Medical Herbs Catalogue



Family: N.O. Apocynaceae

Periwinkle, Large
(Vinca major LINN.)
Click on graphic for larger image GREATER PERIWINKLE (Vinca major, Linn.)
This is the species more generally used in herbal medicine, as an astringent and tonic, in menorrhagia and in haemorrhages, also as a laxative, and gargle. Made into an ointment, useful for piles and inflammatory conditions of the skin.

(Vinca minor LINN.)
Click on graphic for larger image LESSER PERIWINKLE (Vinca minor, Linn.)
Employed in homoeopathy for preparation of a tincture used for haemorrhages.

A reputed cure for diabetes. (Synonym Lochnera rosea, Reichb.)

The well-known Periwinkles - both Greater and Lesser - familiar plants of our woods and gardens, are members of the genus Vinca, so named by Linnaeus, which includes five in Europe, and the Orient, and three species native to the East Indies, Madagascar and America, assigned by a later botanist, Reichberg, to a separate genus, Lochnera, as they differ from Vinca in the stamens and head of the style not being hairy, though the main characteristics are the same.

Vinca is a genus of the natural order Apocynaceae, which includes many tropical trees and shrubs with showy flowers, a large number of which are very poisonous, among these being the beautiful Oleander, so frequently grown in our greenhouses.

The Periwinkles are the only representatives of their order in our flora, and there is, in fact, considerable doubt among botanists whether the Periwinkle should be considered a true native of Great Britain. 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. Occasionally, in the smaller kind, when cultivated in gardens, leaves occur with streaks of lighter green upon the dark rich colour that is characteristic of the rest of the foliage. The leaves are always placed in pairs on the stem, the flowers springing from their axils. 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, their margins not fringed.

The plant seldom, if ever, ripens its seed, a fact that has been considered confirmatory of the theory that the Periwinkle is not truly indigenous, as in more southern countries it does so. It propagates itself by long, trailing and rooting stems, and by their means not only extends itself in every direction, but succeeds in obtaining an almost exclusive possession of the soil, since little or nothing else can maintain its ground against the dense mass of stems, which deprive other and weaker plants of light and air.

The flowers of the Periwinkle vary somewhat in intensity of colour, but the average colour is a deep purplish-blue. A white variety of the Lesser Periwinkle occurs in Devonshire and in gardens; it is often met with bearing purple, blue and white flowers, sometimes double.

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 selffertilization is not caused as the insect's tongue enters the flowers.

The Lesser Periwinkle is not only smaller in all the parts, but has a more trailing habit of growth, matting itself together. The stems are very slender, only those bearing flowers being erect, growing to a height of 6 to 8 inches, the others trailing and rooting freely at intervals, so that a large space of ground is quickly monopolized by it. 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. This is described by Wordsworth: 'Through primrose tufts in that sweet bower The fair periwinkle trailed its wreaths.' It is assumed that the Vincapervinca of Pliny is this plant.

History: 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 Macer's Herbal (early sixteenth century) it is described: 'Parwynke is an erbe grene of colour In Tyme of May he beryth blo flour, His stalkys ain (are) so feynt and feye Yet never more growyth he hey (high).' And we are also told that 'men calle it ye Juy of Grownde.' 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 also from the madonnablue of its blossoms.

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.' 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. In olden days it was used in garlands. An old chronicle tells us that when, in 1306, Simon Fraser, after he had been taken prisoner fighting for William Wallace, rode heavily ironed through London to the place of execution, a garland of Periwinkle was placed in mockery on his head.

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. To the Germans, it is the 'Flower of Immortality.' In France, the Periwinkle is considered an emblem of friendship, probably in allusion to Rousseau's recollection of his friend Madame de Warens, after a lapse of thirty years, by the sight of the Periwinkle in flower.

Uses: Both species of Periwinkle are used in medicine for their acrid, astringent and tonic properties. '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. The small periwinkle possesses all the virtues of the other kind and may very properly supply its place.' 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. A homoeopathic tincture is prepared from the fresh leaves of Vinca minor and: 'is given medicinally for the milk-crust of infants as well as for internal haemorrhages, the dose being from 2 to 10 drops, three or four times in the day, with a spoonful of water.' The flowers of the Greater (and probably also of the Lesser) 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. It is widely spread in Tropical Africa and naturalized in the Tropics in general. It is not sufficiently hardy to stand our climate without protection, though it is often grown in conservatories in this country. The blossoms are a rich crimson.

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.

Preparation: Fluid extract.