By Kathleen M. Hale, Western Reserve Herb Society
This plant’s Latin name has given me my chosen nom-de-Hogwarts: Prunella vulgaris. It suits me.
Prunella’s common names also speak volumes: woundwart, self-heal and heart-of-the-earth. This is one potent little herb, widespread in Zones 3-9, but particularly common in Ireland. It is a low-growing plant, and spreads both by seeds and by side shoots. In this, it resembles its cousin, the mint, but it lacks mint’s distinctive taste and scent.
In North America, prunella flowers in July and August. The flowers are small, but deserve a closer look: above a single stem the flowers emerge from a squarish club-shaped cluster. Each tiny, violet-colored flower is elegantly hooded and lipped, a little like a tiny snapdragon. Because few flowers open at a time from a distance the cluster may appear brown or reddish. But take a closer look. Pollinators do. It is a favorite host for the clouded sulphur butterfly Colias philodice.
If you haven’t seen prunella, chances are that you haven’t been looking. It’s everywhere. Where it grows in the grass, it adapts to mowing by keeping its head down, and it flowers at the level of the surrounding turf. Prunella prefers moist partial shade, but it isn’t picky. However, cultivate around it and it is gone.
The uses and benefits of prunella are many. Every part of the plant is edible. It is antiseptic, diuretic, anti-pyretic and styptic. It is said to lower blood pressure and to be anti-viral. Research is pursuing the suggestion that it might be helpful in the treatment of diabetes, herpes, Ebola and HIV. In the European Middle Ages, prunella was held to be a holy herb, and was credited with being able to repel the devil himself.
Because the open, lipped flowers might look to some like an open mouth and throat, prunella’s most traditional use has been to soothe ailments of the mouth and throat.
Some of its legendary powers are truly remarkable. Prunella has been known as a remedy for the injury of animal bites. And, if you’ve ever been bitten by an animal in your dreams it heals the dream wound. I don’t ever recall having been bitten by an animal in my dreams, but it sounds quite alarming. It’s good to know that the remedy is so close at hand.