The seven invincible herbs

“There are seven herbs that nothing natural or supernatural can injure; they are vervain, John’s-wort, speedwell, eyebright, mallow, yarrow, and self-heal. But they must be pulled at noon on a bright day, near the full of the moon, to have full power.”  -ANCIENT LEGENDS, MYSTIC CHARMS, AND SUPERSTITIONS OF IRELAND WITH SKETCHES OF THE IRISH PAST – Jane Wilde  [1887]

Theses invincible herbs are not just hardy herbs, it’s not just that they can’t be injured, it’s that we can acquire their strength and that same resilience. Yes they can supply us with fortitude and vigour, with health and power – even full power.

Ok we must pull them at a certain time to enhance the magic but it is the action of harvesting, the taking them into our lives as a talisman or living amulets that lets us inherit the power. The adoption of nature as the power to ward off evil, bad luck or illness; well that’s old school, the oldest of school and the deepest lesson.

This whole process of gathering a plant or a portion of nature to strengthen your nature against natural and even supernatural complications is a very ancient almost mystical participation or symbolic magic at play. It’s not a leap of faith it’s a leap into faith, to alter your fate and shape your future and your present. The plant or the part contains the good medicine. Getting it is acquiring it. The doing is your becoming.

Sometimes these plants  were carried around for their good luck, other times they were  ingested or rubbed in,  to heal. And when it comes to it, it is not just a vibration of power, not just a ritualistic hit and hope but actual medicine. The charm or placebo artefact as important as the potion in allowing the space to enter health.

And these seven invincibles, as noted by Jane Wilde in her journey into the ancient knowledge and ethnography of Ireland, had formed the backbone of Irish ethnobotanical medicine for centuries if not millennia. The invincibles surviving even the destruction of the liaag (the old medicinal order) and the arrival of Christian prayer and English chemists.

While today, almost forgotten or least neglected by the masses they are still strong in the cannon of contemporary Irish herbalists and well worth growing yourself for their beauty as much as their power.

Here is a little taste of what they do;

Vervain (Verbena officinalis) takes its name from Old Gaelic: Fer- to remove & Faen- stone – it has history of use in removing bladder stones and urinary gravel. On the spiritual side in the removal of obstacles in life too. It can be utilized in the forms of tincture or infusion or as a flower essence. It has sedative and calming properties, good for headaches, beneficial to pleurisy, helpful for stress, eczema and psoriasis, insomnia and a range of nerve related conditions. Can also be gargled for sore throats and used as a soothing eye wash for inflamed eyes. It grows best on well drained soils in full sun. It can be container grown but makes a wonderful addition to a wildflower meadow mix.

John’s-wort aka Saint John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum) once a most notable herbal medicine to remedy mild depression and general anxiety and much considered to become a drug co-opted into mass market pharmacology but banned in Ireland and some European regions due its potential to cause a photosensitivity (more likely to sunburn) in some of its users.  Banned as medicine but still sometimes sold as a garden plant and found wild.

Herbalist have always availed of it in tincture, tea, oil and salves to remedy uterine cramp, anemia, jaundice, head and stomach aches, back pain, spinal and joint conditions as well as neuralgia, tingling feet or hands, sciatica and coccyx.  It likes a fertile, moist but well-drained site, in sun or partial shade. Division in spring and autumn; greenwood cuttings in summer.

Speedwell (Veronica officinalis) may just speed wellness. Plants with officinalis in their tittle have an official seal of approval as it were, as a bona fide herb. It was once an official herb for scurvy, small pox and measles. Speedwell has diaphoretic (sweat promoting), diuretic (pee promoting), expectorant (mucus clearing) and tonic properties; making it useful for colds and flu. In some counties it was as favoured as yarrow in the treatment of wounds and skin complaints. Employed in tea, tincture, poultice and salve. Speedwell grows best in full sun or partial shade. It’s not fussy about soil fertility but doesn’t like soggy roots. Looks as well in the wildflower patch as in the herb garden or included into borders with more ornamental veronicas.

Eyebright (Euphrasia officinalis) is an annual grassland parasite, so its best chance is in a meadow area. Which doesn’t need to be an acre, it can be a modified raised bed – one filled with all of these invincible plants and other favourites.  Traditionally the herb was utilized as an eyewash for sties, inflammations, cataracts and red eye – hence its ‘eye bright’ common name – but served up as a cooled tea it is also good  for mouth and throat infections and inflammations.

Mallow (Malva sylvestris) is often considered a weed and can be the bane of some gardener’s lives. It used to torment me until I discovered its usefulness. Now I leave it as a perennial in the border. The botanical name Malva originates from the Greek word “malaxos”, meaning slimy, or ‘to soften’ and its demulcent and emollient  properties have seen it employed in skin car and to soften a cough, to ease constipation and treat bronchial ailments. Its anti-inflammatory actions are very effective with the mucous membrane in the mouth and throat and also soothing to the  stomach and intestines. It also has many edible uses.

Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) can be cultivated as herb or an ornamental plant. It favours dry sites and malnourished soils. Know the world over as a wound cleanser and skin healer being associated with the Greek hero Achilles who utilized it to treat his army’s wounds. Yarrow traditionally was also utilized to improve pelvic circulation when drunk in tea and when used as a wash for vaginal discharge. Traditionally Yarrow is also a safe and effective remedy for a host of childhood conditions; colds and fevers, runny noses, catarrh, sinusitis to diarrhoea, poor digestion and colic. Millefolium indicates a million flowers but its flowering tops and foliage have nearly a million herbal uses.

Selfheal (Prunella vulgaris) is often to found in a lawn but can be transplanted to a border or container and allowed to flourish. With ‘heal’ in the title it clearly does some good.  Early herbals note it as a dissolver of clotted blood and congestions of the liver. It is most often used as antibacterial wash for cuts and scrapes and as a gargle for sore throats. Turned into ointments for haemorrhoids and varicose veins, poultices for sprains, tea for fever and tiredness and cooled decoctions to rinse the mouth in the case of ulcers or sunburnt lips. It might just be the gardeners one stop pharmacy. Prefers chalky and poorly drained soils but is opportunistic.

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