Wednesday, 6 June 2012

The forgotten few – Speedwell

Each spring and early summer I am drawn to the carpet of speedwell on my parents' lawn, the stunningly blue flowers shining so brightly in warm sunshine. The variety of speedwell I know is veronica chamaedrys or germander speedwell (not to be confused with wall germander, teucrium chamaedrys, the gout herb).

Maud Grieve says that Germander was a corruption of the Latin chamaedrys which came from the Greek words, chami meaning ground and drus meaning oak. Gerard commented, 'The Germander from the form of the leaves like unto small oak leaves, has the name chamaedrys given it, which signifieth a dwarf oak'.

Germander speedwell is the commonest British species of Speedwell found everywhere, flowering in spring and early summer. I've certainly seen it growing wild in Warwickshire, Gloucestershire, Devon and Cornwall over the past month.

There are fourteen other varieties of speedwell in the UK according to Maud Grieve. The most well known is common speedwell, V.offinialis but there are also Buxbaum's Speedwell ( V. Buxbaumii ), V. Serpyllifolia (Thyme-leaved Speedwell); the Marsh Speedwell (V. scutellata); the Ivy-leaved Speedwell (V. hederifolia); the Procumbent Speedwell (V. agrestis); and the Wall Speedwell (V. arvensis).

Maud Grieve says Buxbaum's Speedwell is “a plant of cultivation, springing up in gardens and fields never far from human society and influence.” Although it is found throughout England and Southern Scotland, it prefers southern climes and she thinks it was probably introduced from elsewhere.


