Verbena: The It Herb

Text and photo ©Christine Maxa


Ancient Romans considered it holy. Virgil called it the symbol of enchantment. The Druids prayed with it. Vampires shunned it. Medieval Roman Catholics said a prayer before gathering it. That great Roman thinker Pliny thought dining chambers should be sprinkled with its infusion “to make the guests merry.”


Our It herb is Verbena officinalis, also called Blue Verbena or Vervain.



In recent times, some bartenders have taken to adding a few drops of its tincture in cocktails. Anyone who has sipped an infusion of the herb nods knowing at the mention of its bitter taste. From a bitters angle, Verbena makes a perfect, if not interesting, ingredient for a classic cocktail. Because it’s a bitter herb, this characteristic assists in digestion. But the herb has a lot more going on, which will explain why I say it makes an “interesting” ingredient in a cocktail.


First, a bit about the herb’s terroir. Verbena officinalis is a European native introduced to the U.S. that grows along the West Coast, New Mexico and Colorado, the Upper Midwest, the Eastern Seaboard, and the Coastal South. Arizona has several Verbenaceae Family members. The more commonly used medicinals include Glandularia bipinnatifida, which grows from the Lower Sonoran Desert to pine-oak biomes; Verbena macdougalii, which likes montane landscapes; and if you’re lucky, you may find Verbena officinalis or V. hastata growing near stream sides in southern Arizona. Of the four varietals, I have wildcrafted G. bipinnatifida, V. officinalis, and V. macdougalii. Of those, V. macdougalii is most bitter, and I usually work with the first two.


The constituents found in Verbena officinalis include “verbenin, verbenalin, hastatoside, alpha-sitosterol, ursolic acid, oleanolic acid (Duke, 1992), kaempferol, luteolin (Chen et al., 2006), verbascoside, aucubin, apigenin, scutellarein (Rehecho et al., 2011) and essential oils like limonene, cineole, spathulenol, ar-curcumeme (Chalchat and Garry, 1995).” (1) This chemistry comes in the form of iridoids, flavonoids, anthocyanins, triterpenoids, and phenolic acid derivatives. A few flavonoids are scutellarein types also found in skullcap.


Verbena’s anthocyanines, flavonoids, and triterpenoids make it a winner in the antioxidant category. Iridoids occur in many verbenas. They are the chemistry that imparts anti-inflammatory, anticancer, antimicrobial, antioxidant, antispasmodic, cardioprotective, choleretic, hepatoprotective, hypoglycemic (anti-diabetes), hypolipidemic, neuroprotective, and purgative actions. (2)



Getting back to Verbena making an interesting cocktail ingredient (not my recommendation, but consider it a good object lesson on how spirits were the original medicinals), Verbena has sleep-promoting chemistry that has anticonvulsant, anti-anxiety and sedative action. (1) This chemistry works on the sensory portion of the brain, so it calms the cascade of nervous tension that causes so many 21st-century minds to tilt. Since Verbena balances the sympathetic-adrenaline discharge, it can tame the tendency to feel like predator or prey, which means it can nicely calm twitchy nerves.


If you mindfully took a few drops, you might notice how verbena’s mild sedative action seems to start in the tummy. The liver and gallbladder relax and release bile as circulation gets restored, which is enough to make anyone feel better. You know how you feel when your boss/husband/wife/coworker/anyone gets nitpicky and can’t say anything nice about anything — and then leaves for (hopefully) the day? Relief! Same with your digestion apparatus; if it is not happy, the whole body feels the tension. But there’s more.


The route this relax-action takes leads to the neck and shoulders, an area for which the herb has an affinity. This makes Verbena a befitting antidote for tension headaches. I like to apply a squirt of tincture right on tight muscles, anywhere — neck, back, arms, legs, feet — and then slather with olive oil (I like elder leaves steeped in EVOO best). It’s an amazing remedy to melt knots and calm spasms.          



What Verbena excels at, in my simple way of thinking, is the breaking up of congestion. The name vervain derives from the Celtic word ferfaen, which means “to drive away a stone,” and Vervain does have a reputation for dissolving kidney stones. But I like to think “stone” applies to any kind of mass, be it concretion or congestion or energetic issues. Simply put, Verbena moves things. Its diffusive action causes a sweat when there’s heat in the body from congestion. Take a few drops of tincture, break a bit of a sweat a few minutes later, then feel the calm — works like clockwork.


This is not surprising; we have an object lesson from nature. After an intense wildfire in pine-oak biomes, Goodding verbena (Glandularia bipinnatifida var.) spreads a striking electric-purple blanket on the charred landscape so thickly, its soothing aroma wafts hundreds of feet away. Interestingly, the bulk of the nurturing post-fire colony does not continue annually. It dwindles until only a few sentinel colonies remain. Track with me here, as this is an object lesson for how the herb works in the body. Verbena quickly settles in and spreads its potency across our internal landscape and then continues it medicinal action in areas most needed. It’s a remarkable herb.


Research has also discovered the verbenas have cytoprotective effects on the cells of the central nervous system. (3) This means the herb may protect against neuronal loss in Alzheimer’s dementia and may also balance the feel-good neurotransmitter dopamine. Verbena may (like Skullcap) help you change old habits that die hard. While we’re taking about the brain, Verbena can cause some pretty trippy dreams in some people. More on that in another post.


So what potential do we have so far regarding Verbena’s actions? An aid to the liver, gallbladder, and pancreas; a protector of nerves; guardian of brain cells; and dissolver of tension, knots in muscles and kidney stones. No wonder the ancients revered verbena so highly.

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(1) Khan AW, Khan AU, Ahmed T. Anticonvulsant, Anxiolytic, and Sedative Activities of Verbena officinalis. Front Pharmacol. 2016;7:499. Published 2016 Dec 21. doi:10.3389/fphar.2016.00499


(2) Viljoen A, Mncwangi N, Vermaak I. Anti-inflammatory iridoids of botanical origin. Curr Med Chem. 2012;19(14):2104-2127. doi:10.2174/092986712800229005.

(3) Lai SW, Yu MS, Yuen WH, Chang RC. Novel neuroprotective effects of the aqueous extracts from Verbena officinalis Linn. Neuropharmacology. 2006 May;50(6):641-50. doi: 10.1016/j.neuropharm.2005.11.009. Epub 2006 Jan 6. PMID: 16406021.