Self-heal (Prunella vulgaris), also commonly know as heal-all, is found in North America, Europe and Asia. This perennial member of the mint family has been known on all three continents from the time humans began to record their travels. Europe is considered its place of origin, however, self-heal has been in North America so long that some P. vulgaris subspecies are considered native to portions of our continent. Confusing?
Self-heal propagates by seeds and creeping stems that root at the nodes. It will grow almost anywhere but thrives in moist areas that are moderately compacted by livestock, humans and vehicles. Wastelands, trail edges and roadsides are prime habitat. The species name, vulgaris, means “common” and refers to the variety of situations in which self-heal grows.
The blue or purple self-heal flowers, which occur in dense, club like, almost square terminal clusters, do not look particularly impressive from a distance. Examined closely each individual small blossom is beautiful. The five petals are fused into a two-lipped, tubular flower. Two petals form the upper hood-like lip while three petals comprise the three-lobed lower lip. The middle lobe of the lower lip is larger than the other two lobes and fringed. Unlike most mints, self-heal flowers (not any part of the plant) do not have a fragrance.
Like all mints, the stem is square in cross-section. Structurally weak, the stem often grows horizontally with only the end pointing skyward. The lance-shaped leaves grow in opposite pairs the length of the stem. The leaves at the base of the plant have petioles (stalks) while those immediately below the flower cluster are sessile (no stalk). Hairless or minutely hairy, self-heal leaves have three to seven veins going from the midrib to the inconspicuously toothed margins.
The entire self-heal plant is edible and high in Vitamins A, C and K. Stems and leaves, particularly when young, make good salad additions or pot herbs. A refreshing tea can also be made by chopping the leaves (or whole plant) and soaking them in cold water. The leaves are not my favorite trail food but I will nibble them. I never tried self-heal tea – a future culinary experiment.
The name self-heal hints at the medicinal uses of P. vulgaris. Historically this plant has been used to treat almost everything. It is listed in some of my old European herbals. Modern herbalists still employ self-heal as an emollient (smooth and soften skin), to stop bleeding and to heal wounds. Because self-heal contains urosolic acid, which appears to have some diuretic and antitumor properties, it is of some interest to medical researchers.
These specimens were recently photographed along the North Umpqua Trail in Oregon.