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Vetiver - the plant that never dies

Chrysopogan zizanoides (formerly Vetiveria zizanoides)

Common Names: KhusKhus, Vetivert, Akar Wangi

During an herbal adventure in Morocco, I was introduced to the fascinating plant known as "Vetiver". At a Women's Cooperative we visited, they were busy experimenting with the planting of vetiver on the hillsides to help prevent erosion of the soil. They were pleased with the results they had experienced so far with this tough, tenacious plant, and hoped to continue to enjoy positive effects.

Vetiver is a dense, clumping perennial grass with thick aromatic roots. It is related to lemongrass, citronella and palmarosa, and is one of the very oldest plants on earth. Vetiver is extremely adaptive and can grow in all soil types. The preferred type of vetiver is sterile, and so is non-invasive or crop encroaching. This tropical plant, hardy probably only to Zone 7 or 8, has many uses - agricutural, medicinal and decorative.

Criss Juillard, who runs a vetiver farm in Morocco, gave an engaging introduction to this seemingly inocuous grass to our group of herbalists. Extensive research has been conducted on the effectiveness of vetiver to reduce soil loss, conserve moisture, protect crops, and even in pollution control. It helps trap top soil, and is one of only a handful of plants that can grow uphill, making it invaluable as a steep bank stabilizer. In Madagascar, hedgerows of vetiver filter sediment, allowing natural terraces to be stabilized behind it. Vetiver improves soil texture and retains soil moisture prior to reforestation efforts - critical in arid or marginal areas. It has been used for wind erosion in China, and in many areas around the world to stabilize irrigation canals, riverbanks, ponds and even sea dykes against storm and flood damage. This amazing plant can even reduce the flow of heavy metals into water and reduce contamination - nitrates by 94% and phosphates by 90%. In Vietnam, floating rafts of vetiver help clean piggery effluent ponds. Is it any wonder then, that the King of Thailand has given vetiver an exalted status in his country? In Mali, it is known as "the plant that never dies" , which seems to be an exaggerated claim. But vetiver can tolerate long periods of drought or flooding, can withstand overgrazing and trampling by cattle, and can even resist fire and earthquake. Its massive root structure can extend from 3 to 9 feet in its first year of growth alone. Certainly, this is a plant to be respected and studied.

Vetiver roots are the most used part of the plant, though the chopped leaves make a good mulch. The essential oil of vetiver - a resinous oil that is deep, earthy and exotic - has been used since the time of Babylonia, and is used extensively today in the perfume industry. It is often used in haute couture perfumes; it is the bottom note in fragrances such as Coco, Miss Dior, and Opium. Vetiver takes a long time to evaporate from the skin - known as "persistence" in perfume. It is an excellent fixative in potpourris, etc. and the oil improves with age. In Aromatherapy, it was traditionally used for someone going into shock, as it is said to center and ground, as well as calm and restore. Vetiver is also anti-nematode, antibacterial and antifungal. Rats and insects do not like it, and so it is used as a repellent to keep away bugs in strawberry plantations and mice out of grain.

Additional uses for vetiver have been developed throughout time - some practical, some more whimsical. Many Asian artisans craft handbags, wall hangings, placemats, lampshades and fans out of the woven roots of vetiver. Some households use woven blinds of vetiver to cool and perfume their homes. The blinds are dipped or sprayed with water, and as the water evaporates, the temperature in the room cools and is scented with a fresh and cleansing odor. Others burn vetiver to protect the home, create harmony or to overcome black magic. Others, still, use vetiver for love spells, to break hexes or to attract money. Placing a root of vetiver in the cash drawer supposedly increases business and prevents thievery. A tea made from vetiver works wonders for hangovers, or is useful for cramps. In india, it was placed on funeral pyres as a symbol of reincarnation, perhaps as an ackowledgement of this plant's ability to transcend its environment and appear indestructible. Vetiver is a plant that seems to persist no matter what gets thrown at it, earning its name of the plant that never dies.


"Vetiver - A Miracle Herb" Jean Cozart, The Herbarist 1995

Witch Hazel

Hamemelis virginiana

From the Greek hama, at the same time and melis, fruit

Common Names: Winterbloom, Snapping Hazelnut, Spotted Alder

Witch Hazel is a very useful herb as well as a decorative landscape plant. It is native to North America, growing in rich woods and along streams – ranging from Maine south to Florida, and west to the Plains. This bush or small tree generally has several stems arising from one root, and grows about 10 – 15’ in height. The smooth bark is light brown to grey in color, with light colored circular spots. The leaves are large and ovoid, with wavy edges. One of witch hazel’s special attributes is that it flowers in the fall, creating a colorful counterpoint to the denuded landscape. The flowers, with yellow, strap-like petals, often bloom after the plant has dropped its leaves, anytime from September through November.

Another species, Hamemelis vernalis, with distinctive orange-red blossoms, is native to the Ozarks and flowers there the end of December. If grown in the north, vernal witch hazel will bloom early in the spring.  Two other note-worthy witch hazels are H. mollis (Chinese), with bright, highly fragrant flowers and H. japonica (Japanese), sporting greenish-yellow flowers. There are other cultivars with new, improved blooms, such as “Arnold’s Promise” a cross between H. mollis and H. japonica.

