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MARCH 2011: GREATER AND LESSER PERIWINKLE (Vinca major and Vinca minor)

Periwinkle Description and Habitat:: The well-known Periwinkles - both Greater and Lesser – are familiar plants in our woods and gardens. Members of the genus Vinca, the Periwinkles are the only representatives of their order in our flora. It was a familiar flower in the days of Chaucer, who refers to it as the 'fresh Pervinke rich of hew,' and it is now commonly found in woods and hedgerows, and, where it occurs, is generally in great profusion. The plant is perennial and retains its glossy leaves throughout the winter. The leaves are always placed in pairs on the stem, the deep purplish-blue flowers springing from their axils in March and April. In the Greater Periwinkle, the leaves are large and egg-shaped, with the margins minutely fringed. Those of the Lesser are much smaller, myrtle-like in form and their margins not fringed.

The plant seldom ripens its seed and it propagates itself by long, trailing and rooting stems. By this means it not only extends itself in every direction, but succeeds in obtaining an almost exclusive possession of the soil. Little or nothing else can maintain its ground against the dense mass of stems which deprive other and weaker plants of light and air.

Typical Flower Structure

The calyx is deeply cleft into five very narrow divisions. The corolla consists of a distinctly tubular portion terminating in a broad flat disk, composed of five broad lobes, twisted when in bud, curiously irregular in form, having the sides of the margin unequally curved, so that although the effect of the whole corolla is symmetrical, when each separate lobe is examined, it will be seen that an imaginary line from apex to the centre of the flower would divide it into two very unequal portions - very unusual in the petals of a flower. The whole effect is as if the lobes of the corolla were rotating round the mouth of its tube, and the movement had suddenly been arrested.


The mouth of the tube is angular and the tube closed with hairs, and the curiously curved anthers of the stamens, which are five in number, are inserted in the tube. The pistil of this flower, as well as of the smaller species, is a singularly beautiful object, resembling the shaft of a pillar with a double capital. The anthers stand above the stigmatic disk, but the stigma itself is on the under surface of the disk, so that self-fertilization is not caused as the insect's tongue enters the flowers.

Common Names: Parwynke, Joy of the Ground, Ground Ivy, Cockles, Cockle Shells, Pennywinkle, Cut Finger, Pin Patch, Blue Buttons, Sorcerer’s Violet, Virgin Flower, Hundred Eyes, Blue Smock.

Both the English and botanical names of the Periwinkle are derived from the Latin vincio (to bind), in allusion to these long, trailing stems that spread over and keep down the other plants where it grows.

The old English form of the name, as it appears in early Anglo-Saxon Herbals, as well as in Chaucer, was 'Parwynke,' and we also find it called 'Joy of the Ground.' In more modern days it has locally been called 'Ground Ivy,' though that name is now generally assigned to quite another little, blue-flowered plant of the hedgerow, Glechoma hederacea. In Gloucestershire, we find the name 'Cockles' given locally to it; in Hampshire, its name is corrupted to 'Pennywinkle.' In some parts of Devonshire, the flowers from their use are known as 'Cut Finger,' and the more fanciful name of 'Blue Buttons' is also there given to it. In France, it has been known as Pucellage, or Virginflower, no doubt from the Madonna-blue of its blossoms.

Therapeutics and Pharmacology: Both species of Periwinkle are used in medicine for their acrid, astringent and tonic properties. The drug Vinblastine Sulfate is obtained from plants of the Vinca family and this is now being tested in America for the treatment of Hodgkins’ disease.

Periwinkle is a remedy for diarrhea, flatulence, indigestion, ulcers in the throat and mouth, diabetes, disorders of the skin and scalp, excessive menstruation and hemorrhage. Chewing the herb helps stop bleeding in the mouth, nose, and to help toothache. The tea is used for nervous conditions, hysteria, and convulsions. Periwinkle improves blood flow in cerebral arteriosclerosis and can be helpful after a stroke. It is also a tonic for the blood and reduces high blood pressure.

