This section is from the book "Nature's Garden", by Neltje Blanchan. Also available from Amazon: Nature's Garden; An Aid To Knowledge Of Our Wild Flowers And Their Insect Visitors.
Flowers - Very small, purplish blue, in numerous slender, erect, compact spikes. Calyx 5-toothed; corolla tubular, unequally 5-lobed; 2 pairs of stamens; 1 pistil. Stem: 3 to 7 ft. high, rough, branched above, leafy, 4-sided. Leaves: Opposite, stemmed, lance-shaped, saw-edged, rough; lower ones lobed at base.
Preferred Habitat - Moist meadows, roadsides, waste places.
Flowering Season - June - September.
Distribution - United States and Canada in almost every part.
Seeds below, a circle of insignificant purple-blue flowers in the centre, and buds at the top of the vervain's slender spires do not produce a striking effect, yet this common plant certainly does not lack beauty. John Burroughs, ever ready to say a kindly, appreciative word for any weed, speaks of its drooping, knotted threads, that "make a pretty etching upon the winter snow." Bees, the vervain's benefactors, are usually seen clinging to the blooming spikes, and apparently sleep on them. Borrowing the name of simpler's joy from its European sister, the flower has also appropriated much of the tradition and folk-lore centred about that plant which herb-gatherers, or simplers, truly delighted to see, since none was once more salable.
European Vervain (V. officinalis) Herb-of-the-Cross, Berbine, Holy-herb, Enchanter's Plant, Juno's Tears, Pigeon-grass, Lightning Plant, Simpler's Joy, and so on through a long list of popular names for the most part testifying to the plant's virtue as a love-philter, bridal token, and general cure-all, has now become naturalized from the Old World on the Atlantic and Pacific Slopes, and is rapidly appropriating waste and cultivated ground until, in many places, it is truly troublesome. In general habit like the blue vervain, its flowers are more purplish than blue, and are scattered, not crowded, along the spikes. The leaves are deeply, but less acutely, cut.
Blue Vervain Or Wild Hyssop. (Verbena hastate.)
Ages before Christians ascribed healing virtues to the vervain - found growing on Mount Calvary, and therefore possessing every sort of miraculous power, according to the logic of simple peasant folk - the Druids had counted it among their sacred plants. "When the dog-star arose from unsunned spots " the priests gathered it. Did not Shakespeare's witches learn some of their uncanny rites from these reverend men of old? One is impressed with the striking similarity of many customs recorded of both. Two of the most frequently used ingredients in witches' cauldrons were the vervain and the rue. "The former probably derived its notoriety from the fact of its being sacred to Thor, an honor which marked it out, like other lightning plants, as peculiarly adapted for occult uses," says Mr. Thiselton Dyer in his "Folk-lore of Plants." "Although vervain, therefore, as the enchanter's plant, was gathered by witches to do mischief in their incantations, yet, as Aubrey says, it 'hinders witches from their will,' a circumstance to which Drayton further refers when he speaks of the vervain as "gainst witchcraft much avayling." Now we understand why the children of Shakespeare's time hung vervain and dill with a horseshoe over the door.
In his eighth Eclogue, Virgil refers to vervain as a charm to recover lost love. Doubtless this was the verbena, the herba sacra employed in ancient Roman sacrifices, according to Pliny. In his day the bridal wreath was of verbena, gathered by the bride herself.
Narrow-leaved Vervain (V. angnslifolia), like the blue vervain, has a densely crowded spike of tiny purple or blue flowers that quickly give place to seeds, but usually there is only one spike at the end of a branch. The, leaves are narrow, lance-shaped, acute, saw-edged, rough. From Massachusetts and Florida westward to Minnesota and Arkansas one finds the plant blooming in dry fields from June to August, after the parsimonious manner of the vervain tribe.
It is curious that the vervain, or verbena, employed by brides for centuries as the emblem of chastity, should be one of the notorious botanical examples of a wilful hybrid. Generally, the individuals of distinct species do not interbreed; but verbenas are often difficult to name correctly in every case because of their susceptibility to each other's pollen - the reason why the garden verbena may so easily be made to blossom forth into whatever hue the gardener wills. His plants have been obtained, for the most part, from the large-flowered verbena, the beautiful purple, blue, or white species of our Western States (V. Canadensis) crossed with brilliant-hued species imported from South America.