The witch hazel nuts ripen simultaneously as the flowers appear, thus earning the name “Hamemelis” or fruit at the same time. Shiny black seeds are contained in a hard, round seed capsule which splits open when mature. If disturbed by strong wind or animals when ripe, the seeds can be flung from the capsule with a loud, popping sound as far as 20-30 feet. This unique feature most likely gave rise to the common name “Snapping Hazelnut” and may also be why the plant has been associated with the “dark side” and witches. Forked branches of witch hazel have often been used by dowsers in search of water or precious metals, and even to seek out witches. However, the old English word “wych”, meaning pliable branches, may be the actual source of the derivation “witch” as early settlers found the branches of Hamemelis to be well-suited to the task of dowsing.

The first settlers learned about witch hazel from the Native Americans, who had used witch hazel as a medicinal plant for many different purposes, such as inflammations, dysentery, skin sores, colds and coughs. The Iroquois made a tea-like beverage from the dried leaves, sweetening it with maple syrup. The Potawatomi used it for sore muscles, making an infusion of the twigs, and then dropping hot stones in the water to create steam – a native “sauna”. In the 1840’s, Theron T. Pond of Utica, NY spent time learning of the Oneida Indians usage of the plant. He created a preparation called “Golden Treasure” in 1848, and this distilled extract is today produced in CT. by Dickinson’s and the American Distilling and Manufacturing Co. It is noteworthy in that it is one of a handful of commercial medicines prepared from a wild, American plant.

Interestingly enough, despite witch hazel’s long history and many uses, there is no agreement in the medical community as to its effectiveness. It is astringent, tonic and sedative. Due to its tannin content, it has been used a first aid for minor burns and scalds, and to soothe both sunburn and insect bites. Its astringency makes it an excellent skin refresher, and helps with minor skin blemishes, bags under the eyes, and is an ingredient in many hemorrhoid preparations. The late Euell Gibbons called it “the epitome of herbal remedy” due to the fact that it is mild and gentle, and generally safe.

An enterprising person could make the distilled extract, but it would be very time-consuming and more costly than purchasing a bottle. I’ve always had a bottle in the house, as my mother and her mother did. It’s nice to know that an herbal preparation that is so useful is still available and manufactured here in New England today.


Landscaping with Herbs                                                     James Adams

The Herb Bible                                                                      Jennie Harding

Stalking the Healthful Herbs                                             Euell Gibbons

The Herbalist                                                                        Joseph E. Meyer

Earthmagic                                                                           Corinne Martin

Herbal Renaissance                                                              Steven Foster

A Modern Herbal                                                                 Maude Grieve

The Herbal Grove                                                                 Mary Forsell


Ruta graveolens

from the Greek reuo, to set free

Common Names: Herb of Grace, Countryman’s Treacle, Bashoush, Herbygrass, Hreow, Mother of Herbs, Rewe

Rue is a special herb for me, as it reminds me of my mother. She proudly claimed that rue was the herb of Lithuania, which was her heritage. As I investigated this somewhat unassuming plant, I discovered that rue was much more significant to not only Lithuanians, but to many other peoples, and has a celebrated reputation for medicinal and magical purposes through the ages.

Rue is a hardy evergreen perennial (Zone 5). The color of its leaves – a greenish blue, with an almost grayish cast – makes it a useful ornamental plant in today’s gardens. The leaves are rounded lobes of 4-5 spoon shaped segments. If you look at a leaf, you can see that it  looks very much like the suit of clubs in playing cards, and is supposedly the inspiration for that symbol. I have found that the leaves press dry beautifully and are an excellent addition to pressed flower pictures. The small, yellow, waxy, star-shaped flowers become attractive seed pods that are long-lasting and make an exceptional decorative accent in dried arrangements. Rue enjoys a sunny but protected site in well drained poor soil.

Many herbalists from antiquity to the present have greatly appreciated this herb. Hippocrates (460 – 370 BC) commended it, and rue was the chief ingredient in one of the antidotes for poison used by King Mithridates VI (134 – 63 BC).  Pliny, the Elder (AD 23 – 79) claimed rue as beneficial in 84 remedies for various ailments, including protection from poisonous snakes. Hildegaard von Bingen (AD 1098- 1179) in her Physica offered that “the warmth of rue lessens the unjust warmth of melancholy and moderates the unjust coldness of melancholy”. Dioscorides (AD 40 – 90)  noted that the best rue “for physicks use” would be harvested from under a fig tree, and Plutarch (AD 46 – 120) alleged that rue “becommeth more sweet and milde in taste” by the nearness of a fig tree, which also “likewise draweth away the ranckness of the rue”. It is more likely that rue enjoyed the shelter from the tree.

Rue is native to southern Europe and North Africa, but has also adapted to the cooler climates of northern Europe, Australia and North America. It is the National Herb of Lithuania, and used there as both a courting herb to announce engagements, and by the bridal party. As a representation of all virtues, good health and a long life, the bride and the groom’s attendants wear a sprig of rue. On April 23, the feast day of St. George (patron saint of horses and animals) Lithuanian maidens would plant rue to bring good luck and protection, so that the earth would be fruitful and the grass thick and green. Neighboring Poland, too, has associated rue with marriage and young maidens, and wreaths of rue were exchanged instead of rings in the marriage ceremony.

