Self-heal is an extremely valued herb for curing wounds and is extensively used to impede bleeding. Basically native to Europe, self-heal became popular and gained importance when military doctors used the herb not only to cure wounds, but also treat infectious fevers that plagued the royal German army during the period between 1547 and 1566.
In ancient times, the barbs or thorns of the self-heal flowers were thought to look like the throat. Hence, according to the Doctrine of Signatures theory (wherein a part of any plant resembling any organ was thought to be effective in treating the disorders of that particular organ), self-heal was extensively used to cure mouth and throat inflammations. Chinese herbalists extensively use the self-heal flower barbs or spikes, which they call as xu ku cao denoting the ‘summer dry herb'.
Interestingly, herbalists who have been conducting researches on the herb are baffle as to how the self-heal came to be regarded as a panacea for all ailments as its use has always been very restricted. Self-heal belongs to the mint family as it has a similar square stem, but not the aroma or fragrance associated with other members of the mint family. However, the plant can be distinguished by the group of purple colored flowers growing at the apex of the stems and smaller branches of the plant. Self-heal flowers are arranged in a ring around the spikes and they never blossom all at the same time. As a result, the plant continues to flower over a prolonged period. Incidentally, many herbalists in the 17th century who believed in the Doctrine of Signatures were of the view that since the self-heal flowers resemble the shape of the mouth, they are effective remedies for sore throats, ulcers in the mouth and other related conditions.
Botanically known as Bronella or Pronella, self-heal assumed importance when the German military doctors began using the herb to treat an infectious fever that spread like a wild fire among the royal army between 1547 and 1566. This infection was distinguished by sore throat and a brown coated tongue and consequently, the herb came to be known as ‘the browns'. However, this name did not stick with self-heal for long and botanists offered this ‘heal-all' plant Latin name.
In the ancient times, herbalists recommended self-heal as an astringent owing to the bitterness of the herb. Seventeenth century herbalist and physician Nicholas Culpepper had observed that when applied on open wounds, self-heal not only impedes the flow of the blood from the wounds, but also repairs the affected area by fusing up the lips of the wounds. In addition, the herb was frequently recommended as a gargle to treat sore throats.
Interestingly, although the Prunella vulgaris is also nicknamed ‘heal-all' or ‘self-heal' denoting that the herb is a virtual panacea, researchers studying the plant are basically bewildered as the herb has always had a limited therapeutic use. According to many, the plant got its Latin name from the word ‘brunella' a distortion of the German word braune which literally translated into English denoted ‘a brown one'. In fact, besides its medicinal usage, the self-heal is an ideal example of the Doctrine of Signatures followed by medieval physicians. According to this theory, the plants healed the organs of the body they resembled.
It may be mentioned here that John Gerard, a 16th century herbalist who was also the chief secretary of state to Queen Elizabeth I, praised the self-heal highly for its therapeutic properties. According to Gerard, there was no better medication for wounds than self-heal in the world and suggested that when the herb is combined with water and wine, it is highly effective in treating all kinds of wounds whether internal or external. Following the Doctrine of Signatures whereby the plant's flowers resembled the mouth, the herb was extensively used to treat sore throats and other infections of the mouth. In addition, the herb was prescribed for treating diarrhea and boils. Some recent researched conducted on self-heal is said to have shown signs of remedies prepared from the herb's extract to slow down the cell division in HIV. Chinese herbal medicine practitioners use self-heal to lower the blood pressure as well as an antibiotic. According to ancient French and German adages, ‘He needs neither physician nor surgeon that hath self-heal and sanicle to help him.'
For ages, self-heal has been extensively used as a wound herb for its properties to impede bleeding from the wounds as well as the ability to speed up the repairing process. While English herbalist John Gerard had lauded self-heal as the best medication to heal wounds in 1597, several years later, in 1735, Irish herbalist K'Eogh had observed that self-heal not only healed all internal and external wounds, but also helped in getting rid of all impediments of the liver and the gall bladder. Hence, K'Eogh recommended the use of self-heal to treat jaundice.
The use of self-heal as a herbal medication has been greatly reduced over the years, but it still continues to be used widely as a would healer. As mentioned above, the herb is often taken as a gargle to treat sore throats and as infusion or tincture to cure internal wounds. The herb is generally applied externally to treat leucorrhea or white discharges from the vagina and also hemorrhoids or bleeding from anal veins. Many herbal medicine practitioners also recommend preparations with the herb as a tonic to stimulate various organs.
Herbalists in China recommend taking self-heal on its own or combined with ju hua better known as the Chinese chrysanthemum to treat fevers, headaches, dizziness as well as vertigo. In addition, the herb is also used to soothe the swollen and sore eyes. The Chinese herbalists also use self-heal to calm the ‘liver fire' that occurs owing to weakness of the liver. The herb is also recommended for use to treat all infected and enlarged glands, mainly the lymph nodes or organ filtering nodes of the neck. Following the finding of a few researches conducted on self-heal, herbal medical practitioners are now also prescribing the self-heal or heal-all to cure high blood pressure and related conditions.
Habitat and cultivation
Although self-heal is indigenous to Europe and Asia, presently it is found in all temperate climatic zones across the globe. Basically, self-heal is found in wastelands, pastures and along the roads. Self-heal grows and flourishes best in places receiving plenty of sunlight. The herb propagates both through self-seeding and its roots. Normally, the self-heal plant grows from the seeds during spring. The plant may also be propagated through root division. The aerial parts of the herb have therapeutic properties and are harvested during the middle of the summer, the season when self-heal bears flowers.
Researches conducted by Chinese scientists have found that the self-heal helps in reducing blood pressure by gently widening the blood vessels. At the same time, the Chinese researches have found that self-heal also possesses reasonably antibiotic properties and acts against a wide range of pathogens such as the Shigella species and E. coli. Strains or traces of Shigella and E. coli may often lead to enteritis and also urinary infections. Hence, the herb is effective in such cases too.
Self-heal may be taken both as infusion and tincture. In addition, the herb may be used as an ointment and gargle.
The aerial parts of the self-heal herb possess remedial properties and has several applications. While the herb may be taken as an infusion, decoction as well as a tincture, it may also be used as poultice, lotions, eyewash, mouthwash or gargle.
Collection and harvesting
Only the aerial parts of the self-help plant, including the leaves, tender stems and flowers, are therapeutically beneficial. The tender shoots and leaves of self-heal are harvested before the herb blossoms in June.