A Plant Called Heal All
By: Howard Lee
These days, with the heavy smoke of forest fires both near and far, I have been limiting my time outdoors to when the air is merely moderately unhealthy. On one recent urban walk, a patch of purple caught my eye. The plant and flower were unfamiliar to me, but iNaturalist had no trouble sorting it out. The purple flowers were called self-heal or heal-all.
Self-heal blooms in late summer. The tubular flowers are about 1 cm long and 0.5 cm across, and they grow out from a central spike. The flowers are colored in tranquil lavender tones. From the front, they look like a hooded figure with stubby arms and a flowing robe.
Self-heal is native to the northern hemisphere, and it is used as an herbal medicine wherever it is found including in Chinese traditional medicine and by native North American peoples. Besides self-heal and heal-all, the plant is also called heart-of-the-earth. Less grandiose names include carpenter's herb, brownwort, woundwort, brunelle, and blue curls. Its scientific name is Prunella vulgaris. In medieval Europe, it was used to treat quinsy which is a complication of tonsillitis. This condition is called brunella in medieval Latin, brunella being a diminutive of brunus meaning brown, a reference to the sickly color of the discharge coating the tongue. The Chinese name xia ku cao translates literally as summer dried grass.
Today, P. vulgaris can be bought online in capsule, extract, powder, and ointment forms, and packages of the dried flower spikes are also available. P. vulgaris contains many biologically active compounds, and scientists have been investigating its effectiveness for conditions including diabetes, heart disease, and cancer as well as to fight HIV and Ebola virus. Most studies have been in the lab environment though. It is uncertain whether these treatments will prove out in the long run, though the potential of traditional medicines to treat modern diseases is highlighted by the 2015 Nobel Prize in medicine, half of which was awarded to a Chinese chemist for her 1970 discovery of an antimalarial compound in sweet wormwood Artemisia annua after a comprehensive search of traditional Chinese herbs.
If nothing else, it is a real treat to find a new-to-me wildflower with a propitious name in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic.