WHAT IS PERIWINKLE? RATANJOT - HISTORY: HEALTH BENEFITS AND USES OF PERIWINKLES : HOW TO MAKE PERIWINKLE TISANE
The most common periwinkles in Europe are the wild blue ones, either Vinca minor or major, the Lesser and Greater periwinkle, distinguished by the size of the flowers. Despite all other claims as to their names in Urdu or Punjabi, my spouse is certain that they are ratanjot, as they were his late mother’s favourite flower, I guess he should know.
In different parts of Britain, the plant is known by other names, such as Blue Buttons and Cut-finger in Devon (it staunches the blood from a cut), ‘cockles’ in Gloucestershire, and ‘pennywinkle’ in Hampshire.
The Greater and Lesser ones that we have in Britain (which may or may not be native) are blue, and give their name to the colour, periwinkle blue. It should be noted also that periwinkles are a type of sea-snail. (My grandfather used to relish “cockles and winkles” with lashings of malt vinegar and eat them from a paper bag when we went for walks along the cliffs on the Gower Coast.) The periwinkle here is a member of the Apocynacea family of plants which includes oleander.
The periwinkle flower has been used as protection against evil and in the Middle Ages it was thought to be one of the best protectors against all evil. In 1480 Apuleius’ Herbarium was printed, and he wrote that you had to ask the blessing of the periwinkle before picking it so that it would work to its full potency:
‘“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 (plant), 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.’
Apuleius was writing in the second century but his writings could not be printed before the invention of the printing press. He was a Berber from Algeria, North Africa parts of which were colonized by the Roman Empire.
In Latin, vinca means to bind, and this was the name given to the trailing periwinkle as it is a creeper, which makes it good ground cover for lazy gardeners. The name ‘periwinkle’ comes from the Latin name for it, Vinca pervinca which became perwincke in Old English and then perwince in Middle English. Interestingly though peri is Urdu for fairy but means around in Greek.. We have the colour named after this flower, periwinkle blue, as used in “Aaron’s Rod” by D.H. Lawrence at the beginning of the 20th century:-
“ She sat down opposite him, and her beautifully shapen legs, in frail, goldish stockings,
seemed to glisten metallic naked, thrust from out of the wonderful, wonderful skin,
like periwinkle-blue velvet.”
Chaucer mentions the periwinkle too, calling it the ‘Parwynke’ and in an early 16th century Herball written by Macer, we find this-
“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).”
In other words the stems aren’t very strong but it can grow tall, with blue flowers which appear in May. He also says “men calle it ye Juy of Grownde.” (Joy of the ground)
In 1798 William Wordsworth, in his poem, “Lines Written in Early Spring” also mentions this flower,
“Though primrose tufts in that sweet bower
The fair periwinkle trailed its wreaths.”
The Vinca major and minor periwinkles are native to Southern Europe and were probably introduced to Britain very early on. They may have come from France where they were called Sorcerer’s violets in ancient times, Violettes des sorciers, and they were known in Italian as Centocchio, a hundred eyes. They were also called the Flowers of Death as in Italy they were placed on the coffins of dead children. They are the Flowers of Immortality in German, while in France they symbolize friendship.
Culpeper writing in the 17th century said that they were good to stop nosebleeds if “the leaves be chewed” and thought they were good incases of hysterics “and othere fits.” He advocated that the young flowering tops be made into a conserve and given to children to protect them from nightmares and though the periwinkle was a cure for anxiety and nervousness.
Others believed that wrapping a trailing vine of periwinkles around the legs could get rid of cramps, while an ointment made with them and lard was useful for piles. The herb should be gathered in spring and dried for later use.
Dioscorides (1st century AD) and others seemed to think that periwinkles were good for poisonous bites, and those from any wild beasts. It was also believed by the Romans that if you carried the plant around with you it would make you well-liked wherever you went and help you become prosperous.
All the above ground parts of the plant can be used, and it has been found to contain indole alkaloids, tannins, bioflavonoids including quercetin and kaempferol, and is used in Europe mainly for its astringent properties. It has been used for problems in the digestive tract including colitis and gastro-enteritis, and the tisane made from it can be used on the skin on problems such as weeping eczema, and any other irritation. As a gargle it can be used for mouth ulcers, bleeding gums and sore throats, while the tisane can stop excessive menstruation and bleeding between periods.
Ratanjot is the Madagascar periwinkle with Latin names Vinca rosea, Catharanthus roseus or pusillus or Lochnera pusilla which apart from presumably being native to Madagascar is also said to be a native of the Indian sub-continent. This one can have red, pink or white flowers and can have pink and white flowers on the same plant. The trailing stems are used for basket weaving, while the plant has many traditional medical uses, apart from the ones already mentioned for the European periwinkles. This one can grow to heights of 3 feet and is used to help in cases of diabetes as an insulin substitute. Vinca major, the Greater periwinkle, has also been used in this way for centuries. The flowers are used as an eyewash for eye irritations and infections, and the plant is used to lower high blood pressure. However it does this quickly so should only be taken on a doctor’s advice. In India and Pakistan it is also used as a treatment for cancer, especially for leukaemia, and it is said to relieve muscle pain and depresses the central nervous system. Apparently it is also used for wasp stings. In the Philippines it is also used for diabetes.
The tisane below can be used for excessive menstruation, although advice should be sought from a doctor before taking any herbal medication.
1 tsp dried periwinkle plant, crumbled
1 cup boiling water
honey to taste
Pour the boiling water over the herb and leave to steep for 10-15 minutes before straining and drinking. Three cups a day seem to be the maximum dosage, but two might be safer.
This has Taste and is a Treat(ment).