September 23 2021
Herbalism has long been associated with witches. I do feel a little bit witchy when I am making some herbal concoction. Ironically, our word pharmacy, the place we go to buy drugs (legally!) comes from the Greek word pharmakeia or pharmakon which had connotations of not only drugs, but magic, sorcery, witchcraft, and enchantment-either a medicine or a poison, depending on how it’s used. Early herbalists mixed in pagan rites and rituals which came to be condemned by the Christian church and in Medieval Europe ‘witches’ made a flying ointment and one 1324 inquisitor said she “greased a staff”, such is the stuff of legends-witches' brooms! You might want to take into account that these ointments were sometimes made from hallucinogenic plants-they were sort of flying! There is a long history going back to ancient shamans using plants to communicate with the gods. About 1200 AD medicine was beginning to be regulated and women were banned from medical training at the universities. Those who continued to practice medicine were labeled as witches. Of course, herbs were also used by medicine men, shamans, curanderos who were not so much persecuted.
One such sacred herb is Blue Vervain-you can buy seeds for this plant and it grows wild in moist places-it is growing along the creek on our farm. It is a native plant to America, though perhaps not to Montana as it is not in any of my field guides. Also called Wild Verbena, it has been used in sacred rites all over the world, from the ancient Egyptians, to Druids and Scandinavian worshippers of Thor. The Greeks and Romans used it to purify temples, Aztecs and Native Americans used it medicinally and Christians used it to treat Christ’s wounds on the cross. Later, in the Middle Ages it was used by magicians and witches in potions for protection from harm. Indeed, the genus name is Latin from ‘herba bona’ the good herb or holy plant. Blue vervain is used for anxiety and is a mild sedative. I read that it can interfere with blood pressure meds, hormone therapy, and may cause uterine contractions. Clearly not an herb to be taken without sufficient knowledge. Also, the seeds need cold to break dormancy to plant them in the fall.
It boggles my mind to think how people the world over were familiar with this herb and used it in similar ways for thousands of years. It is magic indeed. And it’s just one more way all people are connected-this plant crosses cultural barriers. And like so many other plants, it ties us to nature-where we belong.
Blue Vervain, Verbena hastata, Verbena officinalis, also called Wild Verbena, Simpler’s Joy, Enchanter’s Plant, Altar Plant