Note: For more on Vervain, please see my previous article http://bearmedicineherbals.com/a-touchstone-the-blessed-verbena.html
“With this the table of Jupiter is swept, and homes are cleansed and purified. There are two kinds of it; one has many leaves and is thought to be female, the other the male, has fewer leaves. Some authorities do not distinguish these two kinds . . . since both have the same properties. Both kinds are used by the people of Gaul in fortune-telling and in uttering prophecies, but the Magi especially make the maddest statements about the plant: that people who have been rubbed with it obtain their wishes, banish fevers, win friends, and cure all diseases without exception. . . . They say too that if a dining-couch is sprinkled with water in which this plant has been soaked the entertainment becomes merrier.
-Pliny, Historia Naturalis, Book XXV, 105???107 (With thanks to Stephany Hoffelt for her insights and help)
Many of the herbs we commonly associate with the heart, and with love in particular, are aromatic, and sometimes downright tasty. Rose, Hawthorn, Damiana, and Cacao are almost a liturgical chant from the herbalists this time of year. As well they should be, they’re beautiful plants that have profound effects on the way we experience love, lust, and our own embodiment.
But here I offer something different. A remedy for the arrow through your heart that doesn’t bring you love, but rather keeps you from it.
In Chinese medicine, the bitter taste is associated with the heart, and indeed, many of our most profound medicines for the heart leave a distinctly bitter taste in the mouth. There are many exampled in Chinese herbalism, but for those untrained in those traditions, think especially of Motherwort, long considered an important heart tonic in Western Herbalism. As Guido Masé puts it:
“Based on new evidence, it seems clear that bitters are more generally cardio-protective, regulating the strength and intensity of the heartbeat and helping to strengthen a failing heart. This is of course something most good herbalists already understand, since it is a well-known tenet of traditional Chinese medicine: the bitter flavor is considered an important part of regulating and strengthening the heart, or fire, phase. But it is always interesting to note when modern research uncovers some of the mechanisms behind this age-old wisdom.”
While we have often been taught to avoid this challenging sensation, bitterness can be a gift, a moment of transformation that releases tension and allows energy to flow. Vervain is both bitter and acrid, and excels at triggering movement in the body, particularly in cases of stuck qi or blood resulting in tension and pain.
Tension –bone deep tension– is often a physical and emotional barrier to emotional love as well as to overall well-being. The kind of tension where you can’t draw a deep breath, where you find your shoulders pulled forward over your heart in a protective hunching, where you can’t stand the thought of a hug because one further ounce of overstimulation will snap your spine. Tension like a spike through your neck that emerges out your solar plexus, that results in chronic headaches, an inability to speak in anything besides a machine gun pentameter, and a suffocating paralysis where lack of breath makes it impossible to follow through on anything.
This is also the kind of tension that tends to manifest as emotional razor wire, leaving us isolated even as we wonder why we hurt everyone who attempts to touch us. What use is love when we ward against it with every motion and word? Both conscious and unconscious trauma is held tight in the body, coiling down into longstanding patterns that result in chronic tension.
There are two signature herbs I think of for relaxing tension that particularly impacts the heart. Lobelia, the cardinal relaxant herb for tension anywhere in the body is a phenomenal accompaniment to the second herb, which is the blessed Verbena of druidic fame. This plant has been considered a primary protective talisman throughout Western Europe, used in combination with other plants such as Yarrow and Eyebright by the Fairy Doctors and Wise Women to treat symptoms of poc sídhe, the fairy stroke, which results in a sudden and mysterious decline in one’s mental or physical health. More broadly, the herb has been worn or ingested as protection any kind of evil, ill will, or mischief.
Vervain, thanks in part to the teachings of Matthew Wood, is now considered specific to neck tension in Traditional Western Herbalism, which it does indeed have a powerful effect on. However, Vervain’s relaxant action also has an affinity for the liver and the heart. Where there is inexplicable irritation with fits of irrational anger and other signs of stuck liver qi, even small doses of the tincture can remedy the blockage. And when this irritation progresses to disturbed sleep, nightmares, and an inability to communicate any feeling besides frustration, Vervain can also soothe the upset heart spirit, releasing tension and allowing the heart to serve as an open channel and sensory organ once again.
Adding an aromatic herb such as Tulsi or Rose can further assist in the movement of stagnant emotional tension, where the events that triggered the tension are long since over, but the body is still holding on to the visceral memory of it. This is not a way of forcibly exorcising demons, but rather an invitation to the pericardium, the protective membrane of the heart, to loosen its protective grip and allow sensation to flow in and out on the tides of emotion once again.
If what is needed is not further movement, but a deep grounding into the body and into place, then I would recommend something like Burdock root, oily and sweet and nourishing, so that Vervain opens the channels and allows the tension to run back into the earth. For those that feel absent or unable to be fully present in their bodies, this can also contribute to the enjoyment of pleasure and the acceptance of affection and love.
In addition to treating outright tension, I find Verbena to be very useful in addressing the exhaustion and depression that can come after a long period of tension drains a person of their energy and vitality. While I would not use large amount of Vervain in cases where there is clear deficiency, I do feel that it can be restoratively relaxing when used in small amounts with more nourishing and warming herbs and foods.
The world is more than mad just now, and rife with the tension that can drain us of life and love. So drink the bitter draught, carry a bottle of bittersweet honey-infused elixir, and make yourself an amulet of the delicate purple flowers. All are talismans against isolation, all are medicines to open the heart and guard our precious vitality in times of trouble.
It’s fairly common to only see Verbena officinalis and Verbena hastata listed under medicinal species of the genus. However, there are a great many species, including V. bractaea, V. neomexicana, and V. macdougalii that also work at least as well. Additionally, the genus Glandularia is closely related, and works very similarly, generally more acrid and less bitter.
Differences among species to note are the relative proportions of bitterness and acridity. Verbenas tend to be more bitter, and Glandularias tend to be more acrid, all are more or less interchangeable, but with nuanced
Resources & References
Garran, Thomas Avery – Western Herbs in Chinese Medicine: Methodology & Materia Medica
Mac Coitir, Niall – Irish Wild Plants: Myths, Legends & Folklore
Masé, Guido – Bitters & Heart Health: Emerging Research https://www.urbanmoonshine.com/blog/bitters-heart-health-emerging-research/
Ross, Jeremy – A Clinical Materia Medica, 120 Herbs in Western Use
Wood, Matthew – The Practice of Traditional Western Herbalism
Wood, Matthew – The Book of Herbal Wisdom