Notes from the Apothecary

August 1st, 2017

Notes from the Apothecary: Self Heal

 

 

Prunella vulgaris; prunel, brunell, carpenter’s herb, hook heal, sickle-wort; a common herb in the British isles, and indeed most places in the Northern Hemisphere; currently creeping its way across my lawn, unapologetically purple. I was delighted to find this magical little plant as a ‘freebie’; we didn’t cultivate it, it’s completely made its own way in and it is most welcome. The plant has a long history of medical use, being commented upon by Gerard, Culpeper and many other renowned herbalists and botanists, for its wide-ranging uses, which we will examine further below.

 

Although useful as a magical plant, we don’t find it in Cunningham or similar books, yet there is much history surrounding this little miracle plant.

 

The Kitchen Garden

 

Eat the Weeds tells us that the young leaves can be eaten raw or cooked, however the raw leaves can be slightly bitter. This may be an option if you are really low on greens, but I would only cultivate this plant to be harvested as an herb, or simply to be enjoyed as an extremely beautiful addition to any garden.

 

Purple flowers in the garden help attract bees and butterflies, and bees in particular really love this plant (see the pic I took at the top of the article; I had bent down to shoot the flower when the bee buzzed in, a couple of inches from my nose!). If you grow your own herbs, fruits and vegetable, it’s essential that you encourage pollinators, so self heal is ideal for this.

 

The Apothecary

 

Where to start. The common name, self heal, tells you all you need to know and not very much at the same time. We get that sense that for centuries, this plant has been revered for its healing properties, but what exactly does it do?

 

Mrs Grieve tells us that the whole plant may be used medicinally, as an astringent (causes cells to contract), a styptic (stops bleeding) and a tonic (a general restorative). She recommends 1oz of the plant mixed with a pint of boiling water, to make an infusion which is considered a ‘strengthener’. She also recommends the same infusion mixed with honey (yum, back to the bees again) and used as a gargle for sore throats and mouth ulcers.

 

In 1657 William Coles wrote Adam in Eden or Nature’s Paradise: The History of Plants, Fruits, Herbs and Flowers. In this ambitious volume he mentions self heal several times, including making a remedy for quinsy (a serious complication arising from tonsillitis) made with a combination of self heal, jew’s ear fungus and elder honey. Seriously, if you are at risk of quinsy though, see a doctor! It’s worth noting that Coles was a staunch advocate of the Doctrine of Signatures, the idea that plants look like the part of the body they are useful for healing. He believed that God would have wanted mankind to know what each plant was useful for. Sadly, this strategy doesn’t always follow through, which is why it’s always important to research your herbs thoroughly and scientifically.

 

Coles also wrote that ‘There is not a better wound-herbe in the world’ and recommended it for leaning wounds to stop infection, and to soothe the nipples of breastfeeding women who had been bitten by their enthusiastic babies. He also concurred with Mrs Grieve in that it is a useful tonic for sore throats, particularly those accompanied by a fever, most likely tonsillitis again.

 

Culpeper tells us that there is a proverb:

That he needs neither physician nor surgeon that hath self-heal and sanicle to help himself.

 

So self heal, along with other herbs such as sanicle, mentioned here, can be seen as an essential part of a herbal first aid kit, or it certainly was as far back as the 17th century, if not much earlier.

 

The Lab

 

In modern medicine, there is hope that self heal may hold some anti-viral properties, and may even be useful in the treatment or prevention of cancer. The plant is capable of inhibiting a virus’s ability to replicate itself, so may be very useful in modern anti-viral drugs. So far tests have been done involving the herpes virus and HIV. More testing needs to be done though, to find conclusive evidence on this.

 

There is also some indication that self heal could be useful for diabetes sufferers, although again, this theory is in its very early stages.

 

The Witch’s Kitchen

 

 

There is anecdotal superstition that witches grew self heal in their gardens to hide their malicious activities. Self heal is so common that most people would not look twice at it, so perhaps it was used to mask other, more interesting herbs.

 

Culpeper wrote that self heal was ‘another herb of Venus’, lending the plant a feminine aspect and associations with both the planet and the goddess of the same name. Venus speaks to us of love, sex, sensuality and beauty; not just physical beauty but art, music and all types of creativity. Self heal can be seen as a catalyst for not only healing the body, but healing the soul, and reminding us not to be ‘all work and no play’. Self heal on the altar or in a sacred space can be a symbol for repairing or building a friendship, or perhaps a more intense relationship.

 

Venus is also associated with wealth, and by extension work, business, career and other opportunities. Self heal in a button-hole might be an easy amulet to wear for a job interview, or a business meeting. If this is too ostentatious, try some leaves or flowers in a tiny bag in your pocket, perhaps with a small rock to remind you to be grounded and true to your ideals.

 

Venus, as a goddess, is also associated with victory and triumphs, so self heal can be used as a tool to help you achieve your goals. Place leaves or flowers around you while you visualise your goals coming to fruition. Picture yourself where you want to be; getting that job, winning that race, overcoming stage fright or, for writers like myself, getting that next book contract! Crush a leaf and smear some of the juice on your forehead. This is activating your magical and energetic connection to the parts of the universe you cannot see with your eyes alone, and will help cement your will. Remember to make a commitment to do the work required in the physical world, and ensure you stick to it.

 

If the plants grow nearby, water them and thank them for their help. Always wash the juice off your skin afterwards, and if an irritation occurs, as with any substance, wash it off immediately and seek medical help if necessary.

 

Home and Hearth

 

If you don’t mind the odd ‘weed’ in your lawn, let self heal be when it pops up in your garden. The delightful purple flowers will encourage bees and other beauties, and purple reminds us of spirit, universal energy and balance. As such, you can pick some of the flowers for your late spring/early summer altar, depending on when your flowering season occurs. Mine are just starting to wilt, the glorious violet blooms dropping away to leave the empty flowers heads which have a similarity to ears of corn, making them a lovely decoration for a harvest celebration or Lammas altar.

 

I Never Knew…

 

In Ireland the herb is known as Ceannbhán beag, which translates as ‘little bog cotton’.

 

All images copyright 2017, Mabh Savage.

 

***

 

Mabh Savage is a Pagan author, poet and musician, as well as a freelance journalist.

She is the author of:

 

 A Modern Celt: Seeking the Ancestors

 

 

and

 

Pagan Portals: Celtic Witchcraft.

 

 

Follow Mabh on Twitter, Facebook and her blog.


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