth is diminished. Plants that relax us work to restore us to a person of greater depth over time. These plants become a great catalyst for change. Of course, we have to do our own work, too. The plant won’t do it alone. But these plants can help us change our mind, thereby inspiring a whole new process. They assist our change and growth. Blue vervain is one of those plants.