Self Heal

Spring 2005

Self-heal or heal-all (Prunella vulgaris) is reputed to help treat deep wounds, including those of emotional origin. It has also been used to help remove mercury from the body. Illustration from Handbook of Plant and Floral Ornament from Early Herbals, by Richard G. Hatton, Dover, N.Y., 1960.

By Deb Soule

The names of plants and places have fascinated me for years. Certain words or sounds grab my attention from time to time and seem to have a presence worth exploring. When someone first pointed out the flower self-heal to me, I remember thinking that this plant must have special healing qualities.

Self-heal, Prunella vulgaris, is a member of the mint family and grows throughout Europe in woods, pastures and clearings. This small plant made its way to North America, where early settlers called it “Heart of the Earth.” Other common names include heal-all, all-heal, carpenter’s herb and hook-heal. These names correspond with self-heal’s ability to heal wounds inflicted by sharp-edged tools used by carpenters, farmers and laborers of long ago.

Using a hand-held lens to view the purplish-blue flower, you can see that the corolla looks like a bill hook or a throat with enlarged glands. Self-heal’s long history of use for healing cuts, wounds and inflamed throats and mouths corresponds well with the Doctrine of Signatures, the idea that a plant can resemble the disease, organ or person who may benefit from its use. The Latin name Prunella was originally Brunella, a German name referring to the plant’s treatment of die Breuen, an inflammatory mouth and throat condition.

The dried flower heads of self-heal are easily observed by woods walkers or cross country skiers in the late fall or early winter before large amounts of snow have fallen. In New England, self-heal prefers cool, shady places. It is commonly found growing in the middle or along the edges of damp woodland trails that are kept open by animal or human use. In the woods the flowering stalks can grow to be 8 inches high. Self-heal also grows in lawns that have damp soil. If the lawn is mowed frequently, these plants become stunted and the flowers bloom close to the ground.

Flourishing in the Shade

Self-heal seed is easy to germinate, so gardeners can grow a patch of the herb. It needs a cold stratification period of about two weeks. In late March I plant two to four seeds per plug in a 50-plug tray and cover them lightly with soil. I then place the tray in my cold woodshed for two weeks. The seeds begin germinating within 10 days after being brought into a warm environment. I keep the germinating seed tray out of direct sunlight. In my greenhouse the plants develop well when left on the floor under a bench.

The seedlings can be transplanted outside into a cool, shady, moist area beginning in late May. Given the right conditions, the patch probably will expand and flourish by reseeding itself. Unlike most mint family members, Prunella remains contained and does not spread by root runners.

Healing Deep Wounds, Pulling Heavy Metals

This self-contained characteristic adds to its vital healing abilities. The medieval herbalist Gerard said, “The decoction of Prunell made with wine and water, doth join together and make whole and sound all wounds, both inward and outward.” When I read this quote my sense about self-heal was affirmed. People with inward wounds of an emotional nature often receive nothing from conventional medical practitioners to ease and heal their discomfort. For years I had felt that a plant with the name self-heal must have the gift of healing internal wounds that cause feelings of sadness, grief, despair, anger and hopelessness. I began adding small amounts of the tincture of self-heal along with other herbs to enhance the healing properties of a formula. Sometimes I add a few dried flowers of self-heal to a tea mixture to help facilitate a deeper, more inward healing process.

The flower essence of self-heal is highly regarded for its abilities to help people and animals who face physical, mental or spiritual challenges. It can be used alone, combined with other flower essences, or added to herbal tinctures, massage oils, misters or one’s daily water bottle to stimulate the deeper energy channels of the body to awaken an inner commitment to be well and to affirm the gift of life. I have used the flower essence and tincture for people in a variety of situations, including such major life transitions as birth, aging, diagnosis of a serious illness, chronic health problems, death, moving, or ending a relationship or job. Small amounts (three to five drops) of the tincture, a cup of tea or flower essence can safely be used short term or over several months.

Self-heal has a mildly bitter taste and is cooling and drying to the body. On the physical body it acts as an astringent, anti-inflammatory, antipyretic, mild antiseptic, detoxifier, diuretic, hemostatic and vulnerary (a substance used to help heal external wounds). Its astringent and anti-inflammatory properties help as a gargle for sore throats and as a mouthwash for mouth ulcers and bleeding gums. A tea, diluted tincture or fresh plant poultice is effective topically to stop bleeding from cuts or wounds, reduce swelling from insect bites, and to reduce the swelling from varicose veins, hemorrhoids and eye inflammations (sties, conjunctivitis). Self-heal can be used internally and externally to help dissolve nodules in the neck (such as goiter), lypomas (fatty tumors) or other nodules involving the lymph. In China, self-heal is used to treat cancer because of its antitumor properties.

Self-heal’s cooling properties help clear liver heat that rises to the eyes and causes swollen, red and painful eyes and headaches. It also can ease tension headaches caused by vertigo, over-sensitivity to light and high blood pressure.

Peter Holmes writes about self-heal in The Energetics of Western Herbs, “ … as a good agent for clearing heat, a refrigerant for fevers, inflammation and simple functional hot conditions in general. Chinese medicine considers the herb particularly effective in toxic heat and Qi level heat. This comprehensive heat-clearing effect is reinforced by a good resolvent detoxicant action that addresses the two main forms of endogenous toxicosis, metabolic and heavy metal toxicosis — with their retinue of often vague and mysterious symptoms. When these toxicoses turn into an actual infection, Self-heal is still the right remedy displaying a broad spectrum anti-infective effect that is antiviral, antibacterial and phagocyte stimulant.”

Highly revered herbalist Keewaydinoquay used self-heal to pull heavy metals out of the body. The small common garden weed ground ivy (Nepeta hederacea) can be combined with self-heal for children, adults or animals with elevated lead levels in their bloodstream.

Self-heal is an effective lymphatic herb for women who have swollen breasts, painful fibrocystic breast tissue, systemic cysts, mastitis or sore nipples. It can be combined with other lymphatic herbs, such as violet leaf and flower, calendula or red clover, for internal use. Fresh or dry self-heal flowers can be infused in olive oil with violet, calendula, chickweed and red clover blossoms for two weeks at 100 degrees F. to make a healing massage oil for the above breast conditions. This oil can be used topically to help dissolve hardnesses for people who are continuously hit in the same spot, such as martial art practitioners.

A healing massage oil made from fresh or dry self-heal flowers and red and white rose petals infused in almond oil for two weeks at 100 degrees F. is deeply nourishing and restorative to the Spirit. Eight drops of the self-heal flower essence can be placed into any 4-ounce bottle of massage oil to enhance the healing properties of the oil. A few drops of the self-heal flower essence added to a full bath or foot bath along with relaxing essential oils such as lavender, rose geranium or cypress is a nurturing way to release stress, anxiety and despair.

Herbalist Juliette de Bairacli Levy often noted that the smaller, lesser known herbs contained some of the most beneficial healing properties. I consider self-heal to be one of these herbs that is worthy of more herbalists’ attention. Just the presence of self-heal in our gardens, I believe, is healing to the garden and to the humans, animals and insects who enjoy its beauty and pollen.

About the author: Deb is the founder of Avena Botanicals and the Avena Institute in West Rockport, Maine, and author of 
A Woman’s Book of Herbs. You can visit her Web site at This article is for information only; please consult a health care practitioner if you have a serious medical problem.

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