Herb to Know: Self-Heal

Prunella vulgaris; Family Lamiaceae (Labiatae); Perennial


| October/November 1993


Prunella vulgaris
• Family Lamiaceae (Labiatae)
• Perennial

Herb gardeners hold differing opin­ions about self-heal. Some welcome its cheerful violet flowers in the summer herbal lawn while others revile the plant as a pesky weed of the herb garden or grass-only lawn. Few grow it intentionally in the herb garden, and some may not be acquainted with the plant at all. This situation is a far cry from three and four centuries ago, when herbalists held self-heal in high ­es­teem, perhaps with good reason.

Description

Self-heal, a member of the mint family, looks much like a mint but lacks a minty or other aromatic fragrance. In fact, the plant has virtually no odor. Native to Eurasia, this herb is at home in much of North America and is hardy at least in zones 4 through 9.

Self-heal’s square stems arise from a fibrous rootstock and sprawl along the ground 2 feet or more before turning upward. This habit makes the flower heads appear to be carried on stems only a foot or so high (less in a lawn). The leaves are medium green, opposite, rounded at the base and pointed or blunt at the tip. The edges are slightly wavy or toothed. The lower leaves are stalked, but the two leaves immediately below the flower head have little to no stalk. The stem and leaves are slightly hairy. The flower head is a stubby spike made up of ­numerous whorls of six florets each. Each whorl has a pair of green-veined whitish bracts beneath it. Each floret has a brownish purple toothed calyx that contains a violet two-parted corolla. The upper part, which is often more intense in color, forms a little hood, and the lower is a three-parted apron, a handy landing platform for insect pollinators. As the flower head matures, the spike elongates but remains more or less fatly cylindrical. At a distance, the flower head looks brown and purple because only some of the florets are open at once. The flowers attract bees and butterflies.



In The Kitchen

Though self-heal is edible, it apparently has few traditional culinary uses. You may soak chopped fresh leaves or powdered dried leaves in cold water to make a somewhat refreshing beverage, but many tastier ones come to mind. The leaves have little flavor at first, but chewing them brings out a slight bitterness. You may serve the young shoots and leaves raw in salads, cooked as potherb, or added to soups and stews.

Medicinal Uses

Self-heal has many common names, most attesting to its reputed curative powers. Hook-heal and sicklewort come from someone’s fanciful notion that the flower in profile resembles one of these tools. Others noted the flower’s resemblance to a mouth and throat, concluding (according to the doctrine of signatures) that it should be used to treat ailments of those parts. The unlikely name carpenter’s herb reflects the herb’s ­alleged power to “joine together and make whole and sound all wounds, both inward and outward.”






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