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I wish that our botanists would attach a moral idea to all the plants which they describe. They would thus form a sort of universal dictionary, understood by all nations, and enduring as the world itself, since each spring would reproduce it without the slightest alteration of the characters. The altars of the great Jupiter are overthrown; the forests which witnessed the mysteries of the Druids no longer exist; the pyramids of Egypt will some day disappear, buried, like the Sphynx, beneath the sands of the desert: but the lotus and the acanthus will still blossom on the banks of the Nile; the misletoe will still grow upon the oak; and the Vervain upon the barren hills.
Vervain was employed by the ancients in various kinds of divinations: they ascribed to it a thousand properties, and among others that of reconciling enemies. Whenever the Romans
sent their heralds to offer peace or war to nations, one of them always carried a sprig of Vervain. The Druids, both in Gaul and Britain, regarded the Vervain with the same veneration as the misletoe, and offered sacrifices to the earth before they cut this plant in spring, which was a ceremony of great pomp.
The Druids held their power through the ignorance and superstition of the people, and, being acquainted with the qualities of plants and other objects of Nature, they ascribed their effects to the power of magic and divination, pretending to work miracles, to exhibit astonishing appearances, and to penetrate into the counsels of Heaven. Although so many ages have passed away since the time of the Druids, the belief in their pretended spells is not yet wholly abolished. Thus, in the northern provinces of France, the shepherds still continue to gather the Vervain, with ceremonies and words known only to themselves, and to express its juices under certain phases of the moon. At once the doctors and conjurors of their village, they alternately cure the complaints of their masters or fill them with dread; for the same means which relieve their ailments enable them to cast a spell on their cattle and on the hearts of their daughters. They insist that this power is given to them by Vervain, especially when the damsels are young and handsome.
This plant was used by the Greeks and Romans as an article of diet, as it is still by the people of Egypt and China. From this ejaculation of Job: “Who cut up Mallows by the bushes and juniper-roots for their meat ? ” we learn that it afforded food in the earliest times to those wandering tribes, which chose rather to pitch their tents in the wilderness and to depend on the spontaneous gifts of bountiful Nature than to dwell in permanent habitations and to labour for their support.
The common Mallow, the friend of the poor man, grows naturally beside the brook that quenches his thirst, and around the hut in which he dwells; and it borders the road-sides in most parts of Europe. Though it continues to blossom from the month of May to the end of October, yet its flowers never tire the eye, their petals being of a delicate, reddish purple, sometimes varying to a whitish, or inclining to a bluish cast, with three or four darker streaks running from the base.
The flower, stalk, leaf, and root, of this plant are all beneficial to man. With its different juices are composed syrups and ointments, equally agreeable to the taste and conducive to health. The way-lost traveller has occasionally found in its root a wholesome and substantial food. We need but look down to our feet to discover, throughout all Nature, proofs of her love and provident care; but this affectionate mother has often concealed, in plants as well as in human beings, the greatest virtues under the simplest appearance.
It is, nevertheless, fortunate for the husbandman that Nature should have assigned to the Mallow a place on the banks and borders of fields, and not scattered it over the meadows, where its spreading branches would have injured the turf, and where, as cattle in general refuse to eat this plant, it would have soon overrun and smothered other vegetation.