Friday, April 24, 2009

Verbena of the Desert: Bittersweet Medicine

By late April in the Sonoran desert many of the spring wildflowers are fading from view as the temperatures begin to soar into the 90’s and any spring rains taper off to a early summer dry spell that lasts until the monsoon rains in July. The once abundant anemone has passed, leaving no trace of its ephemeral existence, spring green grasses are fading to crunchy brown, and trees are leafed out. A foray to one of my favorite plant collecting spots clearly shows the progression of the seasons. The desert plantain finally popped up and went to seed already, and I munch a few of the slimy seedy fruits that taste a bit like a bitter artichoke. A nice trail nibble indeed. Green Manzanita berries are beginning to blush reddish brown, and the local Artemisia is growing taller. The grapevines are finally leafing out with tender fuzzy grape leaves, and the tiniest beginnings of the vine flowers which hold promise of wild grapes come late summer.

I love the diversity and constant shifting of this remarkable desert climate, the mountains and canyons, the valleys and arroyos are always changing, the plants bloom and fruit at different times. The late spring is a good time for harvesting some of the last spring flowers, this week I was blessed with a bounty of Verbena. There are several different species of Verbena that grow in our region, V. goodingii, v. macdougalii, and v. bipinnatifida, and they all interbreed and hybridize. They are all similar in medicinal qualities, and I use them all. I still call it verbena, even though the botanists have reclassified it as Glandularia. There are certain differences in our verbena/glandularia species from the vervains of the east and Europe, but in my experience enough similarities in uses, that I use them interchangeably. Seeing how these grow here in my large desert backyard, I use this one most often.

These verbenas can be found in riparian habitats at almost any elevation, as long as they have water. I’ve harvested plants from the washes in the low desert valley, all the way up to the top of the mountains in recent burn areas on moist northern slopes. This makes it a very handy plant, able to be collected all spring and summer long at various elevations. The lower plants tend to dry up and wither away in early summer, just as the ones living in higher elevations are starting to flower.

As I wandered up the hillside from the wash, I recalled seeing several of the verbena plants by certain trees when I had been looking for anemone several weeks ago. I found those plants and gratefully harvested a few flowering branches. As I wandered the flowering verbena beckoned me onward and upward, every time I moved toward another plant, one just above me would reveal itself. I continued up the hillside, astounded by the quantity of the flowers all around. It was growing interspersed with cat claw acacia, crumbling granitic boulders, and in the wash running down the hillside. In the late afternoon sun, I sat on a boulder, next to a lush flowering verbena, grateful for the wind to cool the sweat on my back, the open view of my favorite riparian valley from above, and the call of the hawks screaming above. Much as verbena does, the collecting mission warmed me, released fluid (sweat) and relaxed the tension of the day held in tight shoulder and back muscles.

My desert Verbena is one of the most versatile medicines I use, and I can apply this sweet flowering plant to almost any situation with great benefit. Energetically it is mildly warm to neutral in temperature, and dry. It is a strong relaxant and seems to affect a variety of tissues in the body, but most specifically nervous, mucous membrane, musculoskeletal, secretory and vascular tissues. Verbena is diffusive, diaphoretic/diuretic, bitter, nervine, antispasmodic, tonic, astringent and emetic in large quantities.

I use both the fresh plant tincture and the tea of our desert verbena. The fresh plant tincture has a funny habit of sort of “gelling” up and getting a bit congealed in the bottle. It doesn’t seem to affect its properties in tincture form, but getting people to accept a strange textured tincture is a hard sell, at best. For that reason I’ve come to rely on the tea more often, but I do use the gloppy tincture most often combined with other tinctures which seems to help the glop dissipate into solution.

A warm/hot tea of the leaves and flowers is relaxant diaphoretic, useful in hot, dry and tense fever. It will induce a good sweat by relaxing tension in the capillaries and secretory tissues, allowing heat to disperse from the core to the surface. Though not specifically anti-infective, I use verbena all the time when coming down with a bug precisely for its relaxing diaphoretic property. Taken cold, or a tincture will alternatively increase diuresis. Somewhat useful for the monthly bloating that accompanies tension and crankiness during the premenstrual period.

I particularly like using verbena for cranky time during PMS, especially for women who are driven to push themselves further than they should, and hold tension in the neck/shoulders, verbena can help them to relax, slow down, release the tension and ease the irritability. This works for men too, of the same type, disregarding the PMS in that case.

I’ve used a tea of verbena to aid new mothers having trouble with nursing and producing milk. Verbena is a mild galactagouge, increases the secretion of fluids (including breast milk) and helps release tension in the upper thoracic area ( right there where the breasts are!), and helps mom to settle down enough to really be with her babe and focus on nursing. I find the tea much better in this case than the tincture, as some of these women really just need to slow down and focus, and the act of making tea feeds that process.

Verbena is also an excellent digestive system remedy for those whose stress levels have impaired their digestion. Verbena is a bitter, and increases digestive secretions all along the digestive tract, and helps to release tension the liver, stomach and bowel. I also use the tea for a ‘nervous” stomach, butterflies, nausea, gas, or general discomfort stemming from nervous tension, usually before giving a public talk, getting on a plane for long distance travel or any other situation that ties your stomach up in knots from the nerves.

I love the contrast of this plant with its amazingly sweet smelling fragrant flowers and the bitter leaves, teaching us about the balance of the sweet and the bitter in life. I love how easy and abundant her healing is, and her versatility, able to be used in many different situations with great, gentle and lasting healing.


Sarah Head said...

Lovely article, Darcey, thank you! I use vervain a great deal for adrenal support and teach about its qualities for "letting go" when people are keeping on keeping on. It's great to see how the native plants in different parts of the world have similar properties.

Anonymous said...

Great article Darcey. Thank you for sharing. I so rely on Motherwort and Linden. Perhaps I should meet this lovely ally. :)

"The mother of us all, the oldest of us all, Hard, splendid as rock, Let the beauty you love, be what you do. There are a thousand ways to kneel and kiss the earth"~ Rumi ~