Periwinkle Herb

What is Periwinkle?

Periwinkle is an herb. The parts that grow above the ground are used to make medicine. Don’t confuse periwinkle with Madagascar periwinkle (Catharanthus roseus).

Despite serious safety concerns, periwinkle is used for “brain health” (increasing blood circulation in the brain, supporting brain metabolism, increasing mental productivity, preventing memory and concentration problems and feebleness, improving memory and thinking ability, and preventing early aging of brain cells).

Periwinkle is also used for treating diarrhea, vaginal discharge, throat ailments, tonsillitis, chest pain, high blood pressure, sore throat, intestinal pain and swelling (inflammation), toothache, and water retention (edema). It is also used for promoting wound healing, improving the way the immune system defends the body, and for “blood-purification.”

A chemical in periwinkle called vincamine can be converted in the laboratory to the compound vinpocetine, which is marketed as a dietary supplement.

Periwinkle is an herb. The parts that grow above the ground are used to make medicine. Don’t confuse periwinkle with Madagascar periwinkle (Catharanthus rouses).

Despite serious safety concerns, people use periwinkle for memory and thinking, diarrhea, vaginal discharge, sore throat, and toothache, but there is no good scientific evidence to support these uses.

Although the plant is said to be native to the West Indies, it first was described in Madagascar. The periwinkle is a perennial herb with flowers that can bloom throughout the year, depending on the climate. These often are bred for their unique colors, ranging from white to green-yellow and lavender. Also referred to as Lochnera rosea, Vinca rosea, and Ammocallis rosea. The related plant Vinca minor (common periwinkle, Myrtle) is used as a ground cover.

What is it used for?

Traditional/Ethnobotanical uses

The plant was introduced in Europe during the mid-1700s, during which time it was cultivated as an ornamental. Today it grows throughout much of the world and plantations have been established on most continents in the warmer climates. The plant has been widely used in tropical folk medicine. Decorations of the plant have been used for maladies ranging from ocular inflammation, diabetes, and hemorrhage to treating insect stings and cancers.

Miscellaneous uses

Periwinkle alkaloids have been used in the treatment of leukemia, Hodgkin disease, malignant lymphomas, retinoblastoma, Wilms tumor, Kaposi sarcoma, mycologist fungoid es, to improve cerebral blood flow, and treat high blood pressure.

The most well known of the “vinca” alkaloids derived from C. rouses are vinblastine (vincaleukoblastine, Velban) and vincristine (leurocristine, Oncovin), which are now widely used pharmaceutical anticancer agents. An extensive body of literature exists on the clinical uses of the various purified alkaloids of Catharanthus.

What is the recommended dosage?

There is no recent clinical evidence to support specific doses of periwinkle herb. The pure alkaloids vincristine and vinblastine are used in cancer therapy at single weekly IV doses of 0.05 to 0.15 mg/kg and 0.1 to 0.2 mg/kg respectively.

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, Reich-berg, 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 Devon-shire 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 self fertilization 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.’

The closely related species greater periwinkle (Vinca major), a much larger plant, is used in a similar manner in herbal medicine and has the same medicinal properties as lesser periwinkle.

Habitat: Periwinkle is originally native to Central and Southern Europe, from Denmark to Spain and east to West Asia. Lesser periwinkle was introduced to North America in the 1700s for ornamental purposes.

It is commonly used as an ornamental plant in gardens, parks, and cemeteries, often as a ground cover under trees and bushes.

The plant thrives best in shade or semi shade and it has the tendency to smother out other garden plants if it not kept under control. Periwinkle even grows well in deep shade but then it will produce fewer flowers.

The leaves, and seeds of the periwinkle contain vincamine, a precursor to the chemical vinpocetine, which is used medicinally to naturally enhance memory in aging minds.1,2 Vincamine is sold as a chemical extract in supplement form, however herbalists prefer the whole herb be used in either extract or tea form. By using the whole herb you receive the balanced blend of healing chemicals found naturally occurring in the plant. Other folk medicine uses include Diabetes, cough medicine, and as a styptic to stop bleeding.

The plant has opposite, elliptic to lance-shaped, shiny dark green leaves that grow up to 5 cm long with a leathery texture.

The 2-3 cm sky-blue and funnel-shaped flowers are produced continuously from May to October. The flowers have two follicles (a dry unilocular fruit formed from one carpel), containing numerous seeds.

There are numerous cultivars of periwinkle each with different flower colors (blue, white, pink, etc.) and variegated foliage.

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 headteacher. In Gloucestershire, we find the name ‘Cockles’ given locally to it; in Hampshire, its name is corrupted to ‘Penny winkle.’ In some parts of Devon shire, 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 Virgin flower, 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-philters. It was one of the plants believed to have power to exorcise 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.

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 hemorrhages generally. For obstructions of mucus in the intestines and lungs, diarrhoea, congestion, hemorrhages, 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 hemorrhages, 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.

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 under shrub 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.

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