Many other cultures have legends or traditions associated with rue from ancient times to the present. It is a favored herb of Arabic nations, as it was thought to be blessed by Mohammed. Fatally ill, Mohammed was cured by gypsies who used rue as an antidote when all else had failed. As rue was thought of as the herb of repentance, the October 31 Celtic festival of Samhain included rue in the casting out of the old year and welcoming in the new. It was also one of the funeral herbs used by the Druids – again, the theme of repentance and saying goodbye to the old and starting on a new path are all associated with this herb. The Mayans cleanse a house of envy by using rue. Each household member must place a sprig of rue under the tongue, and an infusion of rue, basil, and marigold is sprinkled about the house to ensure the home will be light and peaceful.

In 18th and 19th century Italy, amulets called cimaruta were crafted of tin or silver to resemble the tops of rue. It was carried to protect the wearer from the Evil Eye. In more ancient times, arrows dipped in a solution of rue were supposed to always find their mark. This may have led to its later use where ammunition was boiled in rue water for the same purpose. There is a legend that Mercury gave the herb to Ulysses to destroy the spell that Circe held over him, which allowed him to break free of her charms. Rue’s strong incense-like smell, as well as its reputation as an herb of purification, may be the basis for its branches being used to sprinkle holy water in churches. Rue had its darker side, too, since if one desired to curse someone, all that was necessary was to throw some rue at their feet, causing them to “rue the day”.

Medicinally, rue has been used through the ages for many ailments, as it is highly antiseptic and insecticidal. It was purported to be useful for eyesight, and many painters, jewelers, and engravers were users of this herb to strengthen or enhance their vision, the more notable of these being Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo. Rutin, a component of rue, has been used for strengthening capillaries, so it may very well have deserved its reputation in ocular use. In the 16th and 17th centuries, it was used as an antidote for poisons and to ward off pestilence. Nosegays of rue were routinely found in courtrooms to counteract the vermin and germs that prisoners harbored. Rue’s powerful ability as a cure-all also can be connected to several tales of the origin of Four Thieves Vinegar, a concoction of several herbs, including rue, which can be used as a disinfectant. Supposedly, thieves were using this solution so that they could enter houses and rob the dead and dying but not be affected by the plague.

Rue’s use in medicine is not confined to humans. Cattle were treated with the herb, as well as poultry, most likely as a purgative or vermifuge. Caution is advised in the handling of rue, as a blistering of skin (similar to poison ivy) can occur as an allergic reaction or phytol photodermatitis. This most often transpires when plants are wet or in full sun, so avoid brushing against rue particularly during those times. It is advisable that rue be planted where one cannot unintentionally come in contact with it, as well. Pregnant women should not use rue, and all should be aware of its very strong properties.

One of the most famous references to rue occurs in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, where Ophelia says:

            There’s fennel for you and columbines

                        There’s rue for you; and here’s some for me:

            We may call it herb grace o’ Sundays:

                        O you must wear your rue with a difference.


Shakespeare also references rue in Richard III:


            Here in this place

                        I’ll set a bank of rue,

            Sour herb of grace;

                        Rue, even for ruta, shall shortly be seen,

            In the remembrance of a weeping queen.

 Rue is a very bitter herb, and not used for culinary purposes very much today. It is sometimes employed as a salad herb in Italy, and is a favorite flavoring in Ethiopian cooking. Fresh leaves in small amounts (large amounts can be toxic) are said to impart a flavor reminiscent of bleu cheese. This herb should probably be just enjoyed for its ornamental value and be respected for its herbal applications in history. It will always have a place in my garden, where its lovely color and sturdy habit can be enjoyed, and remind me of its colorful past.


Ancient Herbs                                                                       Marina Heilmeyer

A Brief History of Thyme and Other Herbs                     Miranda Seymour

Cunningham’s Encyclopedia of Magical Herbs             Scott Cunningham

A Druid’s Herbal for the Sacred Year                               Ellen Evert Hopsman

Early American Herb Recipes                                            Alice Cooke Brown

A Garden of Herbs                                                               Eleanor Sinclair Rohde

Herbs and Herb Lore of Colonial America                       Colonial Dames of America

Herbal Handbook for Farm and Stable                             Juliette de Bairacli Levy

Herbal Wisdom                                                                    Roni Jay

Herbs for the EverydayGarden                                         Gertrude B. Foster

Herbs for the Home                                                              Jekka McVicar

Herbs – Leaves of Magic                                                     Carol Riggs

Hildegaard’s Healing Plants      


The Illustrated Herbal Handbook                                      Adelma G. Simmons

A Modern Herbal                                                                 Maude Grieve

Polish Herbs, Flowers and Folk Medicine                        Sophie Knab

Rainforest Home Remedies                                 Rosita Arvigo

Vytis – The Knight Vol. 86 No. 4

Wedding Herbs for a Happy Household                          Adelma G. Simmons

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