Verbena officinalis L. Vervain

INTRODUCTION

Traditional evidence gives Verbena officinalis a reputation as a heal-all. Although its pharmacology is poorly researched and understood, some of Verbena's properties are well known clinically, particularly it is seen as a calming restorative for debilitated conditions. It also has a stimulating action on the liver and digestive system. It is a good example of a herb that is widely used in practise despite a lack of substantial research data. Detailed scrutiny of this plant is justified considering the weight of its historical use; it is to be hoped that investigators will look at Verbena more closely. A review of the plant, including its history, medicinal uses and its importance in folklore follows.

NOMENCLATURE

The name Verbena is derived from the Celtic ferfaen, from fer (to drive away) and faen (a stone), as the plant was much used for affections of the bladder, especially calculus. Another derivation is given by some authors from Herba veneris, because of the aphrodisiac qualities attributed to it by the Ancients. Priests used it for sacrifices, and hence the name Herba Sacra. The name Verbena was the classical Roman name for 'altar- plants' in general, and for this species in particular. Other names include: Herb of Grace, Holy wort, Herb of the cross, Pigeon's Grass, Eisenkraut (German - ironwort), Ijzerhart (Dutch - ironheart), Yn Lus or Yn Ard Lus (Manx - The Herb or The Chief Herb, used for protection), Cas Gangythraul, Llysiau'r Hudol (Welsh - Hated by the Devil, Herb of Magic).

DESCRIPTION

Family

Verbena belongs to the family of the Verbenaceae. There are about 800 species in 80 different genera, most of them being tropical and subtropical. Verbena is the only member indigenous to the UK.

Botanical description

It is a slender perennial, growing from a woody stock to 1-2 feet(30-60cm) tall. Many small, pale-lilac flowers are borne on slender leafless spikes from June to October. The leaves are opposite and lanceolate. The taste is slightly bitter and astringent and the odour is aromatic when rubbed.

Habitat

In England Verbena is found growing by roadsides, embankments, waste places and in sunny pastures and dry grassland. It is scattered throughout England and Wales, but in Scotland it is found wild only in Fife (Launert, 1981). It grows chiefly on chalky soils in Southern England. It is also found throughout Europe except the far North; Barbary; China; Cochin-China and Japan. Early British settlers introduced it to Australia and North America (Chevallier, 1996).

Propagation and harvesting

It is propagated from seed in spring or autumn and it thrives in a well-drained soil in a sunny position. The aeriel parts are harvested in summer when the plant is in flower.

PARTS USED

Leaves, flowering heads, root (Germany) - (H. Zeylstra pers.com).

CONSTITUENTS

Glycosides Iridoid glycoside: hastatoside, verbenin (aucubin), verbenalin (verbanaloside) -- C[17]H[25]O[10]. Phenylpropanoid glycosides: acetoside (verbascoside), eukovoside

Volatile oils Monoterpene components including citral, geraniol, limonene and verbenone.

Other constituents Adenoside, alkaloid, bitters, carbohydrates (stachyose, mucilage), [beta]-carotene, invertin (sucrose hydrolytic enzymes), saponin, tannic acid.

Verbenalin is not a very stable compound, and at least 25% is lost in commercial samples (H. Zeylstra pers.com). The plant has not been well investigated chemically.

FOLK AND HISTORICAL USES

Verbena has long been credited with magical properties and it is said that it was used in ceremonies by the Druids of ancient Britain and Gaul. The Druids included it in their "lustral water" and it was revered as highly as mistletoe (Grieve, 1931). As Druids often used their herbs for mental disorders it might give us some explanation for the uses of Verbena, particulalry in the British Isles (H. Zeylstra pers.com.). In Egypt it was dedicated to Isis, the goddess of birth; it was also called the "tears of Isis" and burnt during festivities and its properties inhaled.

The Romans used it as an altar herb, particularly on the altar of Jupiter. Dioscorides in the 1st century AD called Verbena the "sacred herb", Hippocrates used it for infertility and for many centuries it was taken as a cure-all, valued as a panacea. Magicians and sorcerers used it in various rites and incantations and it was known as a magical charm which could protect against witches and demons, as many of its different names suggest.

