Dear Readers, my friend J has had some work done in her garden, and a fine crop of selfheal has popped up as if by magic. I love the way that some seeds will bide their time, maybe for years, until the conditions are right for them to germinate. This plant is a member of the dead nettle and mint family (Lamiaceae) and if you look closely, the flowers have the characteristic ‘tongue’ at the bottom, which makes them look almost like tiny orchids.
Selfheal is a widespread plant, growing in Europe, Asia and North America. It can look very different, according to where it grows: in a much-mowed lawn it can be tiny, but alongside a woodland path it can grow to a foot high.
The name ‘selfheal’ indicates that the plant has a variety of medicinal uses. In the UK it has largely been used to treat bruises and cuts (probably one reason for the alternative name ‘carpenter’s plant’, at least if woodwork is something of an ordeal as it has always been for me). The leaves were combined with lard and smeared onto the wound. In Chinese medicine, however, it was considered to be much more powerful, and capable of changing the course of a chronic disease. Even its Latin generic name, Prunella, comes from the German word for a kind of throat infection, known in the UK as quinsy – the plant was said to be able to cure such ailments. These days, it usually blooms away unnoticed, like so many medicinal plants.
Selfheal is edible, and its leaves can be used in a salad or as a pot herb. Unlike many members of the Lamiaceae such as mint and basil, selfheal has no smell and little flavour, although the young leaves have a fresh green taste, and I can imagine the flowers added to a gin and tonic (but then, I am a distiller’s daughter). In the USA the Cherokee cooked and ate the leaves, and the Nlakapamuk made a beverage from the whole plant.
While I was looking for recipes that contain selfheal, I discovered Prunella cake, an American recipe from the 1930’s, on the Yesterdish website. Unfortunately it doesn’t contain any selfheal (it seems to mainly consist of prunes and sugar), but the icing would have been a delightful purple-blue colour from all the prunes, so maybe that was part of the link with the plant. The author of the website also believes that the name is a hint that the cake is as healthful as the plant, though with all that Crisco I’m not totally convinced.
Selfheal is one of those native plants that you can buy for your garden ( at £3.99 a pop). However, if you want one of those bowling-green lawns with not a blade out of place, you may find selfheal an implacable enemy, what with its self-seeding and spreading rhizomes and all. I would rather find space for such a useful little plant in my garden. Life is enough of a struggle without going to war against the natural world.
For my poem this week I offer you this extraordinary work by Northern Irish poet Michael Longley, one of my very favourite writers. Although Self-Heal is about the west of Ireland, rather than the Troubles in the north, it’s difficult not to read this and consider how an act can spiral into violence and yet more violence. It’s not an easy read.
(Mayo Monologues 3)
Self-heal and centaury; on the long acre
Where cattle never graze, bog asphodel.
Could I love someone so gone in the head
And, as they say, was I leading him on?
He’d slept in the cot until he was twelve
Because of his babyish ways, I suppose,
Or the lack of a bed: hadn’t his father
Gambled away all but rushy pasture?
His skull seemed to be hammered like a wedge
Into his shoulders, and his back was hunched,
Which gave him an almost scholarly air.
But he couldn’t remember the things I taught:
Each name would hover above its flower
Like a butterfly unable to alight.
That day I pulled a cuckoo-pint apart
To release the giddy insects from their cell.
Gently he slipped his hand between my thighs.
I wasn’t frightened; and still I don’t know why,
But I ran from him in tears to tell them.
I heard how every day for one whole week
He was flogged with a blackthorn, then tethered
In the hayfield. I might have been the cow
Whose tail he would later dock with shears,
And he the ram tangled in barbed wire
That he stoned to death when they set him free.