Wild Flowers of Pittsburgh

Blue Vervain (Verbena hastata)

Also called Swamp Vervain, but it certainly does not require a swamp. It seems to be happy in open fields and construction sites, wherever land has been cleared and left alone for a year or so. This one was growing in a fallow field by a back road near Export, where it was blooming in the middle of July.

Gray describes the genus and the species:

VERBENA [Tourn.] L. VERVAIN. Calyx 5-toothed, one of the teeth often shorter than the others. Corolla tubular, often curved, salver-form; the border somewhat unequally 5-cleft. Stamens included, the upper pair occasionally without anthers. Style slender; stigma mostly 2-lobed. — Flowers sessile, in single or often panicled spikes, bracted, produced all summer. (The Latin name for any sacred herb; derivation obscure.) — The species present numerous spontaneous hybrids.

§ 1. Anthers not appendaged; flowers small, in slender spikes.

Spikes thicker or densely flowered; the fruits crowded, mostly overlapping one another; bracts inconspicuous, not exceeding the flowers; perennial.

V. hastàta L. (blue V.) Tall (0.5-2 m. high); leaves lanceolate or oblong-lanceolate, taper-pointed, cut-serrate, petioled, the lower often lobed and sometimes halberd-shaped at base; spikes linear, erect, corymbed or panicled; flowers violet-blue (rarely pink or white). —Damp grounds, etc.

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In How to Know the Wild Flowers (1909), Mrs. Dana gives us this description, along with some lore that applies more properly to the European Vervain (V. officinalis):

BLUE VERVAIN. SIMPLER’S JOY.

Verbena hastata. Vervain Family.

Four to six feet high. Leaves.—Opposite; somewhat lance-shaped; the lower often lobed and sometimes halberd-shaped at base. Flowers.—Purple; small; in slender erect spikes. Calyx.—Five-toothed. Corolla.— Tubular, somewhat unequally five-cleft. Stamens.—Four; in pairs. Pistil.—One.

Along the roadsides in midsummer we notice these slender purple spikes, the appearance of which would be vastly improved if the tiny blossoms would only consent to open simultaneously.

In earlier times the vervain was beset with classic associations. It was claimed as the plant which Virgil and other poets mention as being used for altar-decorations and for the garlands of sacrificial beasts. It was believed to be the herba saeraof the ancients, until it was understood that the generic title Verbena was a word which was applied to branches of any description which were used in religious rites. It certainly seems, however, to have been applied to some special plant in the time of Pliny, for he writes that no plant was more honored among the Romans than the sacred Verbena. In more modern times as well the vervain has been regarded as an ” herb of grace,” and has been gathered with various ceremonies and with the invocation of a blessing, which began as follows:

” Hallowed be thou, Vervain,
As thou growest on the ground,
For in the Mount of Calvary
There thou wast first found.”

It was then supposed to be endued with especial virtue, and was worn on the person to avert disaster.

The time-honored title of simpler’s joy arose from the remuneration which this popular plant brought to the “simplers”—as the gatherers of medicinal herbs were entitled.

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In his Field Book of American Wild Flowers (1912), F.Schuyler Mathews seems to appreciate the aesthetic quality of this species more than Mrs. Dana does, though as an artist with a very precise notion of colors he objects to the description of the flowers as “blue”:

One of the handsomest yet commonest members of the genus. The stem erect, stout, four-sided and grooved, roughish. The short-stemmed leaves lance-shaped or oblong lance-shaped, acutely incised with double teeth, and with a rough surface; the lower leaves are more or less three-lobed. The flower-spikes are numerous and branch upward like the arms of a candelabra; the flowers bloom from the foot of the cluster upward, a few at a time, leaving behind a long line of purpletinged calyx; the tiny blossoms are deep purple or violet—either one hue or the other. The flowers never approach blue or any hue allied to it, so the common name is misleading. Verbena hastata is a special favorite of the bumblebee, and it is also closely attended by the honeybee and the bees of the genus Halictus. The smaller butterflies are also occasional visitors, among them the white Pieris protodice. 3-7 feet high. In fields everywhere. Rare in central N. H.

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  1. Pingback: Blue Vervain (Verbena hastata) | Flora Pittsburghensis

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