A few days ago I had a pleasant visit by Marilee Lovit, a very accomplished botanist. Her quest was to find a sedge, Carex scoparia var. tassellata, first collected in west Pembroke by Fernald and Weigand in 1909 and the specimens are now housed in the Harvard Herbarium. We were unsuccessful at finding the sedge, but she touched on dozens of interesting plants ranging from Jack-go-to-bed-at-noon and all sorts of grasses, including Sweet grass, to Barber pole sedge, and lots of plants in between. One of the ‘in-between’ plants was Self-heal.
Self-heal doesn’t have much going for it. It a common stumpy looking lawn or roadside invasive that rarely grows more than a foot high and Mother Nature adorned it with little non-descript flowers on an ugly stalk. Even the botanists got in their licks and assigned the scientific name of Prunella vulgaris. Doesn’t that have a sort of blah ring to it? I mean, how can one work up any enthusiasm for something with a name like Prunella vulgaris?
Self-heal (or Heal-all) is found throughout the temperate parts of the Northern Hemisphere and in North America is found in every state of the Union and every province of Canada except the Northwest Territories and Ninavut. There are about eight varieties of P.vulgaris, and some may have been brought over by the early colonists, which adds to the interesting confusion of this plant. Some references list Self-heal as a Eurasian alien, but the USDA map lists it as native, but invasive. As its common name implies, Self-heal has been used medicinally ever since the early Middle Ages. Apparently the Greeks and Romans never recorded using Self-heal, but the Chinese and Native Americans recognized its value. Cole, in his book ’Adam in Eden’ written in 1657, noted that the genus Prunella came from the German Brunella, a herb used successfully to alleviate the mouth inflammation die Breuen. Culpeper, in 1653, noted that Self-heal was not only effective in healing the ulcers of the mouth and throat, but that a poultice of the leaves was very helpful in healing any wounds or bruises. Some references list the Native Americans of the area of what is now the states of Washington and Oregon used Self-heal extensively with similar methods as the early Europeans, but my ‘Indian Herbalogy of North America’ (Hutchens) fails to mention self-heal, as does my Passamaquoddy Reference book. Peterson’s ‘Medicinal Plants and Herbs’ list many uses for Self-heal, and that and other references report on-going research focusing on the plant’s antioxidant and antitumor compounds indicate possible treatments for some types of cancer and AIDS.
So Self-heal is a neat little plant that needs a little hype so it won’t be considered just a worthless weed. Prunella vulgaris needs to be changed. Let’s change Prunella back to Brunella. Now vulgaris probably means something like ‘common’, so let’s change the scientific name to something like Brunella common. Now Mother Nature fouled up big time when she designed the ugly flower stalk. The flowers themselves are beautiful, but the stalk most of the time only has a few flowers on it, and these are scattered among the incoming and outgoing flowers. That’s no way to design an attractive plant. She could do much better than that, as she has in most other flowers. If Governor LePage finds out about this, there might be an investigation and she could probably lose her license to practice in the State of Maine. This would be unfortunate, as Mother Nature has done so well in other areas.