#93 Verbena



When most of us think of verbena, we tend to think of the brightly colored, circular crowns of flowers we buy in hanging baskets or tuck into pots of annuals in the patio, such as Homestead Purple or the bright magenta “Sissinghurst” verbena pictured above.[1] However, these are fairly recent cultivars of in the family Verbrnaceae which contains about 250 species, all of which are made up of small tubular flowers in shades ranging from white to pink to deep purple (Hogan 1460). Two particular varieties of verbena were probably more familiar to Virginia Woolf. Verbena officinalis, aka vervain, is the only species that grows wild in Europe.  In his book on wildflowers in British literature, Randall says it is “often found on the wayside in dry lanes” and calls its appearance insignificant: “The spreading wiry branches bear light-purple flowers in long spikes, which are too small to attract much attention”  (315).


Verbena officinalis

The widespread use of vervain goes back to Persian times when, according to Folkard’s encyclopedia of plant lore, it was carried during various religious ceremonies; the Greeks also revered it, calling it “the Sacred Herb” (290). In Roman times, it was widely used as an altar decoration, and so many medical uses were attributed to “apothecary verbena” that the name became generic for any healing herb (Ward 258; Randall 315). Virgil refers to it in the 12th Book of the Aeneid where an enchantress calls for it to be strewn on the ground around an altar (Rendall 315; Folkard 290). 


In British literature before the nineteenth century all references to verbena are to vervain and tend to attribute various healing or calming qualities to its juices (Ward 358). Rendall and Ward both mention Beaumont and Fletcher’s 1609 play, The Faithful Shepherdess, where vervain “makes guest merry” and so “every post, and every bough” is sprinkled “With the well-pleasing juice” (Rendall 316; Ward 360), as well as Sterne’s Trstram Shandy where Uncle Toby “moderates his passions by taking an infusion of vervain,” a cure that Rendall suggests “was borrowed from Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, where it is offered as a remedy ‘to cool the blood’” (Ward 360; Rendall 316).


            By the later eighteenth century, South American varieties of verbena had been introduced into Europe and the process of inter-breeding for brighter flowers began. One of the first species to be imported by the Spanish and the Portuguese as early as the seventeenth century was Aloysia citrodora,  popularly known as lemon verbena which, according to the Wikipedia entry, was cultivated for its citrus-scented oil.[2] Shaped something like V. officinalis with spires of inconspicuous light purple flowers, it bears “glossy, pointed leaves [that] are slightly rough to the touch and emit a strong lemon scent when bruised” (Wikipedia). 




Being native to South America, it is sensitive to cold and grows well only in tropical locations or when over-wintered as a houseplant. In the October chapter of her Garden Book, Vita Sackville-West mentions lemon verbena as a potted plant which must be brought inside to be over-wintered:  “those pots of the lemon-scented verbena, standing about in a casual way round our front doors or in odd corners of the garden, where you can tweak a leaf off and put it in your pocket or your buttonhole each morning” (191).


            Lemon verbena makes its appearance in nineteenth century British literary twice in Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh (1856).  In Book II there is a passing reference to “verbena [that] strains/The point of passionate fragrance” (II. 46-7; quoted by Ward 361). A longer reference in Book VIII, links verbena’s potent odor with the power of women’s speech when her eventual suitor Romney Leigh feels her influence:

For none of all your words will let me go;
Like sweet verbena which, being brushed against,
Will hold us three hours after by the smell
In spite of long walks upon windy hills.  (8. 439-41)[3]


            Virginia Woolf never mentions vervain (as far as I can tell). Two of the three appearances of “verbena” in her writing (once in an essay and twice in fiction) allude to its powerful scent, suggesting that she is probably referring to lemon verbena.  In both “Reading” (1919) and Jacob’s Room (1922) a verbena leaf is crushed and its smell appreciated in a landscape that is redolent of the semi-tropical climate of Cornwall.   In the essay, set on a hot summer morning, the writer first gazes out the window over the tennis lawn and escallonia hedges to the view of the sea (E3 141) and then moves outside to a space under some elm trees to appreciate the view through the green, noticing that “There’s a sweeter air outside—how spicy, even on a still day, after the house!—and bushes of verbena and southernwood yield a leaf as one passes to be crushed and smelt” (E3 145).


        The Cornish home of the Durrants in Jacob Room has similar resonances of both Talland House in St. Ives and the seaside summer home of the Ramsays in To the Lighthouse.  In a landscape including pampas grass, passion flowers, tobacco plants, and a view of the sea seen through escallonia hedges (56-7), Clara Durrant joins her mother who is walking on the terrace in the twilight: "’Oh, mother! I didn't recognize you!’ exclaimed Clara Durrant, coming from the opposite direction with Elsbeth. ‘How delicious,’ she breathed, crushing a verbena leaf “(JR 59).


        Woolf’s third reference to verbena, in a passage spoken by Neville in Chapter VII of The Waves, returns to the act of reading. His long meditation on the “patience and infinite care” needed to read a difficult poem, evokes a text marred by memory: “The page is often corrupt and mud-stained, and torn and stuck together with faded leaves, with scraps of verbena or geranium” (145).  Although there is no mention of scent, the verbena is saved along with scraps of geranium, which is also often sweet-smelling and associated at least in To the Lighthouse with a potentially Cornish location.[4]


Appearing in 1919, 1922, and 1931, Woolf’s three references to verbena all seem to conjure some deep memory of the lemon smell that arises from crushing a leaf, a “passionate fragrance” closed up in the book of the past that can be opened up and read in spite of the passage of time.




[1] This flower was not bred by Vita Sackville-West but by the pair of women she hired to be head-gardeners at Sissinghurst in 1959, Pamela Schwerdt and Sibylle Kreutzberger.  A marvelous article on these two was published in The New York Times in 1991:

https://www.nytimes.com/1991/03/07/garden/for-one-garden-decades-of-devotion.html : Accessed July 18, 2022.


[3] See Marissa Knox’s brilliant article on Aurora Leigh and the role scent plays in the poem; although Woolf is never mentioned, the article provides a very helpful reading of the conflict between marriage and artistic identity that clarifies why the poem was so important to Woolf.


[4] See my herbarium entry on Geraniums: https://woolfherbarium.blogspot.com/p/geranium.html  Accessed 7/20,2022.

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Welcome to the Virginia Woolf Herbarium.  For many years I have been researching and writing about Virginia Woolf and parks, gardens, and fl...