The Welsh herbalists, the Physicians of Myddfai, recommended its habitual use as a roasted powder for the treatment of scrofula and it was used as a cure for plague in the middle ages. Culpepper classed Verbena as hot, dry, and bitter; it was indicated for opening obstructions, cleansing, and healing. He mentions it for treatment in a great many complaints, including jaundice, dropsy, and gout, diseases of the liver and spleen, coughs, shortness of breath, kidney stones and gravel. "Applied with some oyl of roses and vinegar unto the forehead and temples, it easeth the inveterate pains and ach of the head, and is good for those that are frenetick." He recommended the distilled water of the herb to help with eye complaints and gave the opinion that it "wonderfully strengtheneth the optick nerves."

Bruised, it was worn round the neck as a charm against headaches, and against snake and other venomous bites as well as for general good luck (Grieve, 1931). It was traditionally associated with the gods of war and gun flints were sometimes boiled with rue and Verbena to make them more effective. It was the vulnerary for wounds caused by weapons made of iron (hence perhaps ironheart and iron wort) (Mabey, 1996).

The church exorcised its magic by appropriating the plant and suggesting that it grew under the cross at calvary - though there were still incantations for picking it, albeit couched in Christian language and symbolism such as the following:

"Hallowed be thou, Verbena, as thou growest in the ground,

For in the mount of calvary there thou was first found

Thou halest our Saviour Jesus Christ, and staunchest his bleeding wound;

In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost,

I take thee from the ground." (Mabey, 1996).

According to a supplement of the London Pharmacopoeia issued in 1837, it was stated that "the necklaces of Verbena roots tied with white satin ribbon" and worn around the neck were a cure for scrofula (Ranson, 1949).

PHARMACOLOGICAL STUDIES

The pharmacology of Verbena is poorly understood. There have been a number of animal studies involving the whole plant extract and individual constituents. Unfortunately there is a distinct lack of human studies.

Animal Studies

Galactogogue properties have been documented for Verbena and attributed to aucubin (verbenin). A luteinising action has also been reported and attributed to inhibition of the gonadotrophic action of the posterior lobe of the pituitary gland. Extracts of Verbena fruit have been used to treat dysmenorrhoea and to stimulate lactation (Newall et. al., 1996 and references therein).

Verbena has been documented to possess weak parasympathetic properties, causing slight contraction of the uterus (Newall et. al., 1996 and references therein). Verbenalin has been reported to exhibit uterine stimulant activity, increasing muscle tone and rhythmic contractions in the pregnant uterus (Farnsworth, 1975). Sympathetic activity has also been documented; in small doses verbenin (aucubin) has been reported to act as an agonist at sympathetic nerve endings, increasing saliva production, whereas larger doses result in antagonism (Duke, 1985). Verbascoside reportedly acts as an agonist to the antitremor action of levadopa, and as an antihypertensive and analgesic (Newall et. al., 1996 and references therein). A slight laxative action in mice has been documented for iridoid glycosides (Inouye et al., 1974).

Verbena's traditional action as antilithic and diuretic has recently been investigated in rats and has had some beneficial effects, attributed partly to a disinfectant action and an alkalising effect, possibly due to the presence of saponins (Grases et al., 1994).

In vitro studies

A recent study on intact human breast cell lines has shown that Verbena extracts can bind to cell receptors for oestrogen and progesterone (Zava et al., 1998).

ACTIONS

A reading of current and traditional use suggests the following possible actions:

Nervine trophorestorative.

A digestive tonic; bitter stimulant to the liver; cholagogue.

Anti-spasmodic with a particular action on visceral tension; antiasthmatic; antimigraine; hypotensive; anticonvulsant.

Tonic action on the female reproductive system; galactagogue; emmenagogue.

Astringent; antidiarrhoiec; vulnerary.

Alterative/depurative.

Diuretic; antilithic.