The Spiked Speedwell (V. spicata) is rare. The Rock Veronica (V. saxatilis), has few flowers and is found mainly in the highlands of Scotland. Three other extremely rare species are V. verna (Vernal Speedwell), V. alpina (Alpine Speedwell) and V. triphyllos (The Finger Speedwell).
The germander speedwell benefits from both cross and self fertilization. Maud Grieve describes how the drone fly is responsible for cross pollination. “On either side of the big, double, top petal, a little stamen stretches outward like a horn. When an insect approaches, it grasps the stamens with its front legs and they are thus drawn forwards and onwards, so that they dust the under-side of the insect with their pollen. He steadies himself for a moment, probing the flower for the nectar round the ovary and then flies away.”
Both germander and common speedwell were used in folk medicine. Studies of plant uses in Scotland noted that common germander was one of the plants used for general ailments as a tea. Maud Grieve says “Old writers of all countries speak highly of the virtues of the Speedwell as a vulnerary, a purifier of the blood, and a remedy in various skin diseases, ... It was also believed to cure smallpox and measles, and to be a panacea for many ills.”
Gerard recommended it for cancer, 'given in good broth of a hen,' and advocated the use of the root as a specific against pestilential fevers.
In 1887, Lady Francesca Speranza wrote, “There are seven herbs that nothing natural or supernatural can injure; they are vervain, John's-wort, speedwell, eyebright, mallow, yarrow, and self-help. But they must be pulled at noon on a bright day, near the full of the moon, to have full power”
Maud Grieve writes “Among the Welsh peasantry, great virtues are attributed to the Speedwell. The plant has diaphoretic, alterative, diuretic, expectorant and tonic properties, and was formerly employed in pectoral and nephritic complaints, haemorrhages, diseases of the skin and in the treatment of wounds.”
MatthewWood has also researched the use of common speedwell. His earliest quote comes from Salmon writing in 1710, who says, “Speedwell is commended by Crato as specifick in the colick” recommending that speedwell be made into a clyster (enema) using a decoction of speedwell with sugar as this was found to be more effective than any other medicinal form.
Fernie, writing two hundred years later, says that “It has long been held famous amongst country folk as an excellent plant for coughs, asthma and pulmonary consumption. The leaves are bitter with a rough [astringent] taste and a decoction of the whole plant stimulates the kidneys.”
This mention of kidney stimulation reminded me of a time when I was giving healing to a colleague. I had no idea what condition he was suffering from before the healing session apart from a back problem. After settling him in a chair in the lounge, I went in search of some music on CD and was drawn to some blue quartz crystals from my altar. I rarely use crystals when healing, but something told me to use these with my friend, so I placed them on a table close to him. When the session was over, he told me his back problem had originated with issues with his kidneys. When I checked what blue quartz was useful for, it was for kidneys.
I suppose if you consider that the main function of the kidneys is fluid regulation within the body and water is associated with blue when the sun shines, then speedwell's blue flowers could be seen as a sign of their positive effect on the kidneys.
Fernie also talked about the infusion of speedwell promoting perspiration and feverishness, while the juice could be boiled with honey to make a syrup for asthma and catarrgh. He noted that an external application of the infusion could cure “the itch” and that some herbalists believed that drinking the tea every day could cure sterility.
When Matthew Wood was researching speedwell, he found that its use had almost completely dropped from modern Western herbal materia medica. He did find two herbalists who had written about it, the American, Ben Charles Harris in 1972 and Harald Tietze, an Australian herbalist in 1996.
Harris gathered it as a culinary substitute for watercress in salads. He described its action as “solvent-eliminator” acting on stones, toxins and mucous. He felt it was also useful in cases where throats were irritated or for respiratory organs. He also used it to remove hardened mucus in coughs, bronchitis and asthma.
Tietze had a completely different set of uses for speedwell. He used it for skin conditions, saying “The fresh plant juice has proved itself best for disorders of the skin.” He used the tincture rubbed into skin for conditions of rheumatism and gout. He recommended that “unlike other herbs which are taken in the morning, speedwell should be taken in the evening to calm the nerves and give a peaceful sleep.”
MariaTrebens, the Austrian Herbalist writing in 1984 recommends speedwell for “nervousness caused by mental exhaustion” which made Lucinda Warner wonder whether this was due to the presence of glycoside, scutellarin, which is named after the herb, scullcap. Scullcap, both the native and Virginian varieties, is an exceptionally useful nervine for anyone experiencing the “screaming habdabs”.
For such a beautiful flowering plant with such a wealth of historical uses, it is sad speedwell has fallen out of favour with most modern western herbalists. Lucinda Warner (who will be speaking at this year's Springfield Sanctuary Festival in September) is the only person I know of who has recently taken the time to experiment with speedwell.
After drinking a cup of speedwell tea Lucinda wrote, “The first sip had an immediate mental clearing effect and I felt soothed but not sedated, the effect being both relaxing and clarifying. I became very aware of the area around my head and I felt my meditative abilities heighten and my third eye and crown chakras open. My breathing deepened and I felt both more grounded and more connected. The key things that came through for me were mental clarity and sense of peacefulness.
This subtle medicine from the plant working on both mind and body led Lucinda to make a flower essence with her local speedwell, V. filiformis or slender speedwell. After taking the remedy she reported, “Both the colour of the flower and the signature of the central white and gold eye, seem to confirm my original feeling that this was a remedy which resonates with the third eye and crown chakras. I’ve only been taking the remedy a few days now but my initial feelings are that this is a flower to help us in seeing deeply, being conscious and aware and deepening our meditation.” 


This positive experience makes me want to know speedwell at a deeper level, something I plan to make time for in the near future.


5 comments:

whisperingearth said...

What a fascinating post Sarah! I loved the quote about the 7 herbs that nothing can injure, many of my favourites are in that list. :)
Thanks so much for including my ramblings. I will bring you a bottle of the flower essence to test when I come in September if you would like. xx

Sarah Head said...

Yes please, Lucinda. Glad you like the post:)

Carol Warham said...

Really interesting post Sarah. It is amazing to read so much about Speedwell. I think it could have been well used recently with this nasty phlegm creating virus that has gone around. I love the idea of calming the 'screaming habdabs' we could all do with that at times!

thesunroseandthewindblue said...

You mentioned that veronica spicata is rare in your country but it's quite commonly sold for flower gardens around here. Would the herbal uses be the same for Spicata as for Germander?

Sarah Head said...

Ilene, I would check with your local herbal community to see if any have used it. You could also try some experiments with a hot tea and see what attributes you can find.