Prunella vulgaris (selfheal)
Selfheal is a common herb in Britain and has a long history of medicinal use.
Prunella vulgaris inflorescence (Image: Wolfgang Stuppy)
Grassland, wood-clearings, rough ground, lawns.
No hazards currently known.
About this species
Prunella vulgaris is a common herb in Britain and is especially visible on lawns that have not been treated with weedkiller. The plant has a long history of medicinal use, and traditionally the leaves are applied to wounds to promote healing. According to the 16th-century herbalist John Gerard, ‘there is not a better wounde herbe in the world’. The 17th-century botanist Nicholas Culpeper wrote that the plant is called selfheal because ‘when you are hurt, you may heal yourself’.
Geography and distribution
Temperate and subtropical northern hemisphere to Central America, and common throughout the British Isles.
Overview: Prunella vulgaris is a perennial herb, with stems often square, crimson tinged, and erect to decumbent, up to 30 cm tall.
Leaves: The leaves are shortly petiolate, narrowly ovate, margins entire or shallowly toothed.
Flowers: The flowers are purplish blue, rarely pink or white. Nutlets 4. Flowers from late spring until the autumn.
Threats and conservation
Prunella vulgaris is commonly found in a variety of habitats in the UK and is therefore not threatened.
Selfheal has a wide range of uses in traditional medicine.
Prior to World War II, it was used to staunch bleeding and for treating heart disease. A decoction of the leaves was used to treat sore throats and internal bleeding. It is used as an anti-inflammatory and has anti-allergic activity. In western medicine it is used externally for treating minor injuries, sores, burns, bruises and can also be used as a mouthwash to treat mouth ulcers.
Whereas in European countries herbalists have mainly used selfheal for treating wounds, in Chinese medicine it is mainly used for treating liver complaints, acting as a stimulant in the liver and gall bladder. Selfheal shows antiviral properties, and in China it is used as an anti-cancer drug.
Aside from its medical uses, Prunella vulgaris is a valuable addition to areas of grassland managed for wildflowers and wildlife, but can spread into cultivated areas if unchecked.
Millennium Seed Bank: Seed storage
Kew's Millennium Seed Bank Partnership aims to save plant life world wide, focusing on plants under threat and those of most use in the future. Seeds are dried, packaged and stored at a sub-zero temperature in our seed bank vault.
Number of seed collections stored in the Millennium Seed Bank: 11
Seed storage behaviour: Orthodox (the seeds of this plant survive being dried without significantly reducing their viability, and are therefore amenable to long-term frozen storage such as at the MSB)
Germination testing: Successful
Composition values: Oil content 19.2-24.2%, Protein 19-21.4%
Bown, D. (2008). The Royal Horticultural Society encyclopedia of Herbs and Their Uses. Dorling Kindersley, London.
Gerard, J. (1633). The Herbal; or General Historie of Plants: The Complete 1633 Edition. Dover, New York.
Mabberley, D.J. (2008). Mabberley’s Plant-book: A Portable Dictionary of Plants, their Classification and Uses. 3rd Ed. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
Usher, G. (1974). A Dictionary of Plants Used by Man. Constable, London.
Williamson, E.M. (2003). Potter’s Herbal Cyclopedia. C.W. Daniel, Saffron Walden.
Kew Science Editor: Gemma Bramley
Kew contributors: Sustainable Uses Group
Copy editing: Kew Publishing
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