Flowers of Vervain, Ma Bian Cao (Chinese) - Verbena Officinalis (Verbenaceae)

Medicinal Use of Vervain, Ma Bian Cao (Chinese) – Verbena Officinalis (Verbenaceae)

Vervain has long been credited with magical properties and was used in ceremonies by the Druids of ancient Britain and Gaul. It is a traditional herbal medicine in both China and Europe. Dioscorides in the 1st century CE called vervain the “sacred herb,” and for many centuries it was taken as a cure-all. It has tonic, restorative properties, and is used to relieve stress and anxiety and to improve digestive function.

Habitat & Cultivation

Vervain grows wild throughout much of Europe and North Africa as well as in China and Japan. It is propagated from seed in spring or autumn and thrives in well-drained soil in a sunny position. The aerial parts are harvested in summer when the plant is in flower.

Related Species

Blue vervain (V. hastata), which is native to North America, is used medicinally in the same way as vervain.

Key Constituents

  • Bitter iridoids (verbenin, verbenalin)
  • Volatile oil
  • Alkaloids
  • Triterpenes (beta-sitosterol)
  • Flavonoids

Key Actions

  • Nervine
  • Tonic
  • Mild bitter
  • Mild antidepressant


Hormonal effects: Early indications from research into vervain are that it has both estrogenic and progestogenic activity. It also stimulates the muscles of the womb, and production of breast milk.

Lack of research: For an herb with such long traditional use, surprisingly little research into vervain has occurred to date. Laboratory studies indicate that vervain has significant anti-inflammatory activity. It may also have antiviral and liver protective properties. Verbenalin, an active compound within vervain, is strongly bitter, may cause vomiting at high doses, and stimulates contraction of the womb.

Traditional & Current Uses

Digestive tonic: Vervain improves the function of the digestive system and absorption of food.

Nervous system: Vervain is prized as a restorative for the nervous system and is especially helpful for nervous tension. It is thought to have a mild antidepressant action, and is used specifically to treat anxiety and the nervous exhaustion that follows long-term stress.

Convalescence: By aiding digestion and restoring the nervous system, vervain is an ideal tonic for people recovering from chronic illness.

Headaches & migraines: Vervain alleviates headaches, and in Chinese herbal medicine it is used for migraines connected with the menstrual cycle.

Other uses: Among its other medicinal uses, vervain is given for jaundice, gallstones, asthma, insomnia, premenstrual syndrome, flu, and fevers.