What unassuming weed could really brighten your garden and heal the world?
Prunella Vulgaris To The Rescue
Walking through my pale forest in late summer, I barely notice the dark green, dust-covered leaves dotting the edge of the trails. Tiny purple flowers look like dragon heads and roar their defiance with every foot that pins them down. The ubiquitous but elusive Self-Heal is rarely noticed, until it is. But then all of a sudden, it’s everywhere!
Prunella vulgaris is an unassuming little plant, overlooked in part due to its hardiness, but once you see it, it’s impossible to miss. Preferring disturbed, wetter sites, Prunella grows just about everywhere in the world, with several varieties native to North America. Where I live in the Pacific Northwest, we call Prunella vulgaris var. lanceolata native, while Alaska has its own subspecies, the Prunella vulgaris var. aleutica. The jury is still out on when the more traditional-sounding Prunella vulgaris var. vulgaris made its way to the continent, though most agree it was later than its lance-shaped cousin, lanceolata.
It’s not just in subspecies that you see the versatility of Prunella vulgaris and its many names. It has been called common self-heal, heal-all, woundwort, carpenter’s herb, brownwort, blue curls, or my personal favorite, “heart of the earth.”
Underestimated and Underfoot
So why, you ask, do I love this unassuming plant so much?
For starters, it’s a great specimen to add to your lawn replacement. Being an evergreen perennial, you can do a lot of walking on this plant before it really starts to complain. It can also tolerate mowing and grows in fairly heavy shade to full sun, though the more sun it receives, the more water it will want.
The rhizomatous runners add new rosette-shaped arrangements of basal leaves around your yard, self propagating to save you work, and the low-growing flowers are a favorite of pollinators. Not only attractive to bees, common self heal is also a popular stop for the Clouded Sulphur Butterfly. And oh my is it pretty! This hardy plant may prefer disturbed and well-trodden sites, but find it undisturbed in a prairie and boy do those flowers shine.
Speaking of flowers, the common self heal can flower for over four months every year. Now that is how you add color to your lawn.
A True Healer
Like many of our plants, Prunella vulgaris was named with purpose. Referred to commonly as self-heal or heal-all, this plant is thought to have been spread around the world by early human travel due to its use as a cure-all for many ailments. It is widely used in ointments for wound care, for treating mouth ulcers, and for curing diarrhea, and the Algonquin people of Quebec use it to bring down the temperature of a person’s fever. The whole plant is edible and thought to be antiseptic, antibacterial, and a diuretic. Also, the flowers taste really good!
The positive properties of the self heal should be no surprise since it’s part of the mint family (Lamiaceae), known for many such healing herbs. Along with a variety of mints and hedgenettles, Prunella also considers skullcap (Scutellaria angustifolia), purple sage (Salvia dorrii), and yerba buena (Clinopodium douglasii) as close family members.
Scientists…Always The Last To Know
But despite thousands of years of human use and cultivation, the Prunellas of the world remain largely unstudied. With research mostly conducted on other plants and small rodents, scientific experimentation around this plant is limited. We know, for example, that it contains many compounds that we currently use in food and medicine, we just don’t know yet how the whole plant interacts with the human body. Some people even theorize that it can cure cancer and treat diabetes.
Calling all scientists! Mylanta and Pepto Bismol taste awful! It’s time to get Self-Heal on the shelves!
With a dose of healthy optimism,
With a passion born in rivers, Julia Eden has spent the last decade crusading for the environment. Educated in Pacific Northwest native flora, decentralized water retention, and holistic land management, she is dedicated to living a new and better life. While not quite a Luddite, she would very much like to live in a cave with a wolf and an internet connection.
Sullivan, Steven. Oregon Wildflower Search. Wildflower Search. V9.0. Nov. 22, 2015. Wildflowersearch.org. Download URL
Washington Wildflowers. University of Washington Herbarium. V12.01. Apr. 8, 2013. Android Play Store. Download URL