Diaphoretic and febrifuge.

CLINICAL USES

There are many claims made for Verbena, but its large number of actions can explain its effects on so many systems. The physiomedicalists use of the herb is as a bitter, cleansing and stimulating nervine, soothing the nervous system throughout and stimulating the digestion. Boiling destroys its stimulating action and leaves it as a relaxing nervine (H. Zeylstra pers.com).

Nervous system

Verbena appears to strengthen the nervous system whilst relaxing any tension and stress. It is advocated in depression and melancholia, especially when this follows illness such as influenza. It promotes the restoration of normal energy levels during convalescence. Verbena may be used to help in seizure, hysteria and nervous exhaustion. It is also beneficial in stress related problems, such as headaches, migraines and insomnia.

Digestive system

The bitter content can stimulate the liver and enhance digestion, making it a useful treatment for problems that may be related to poor liver performance including lethargy, depression, headaches and irritability. As a hepatic remedy, it is helpful in inflammation of the gall bladder and jaundice.

It can cause vomiting in high doses, the constituent verbenalin, a mild purgative, may be responsible (Chevalier, 1996).

Musculoskeletal

Verbena has an antispasmodic and relaxing effect on the viscera probably due to the parasympathetic action of verbenalin. It is used in the acute spasms of bronchitis, asthma and pertussis. It is also of value in treating dysmenorrhoea and obstructed menstruation.

Diaphoretic

It acts as a diaphoretic when given in hot infusion, increasing sweating and bringing down fever in the early stages.

Astringent

The tannins in Verbena make it a useful mild astringent for bleeding gums, caries and gum disease and mouth ulcers when used as a mouthwash. As a skin lotion it can be used for sores, wounds and insect bites. It is also useful in diarrhoea. Culpepper reports that "It consolidateth and healeth also all wounds both inward and outward, and stayeth bleedings, and used with some honey healeth all old ulcers and fistulaes in the legs or other parts of the body...for the piles and hemorrhoids".

Urinary system

Its diuretic properties make it a prime remedy for fluid retention and gout. According to Priest and Priest (1982) Verbena has a particular influence on renal autonomic function. Culpepper recommends Verbena for kidney stones and gravel. In Germany, the root is used for urinary stones and gravel (H. Zeylstra pers.com.).

Gynaecological system

Verbena has a marked galactogogue action, due to verbenin. It is often used for menstrual problems, such as amenorrhoea, dysmenorrhoea, premenstrual syndrome and menopausal mood swings. In China, it has been used to treat migraines that have an association with the menstrual cycle. It should be avoided in pregnancy but it can be used during labour to enhance contractions.

Alterative/depurative

Verbena has a reputation as an alterative/depurative, probably due to its stimulating and cleansing effect on the liver and kidneys.

PREPARATIONS AND DOSAGE

As a tea: Pour a cup of boiling water onto 1-3 (2-4g) teaspoons of the dried herb and leave to infuse for 10-15 minutes. Drink 3 times a day.

The root needs to be decocted for about 25-30 min. Liquid extract (1:1 in 25% alcohol) 1- 2 ml three times daily.

Tincture (1:5 in 25% alcohol) 2-5 ml three times daily.

TOXICITY

Some allergic reactions have been reported. Verbena appears to be generally well tolerated.

CONTRAINDICATIONS

Verbena should not be given during pregnancy due to its emmenagogue activity. As a galactagogue however it is indicated for use in lactation.

OTHER SPECIES

V. hastata (BLUE VERBENA, Wild Hyssop, Simpler's Joy) is indigenous to the United States, and has very similar properties to V. officinalis. It was used by the Cherokee as an abortifacient, analgesic and antidiarrhoeal and as a diaphoretic, febrifuge and emetic. The plant is described by Josselyn as a wound herb and Cutler wrote that during the revolutionay war when certain drugs were unobtainable, army surgeons substituted a species of verbena as an emetic and expectorant (Vogel, 1970; Moerman, 1998).