'The Periwinkle is a great binder,' said an old herbalist, and both Dioscorides and Galen commended it against fluxes. Culpepper says that it:

'stays bleeding at the mouth and nose, if it be chewed . . . and may be used with advantage in hysteric and other fits.... It is good in nervous disorders, the young tops made into a conserve is good for the night-mare.'

It was considered a good remedy for cramp, Lord Bacon himself testifying that a limb suffering from cramp would be cured if bands of green Periwinkle were tied round it; and William Coles, in his Adam in Eden (1657), gives a definite case of a friend who was:

'vehemently tormented with the cramp for a long while which could be by no means eased till he had wrapped some of the branches hereof about his limbs.'

An ointment prepared from the bruised leaves with lard has been largely used in domestic medicine and is reputed to be both soothing and healing in all inflammatory ailments of the skin and an excellent remedy for bleeding piles.

’Vinca major’ is used in herbal practice for its astringent and tonic properties in menorrhagia and in haemorrhages generally. For obstructions of mucus in the intestines and lungs, diarrhoea, congestions, haemorrhages, etc., Periwinkle Tea is a good remedy. In cases of scurvy and for relaxed sore throat and inflamed tonsils, it may also be used as a gargle. For bleeding piles, it may be applied externally, as well as taken internally.

The flowers of the Periwinkle are gently purgative, but lose their effect on drying. If gathered in the spring and made into a syrup, they will impart thereto all their virtues, and this, it is stated, is excellent as a gentle laxative for children and also for overcoming chronic constipation in grown persons.

The bruised leaves put into the nostrils will, it is asserted, allay bleeding from the nose.

A still more important use has been found for another species, V. rosea, Linn. (synonym Lochnera rosea, Reichb.), sometimes known as the Madagascar Periwinkle, a small undershrub up to 3 feet high in its native habitat, the general appearance much resembling our English species, V. major, but with the stems more upright. In 1923, considerable interest was aroused in the medical world by the statement that this species of Vinca had the power to cure diabetes, and would probably prove an efficient substitute for Insulin, but V. major has long been used by herbalists for this purpose.

Folklore: An old name, given both in reference to its colour and its use in magic, was 'Sorcerer's Violet' (corresponding to its old French name 'Violette des sorciers'). It was a favourite flower with 'wise folk' for making charms and love-philtres. It was one of the plants believed to have power to exorcize evil spirits. In Macer's Herbal we read of its potency against 'wykked spirytis.'

Apuleius, in his Herbarium (printed 1480), gives elaborate directions for its gathering:

'This wort is of good advantage for many purposes, that is to say, first against devil sickness and demoniacal possessions and against snakes and wild beasts and against poisons and for various wishes and for envy and for terror and that thou mayst have grace, and if thou hast the wort with thee thou shalt be prosperous and ever acceptable. This wort thou shalt pluck thus, saying, "I pray thee, vinca pervinca, thee that art to be had for thy many useful qualities, that thou come to me glad blossoming with thy mainfulness, that thou outfit me so that I be shielded and ever prosperous and undamaged by poisons and by water"; when thou shalt pluck this wort, thou shalt be clean of every uncleanness, and thou shalt pick it when the moon is nine nights old and eleven nights and thirteen nights and thirty nights and when it is one night old.'

In France, the Periwinkle is considered an emblem of friendship and Culpeper tells that the legend has it that if the leaves are eaten by a man and a woman together, it will cause love between them and they will stay in love all their lives. These superstitions about the Periwinkle are of great age and are repeated by all the old writers. In The Boke of Secretes of Albartus Magnus of the Vertues of Herbs, Stones and certaine Beastes, we find:

'Perwynke when it is beate unto pouder with worms of ye earth wrapped about it and with an herbe called houslyke, it induceth love between man and wyfe if it bee used in their meales . . . if the sayde confection be put in the fyre it shall be turned anone unto blue coloure.

The flower is called by the Italians Centocchio, or 'Hundred Eyes,' but it is also called 'The Flower of Death,' from the ancient custom of making it into garlands to place on the biers of dead children and worn by people on their way to execution. To the Germans, it is the 'Flower of Immortality.



Last Updated on Wednesday, 30 March 2011 11:55  



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