To Keep Witches at the Gate

Verbena officinalis

Verbena officinalis

Ah, winter.  Log fires.  The smell of roasting chestnuts.  Tales as the wind sweeps around the house.  Foul murders.  Werewolves.  Witches.  A liqueur glass beside one.  Alas, here, amongst many, not one we once had after a most marvellous farmhouse supper in the deepest of deep France.  Verveine….  It was pale blue-green, sharp and aromatic, a perfect and effective ‘digestif’.  The farmer’s wife said it was flavoured mainly with vervain.  The plant was suddenly essential for the garden.

Of course, hot hillsides will bring out the plant’s subtlest aromas, but Verbena officinalis grows perfectly well in the less waterlogged parts of Scotland, and has been used up here for a thousand years or more.

But it was used for far more then ensuring a quiet night – indeed, it was, even recently, often grown as part of the triumvirate to keep witches at the gate.

The other two are more often seen, and someone I once knew, Wendy Wood, a famous, even infamous, Scottish patriot had rowan and rosemary planted outside her Edinburgh home. Perhaps she felt especially vulnerable to the Evil Eye, but the two can still occasionally be seen throughout Scotland planted by those who feel they might be equally susceptible.

They were all once seriously necessary. A while ago, talking to a gardener in one of the remote villages in the wildest part of the Borders, it turned out that when she was having her house reroofed, the tradesmen found, entangled in the old thatch, a dried human hand. It was almost certainly a ‘hand of glory’, a magic totem once used by thieves, and described in Frazer’s ‘The Golden Bough’.

Cut from a murdered man (or child), it was thrown over the roof of a house to bewitch the occupants into a sleep so deep that they didn’t hear the thief making off with their valuables. This one presumably didn’t make the full journey, and must have fallen into some crevasse in the thatch. The thatch itself can’t have been much more than a century old, so the magic was in use at the same time.  She had the hand replaced in the new roof.

Vervain seems to have been doing its protective duty since magic began. Though almost all of the species are North and South Americans, vervain (Verbena officinalis), grows wild from central Scotland, right through to the Himalayas. It is, together with basil, one of the herbs so ancient that it is used in religious rituals throughout its geographical range, and even gave its name to the ancient Roman festival of Verbenalis, when its long wiry stems were used to sweep out the temples of Jupiter.

In the Middle East, it was used in the ceremonies of the fire-worshiping Zoroastrians (it was Zoroaster who weaned local religions from human sacrifice, and who’s adherents were commonly gardeners – and indeed remained so into modern times). Our own Druids, too, used vervain in their rites.

However, as well as being sacred it was (and still is) medicinal, though it had some confusing properties: it kept off witches, gave victory over enemies (presumably those without it), guarded against the Evil Eye, helped anyone wanting to open locks and slide bolts silently (a thieves use?), but, if planted by the door, also attracted lovers.

However, a bride, picking it and putting it in her posie, ensures her husbands constant fidelity. It also cured scrofula, rabies (together with large numbers of other herbs which did the same), plague (as did rosemary – branches of which were burnt in British towns to keep the infection from spreading), migraines (wear a garland of it), rotting ulcers and more. But it was also used extensively by sorcerers and witches, for it was often claimed that it was the Devil who revealed its properties, not the other side.

verbenapuseyIn the modern garden, Verbena officinalis is a quietly pretty thing, leaves usually finely divided and dark green, long flower spikes with small pale mauve flowers. If it seems not to do for you, don’t worry. It’s not a spell, more like pigeon damage. One of its old names is pigeon grass, because the admiration those animals have for it. Perhaps it protects them from the gardeners evil eye.

I don’t know how far magical properties extend outwards to the other species in the genus. However, hundreds upon hundreds of front doors boast verbenas in pots on either side. Most of these are hybrids of South American species first sent to Europe in the early 19th century. They too have a Scots connection, being collected by a Scots gardener, a Mr Tweedie, who had, in 1825 and at the age of 50, left Scotland for Buenos Aires. He’d been only moderately sucessful here; in South America, his career took off. He did some important garden designs, and a great deal of collecting throughout Brazil. Among his plants were almost the first tropic verbenas, his introductions ultimately going on to produce all the subsequent bedding sorts used in Victorian gardens, and still sold in huge numbers today.

Many are lovely, easily grown if not frost-hardy, and the pigeons don’t eat them. Perhaps that’s a clue. No pigeons, no magic. And they probably wouldn’t make a decent liqueur.


About david stuart

garden writer and journalist, and occasionally a designer, with a garden in the Scottish borders, and his pal's gardens in Edinburgh, London, and Lincolnshire. They keep both of us very, very busy. Books I've written listed on my website, and dozens of articles and garden and plant pictures. Currently working on several new projects. One of these was to return to painting - see the blog - and which is proving exciting! or, more fun, have a look at
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2 Responses to To Keep Witches at the Gate

  1. Roger H. Boulet says:

    Apparently the verveine liqueur is made with Lemon Verbena (Aloysia citrodora) as is the tisane I remember drinking in the south of France 40 years ago. I think Verbena officinalis is different, is it not?

    • david stuart says:

      The average commercial liqueur is indeed made with lemon verbena (a plant which doesn’t have much to do with ‘real verbena’, though very nice to grow if you have a warm garden). As far as I know, it doesn’t either have much medicinal use, and doesn’t (i can vouch for this) stop indigestion. The one we had at the farmhouse was using Verbena officinalis, plus a bit of local artemisia, which tasted much more interesting, and after a meal dripping with butter and cream (main course was chicken with morels) kept indigestion in check! lol.

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