Verbena jamaicensis (JAMAICA VERBENA) grows in Jamaica, Barbados, and other West Indian islands, bearing violet flowers. The juice is used in dropsy (oedema due to congestive heart failure) and for children as an anthelmintic and cooling cathartic. It is used as an emmenagogue, and for sore and inflamed eyes. As a poultice, with wheat-flour, the bruised leaves are used for swelling of the spleen, and for hard tumours at their commencement.

V. lappulaceae (BURRY VERBENA), another West Indian herb, with pale blue flowers, is a vulnerary sub-astringent, being used even for very severe bleeding wounds in men and cattle, especially in Jamaica.

V. urticifolia. The root, boiled in milk and water with the inner bark of Quercus alba, is said to be an antidote to poisoning by Rhus toxicodendron.

V. sinuata. An infusion of the root, taken as freely as possible, is said to be a valuable antisyphilitic.

V. domingensis is taken as a bitter tonic for the digestion, and is used for wounds and headaches (Chevalier, 1996).

CONCLUSION

Verbena is a herb that has a great deal to offer in terms of therapeutics. Its gentle and tonic action is suitable for the most debilitated patient and yet its effect can be powerful. Through the ages it has been used for a wide variety of disorders which can be explained by its bitter and stimulating effect on the liver and other organs, together with its relaxing effect on the nervous system. The lack of research in terms of its pharmacology needs to be addressed but it will continue to remain an important herb to phytotherapists.

Non Owen BSc, PhD, MNIMH graduated from the College of Phytotherapy in 1998. Her first degree was in microbiology and her PhD was on fungal genetics. Before studying herbal medicine she did postdoctoral research, mainly at the John Innes Centre for Plant Science Research. She is currently practising in Edinburgh and is a tutor for the distance learning course at the College. She also teaches at the Scottish Student Training Clinic in Edinburgh. Her address is 26 Eighth Street, Newtongrange, Midlothian, EH22 4JR.

REFERENCES

Chevallier A. 1996. The Encyclopaedia of Medicinal Herbs, Dorling Kindersley

Culpeper N. Culpepper's Complete Herbal, W. Foulsham & Co. Ltd., England.

Duke JA. 1985. Handbook of medicinal herbs, Boca Raton: CRC.

Farnsworth NR. 1975. Potential value of plants as sources of new antifertility agents. J Pharm Sci 64: 535-98.

Grases F., Melero G., Costa Bauzá A., Prieto R., March J.G. (1994). The effects of seven plants with suspected application to prevent and treat kidney stone formation. Int Urol Nephrol 26(5):507-11.

Grieve Mrs. M. 1931. A Modern Herbal Jonathan Cape, London.

Inouye H. 1974. Purgative activities of iridoid glycosides. Planta Med. 25: 285-8.

Launert, E. 1981. The Hamlyn Guide to Edible and Medicinal Plants of Britain and Northern Europe. The Hamlyn Publishing Group Ltd.

Mabey R. 1996. Flora Britannica. Sinclair-Stevenson.

Moerman D. E. 1998. Native American Ethnobotany. Timber Press.

Newall, C. A., Anderson., L. A. and Phillipson, J. D. 1996. Herbal Medicines - A guide for healthcare professionals. The Pharmaceutical Press. p309-313

Priest, A. W., and Priest L.R. 1982. Herbal Medication. A clinical and dispensary Handbook. L.N. Fowler and Co. Ltd.

Ranson F. 1949. A Pelican book of British Herbs. Penguin Books.

Schauenberg P. and Paris. F. 1977. Guide to Medicinal Plants. The Lutterworth Press, Cambridge.

John Pugh (trans.). 1989. The Herbal Remedies of the Physicians of Myddfai. Llanerch Enterprises, Wales,

Vogel, V. 1970. American Indian Medicine. University of Oklahoma Press.

Zava D.T., Dollbaum C.M., Blen M. (1998). Estrogen and progestin bioactivity of foods, herbs, and spices. Proc Soc Exp Biol Med 217(3):369-78

Zeylstra, Hein. Personal communication.

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By Non Owen

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