Common Name: Heal-all, Self-heal, Brownwort, Blue curls, Carpenter’s weed, Hook heal, Heart-of-the-Earth, Kleine Braunelle (Germany), Xia Ku Cao (China) – One of the first widely used and well-known plants with medicinal properties; it was literally considered to be a panacea that could heal all.
Scientific Name: Prunella vulgaris – The generic name is a modified spelling of Brunella, which is derived from the German braun with the addition of the diminutive suffix ella. This convoluted etymology reflects the use of the plant to treat an inflammation of the throat known as die Breuen in Old German. The species name is the Latin word for ‘common.’
Potpourri: Heal-all is an easily overlooked diminutive plant that would generally be relegated to the category of ground cover. Were it not for its size, the orchid-like blossom would be a candidate for a flower garden. The graceful arching hooded petal overhanging the porch-like lower petal is a characteristic of the Lamiaceae or Mint Family to which it is taxonomically assigned; Lamiaceae is also known as Labiaceae since many mint flowers have upper and lower labia or ‘lips.” However, at the macroscopic level of field observation, the myriad tiny violet flowers appear as a purplish-green blur and it has not near the aesthetics manifest on enlargement. When heal-all becomes established in the axenic monoculture of the suburban greensward, it is considered a weed; it is so rated by the U. S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). This designation is due not only to the fact that it is particularly adept at spreading out from an established incipience at the expense of other plants, but also to the fact that it is a non-native invasive species. This was not a matter of serendipity; heal-all was brought to North America from Europe by the early colonists to take advantage of its perceived restorative powers.
Heal-all may well have been one of the first plants to be identified in the Middle Ages of Western culture as an effective medicinal herb – both the common and the scientific names suggest this. Leonhart Fuchs was a professor of medicine at the University in Tubingen (now Eberhard Karls University) who devoted his life to the study of the plants that were demonstrably useful to physicians. A charter member of the German intelligentsia at the height of the Reformation (he was an early Protestant convert), he devoted his life to the proper identification and use of plants. Heal-all first appears in the written record with his 1542 publication of De Historia Stirpium Commentarii Insignes – Notable Commentaries on the History of Plants – the first substantive volume on medicinal plants or herbs. It is described as ein wundkraut – a wound herb – and is generally prescribed for external topical use and, when boiled in water or wine, internally – for mundfeule – mouth problems. Over the next hundred years, the reputation and curative powers heal-all grew with the herbal renaissance of the 17th Century, most notably in England. John Gerard’s The Herball or General Historie of Plantes appeared in 1597, supplementing the identification of medicinal plants provided by Fuchs to include their use for specific maladies. His encomium for heal-all extends the modest attribution of Fuchs: “There is not a better wound herb in the world than that of self-heal is, the very name importing it to be very admirable on this account and indeed the virtues do make it good.” With characteristic panache, the prescription for its use is to be “… wrought with the point of a knife upon a trencher or the like, (it) will be brought into the form of a salve, which will heal any green wound even in the first intention after a very wonderful manner.” As Gerard’s Herball was the Pharmacopeia of its day, the use of heal-all as a vulnerary became widespread. The common names carpenter’s weed and hook heal are derived from its use by carpenters and fishermen for the treatment of flesh wounds associated with their respective professions. With time and a certain amount of poetic license, the reputation of heal-all grew with subsequent herbalists. Nicolas Culpeper in the publication of The Complete Herbal in 1653 writes that “it kills the worms, helps the gout, cramp and convulsions, provides urine, and helps with joint aches. Self-Heal whereby you are hurt, you may heal yourself … it is an especial herb for inward and outward wounds.”
The conflation of religion and science in the reformation of the former and the renaissance of the latter in the 16th Century produced a predictable result in the Doctrine of Signatures. Jacob Boehme (1575-1624), an autodidact German cobbler with no formal education, believed that God must have revealed himself in the things that he created on earth since this was the only way that he could have any knowledge of His true being. In 1622, he published his ideas in De Signatura Rerum, the Signature of All Things, establishing therein that “the greatest understanding lies in the signature, wherein man … may learn to know the essence of all essences; for by the external form of all creatures … the hidden spirit is known; for nature has given to everything its language according to its essence and form.” The teleology implicit in this interpretation of botanical evolution is, in many ways, a precursor to the intelligent design prognostications of the “modern” era. William Coles was perhaps the strongest proponent of the Doctrine of Signatures among the English herbalists in the books The Art of Simpling (1656) and Adam in Eden (1657). In the latter, he provides the numinous provenance of heal-all as “a very excellent remedy for that disease which the Germans call de Breuen which is common to soldiers when they lie in camp, but especially in garrisons, coming with an extraordinary inflammation or swelling, as well in the mouth as throat, the very signature of the throat (emphasis added) which the form of the flowers so represent signifying as much; yet it will be necessary also for the perfect cure of the disease.” The rictus of the heal-all blossom is the signature of the throat, and, mirabile dictu, it was placed here by God for that very purpose. The combination of the German origins of the idea of the Doctrine of Signatures with Boehme and the knowledge of the medicinal effects of the throat-like heal- all on mouth sores of the German soldiers may very well be the etiology of herbal remediation – toothaches are cured by toothwort, jaundice is cured by the liverwort or hepatica, and heal-all cures everything else.
As Heal-all was considered an inestimable panacea in Europe, it was brought purposely to the North American colonies where one’s garden was one’s pharmacy. It is also a time-honored healing herb in China, where it is known as Xia Ku Cao. However, there is no indication that it achieved the same vulnerary reputation that in enjoyed in Eurasia; Heal-all was not listed in the United States Pharmacopoeia of 1830 and therefore must have had no known nosologic association. Even without this official sanction, it was widely used as a gargle for sore throats and as a salve for cuts and bruises. The tradition continues to this day – it is marketed as an herbal remedy for everything from Crohn’s Disease to HIV. It is purportedly antiseptic, antibiotic, antidiarrheal, antipyretic (fever abatement), antibacterial and antispasmodic; you can buy a one ounce bottle for ten bucks. It is listed in the Peterson Field Guide for Medicinal Plants and Herbs as having antimutagenic (antitumor) and hypotensive (lowering blood pressure) qualities. The chemistry of Heal-all is complicated: The Handbook of Medicinal Mints (Aromathematics): Phytochemicals and Biological Activities lists 23 constituents including the triterpenes betulinic and ursolic acid (the former has known antiretroviral and anti-inflammatory properties and the latter is a cancer cell inhibitor) and a virtual periodic table of elements: arsenic, calcium, copper, iron, magnesium, manganese, mercury, potassium, sodium and zinc. Recent research has helped to address the contradiction between its imputed and bona fide benefits, though at this juncture it is very limited and far from conclusive; there have been no human trials. In general, it appears that Heal-All has ameliorative effects on herpes simplex viruses (and thereby possibly HIV), diabetes (it improves the insulin sensitivity of diabetic mice) and cancer. The paucity of experimental result is not necessarily an inditement; it may be a challenge for future research. It would be a signature irony if Heal-all healed nothing.