Heal-all is a native, short, drooping to semi-erect perennial forb growing from 1/2 to 1-1/2 feet high on 4-angled stems. Stems usually have long white hair, particularly on the stem angles. Branching can occur but is usually restricted to within the inflorescence. By mid-July in Minnesota, the stems are usually sprawling.
The leaves are opposite, sparse, stalked, with hair on the undersides and on the stalk. Basal leaves are on long stalks and are more ovate, with broadly rounded tips. Stem leaves are more oblong to lanceolate, up to 2 inches long and 3/4 inch wide, with a bluntly pointed tip. Margins of all leaves have shallow bluntly rounded teeth. Bases taper to a partial wing.
The inflorescence is a dense conical terminal spike with auxiliary spikes sometimes rising from the upper leaf axils. These spikes elongate in flowering. The arrangement on the spike is common in the mint family. In this case, the flowers form a horizontal whorl-like grouping of 6, which are arranged as 2 cymules of 3 flowers each. This arrangement is termed a 'verticillaster'. Each cymule of the spike is subtended by a broad hairy bract, green with a reddish edge. However, with the spike only at the tops of stems and not in interrupted clusters on the stem, this is somewhat unique in the mint family.
The flowers are 5-parted with a tubular corolla 1/3 to 3/4 inch long that has a violet to purplish upper lip that extends forward over the other parts, acting as a hood. The crest, or midvein, of this lip has fine whitish hair. The lower lip has a large fringed lobe with two smaller unfringed lateral lobes. These are white. The reproductive parts are exserted up and under the upper lip. These consist of 4 stamens arranged in two pairs, one pair, upper, longer than the other (didynamous). These have purplish filaments with purplish-brown anthers. Nestled between the upper pair of stamens is the style with a two-lobe stigma. The outer calyx is green to reddish, hairy on the edges and also has a 2-lipped form with the upper lip truncated to three short teeth and the lower lip cleft into two pointed teeth.
Seed: Mature flowers produce 4 smooth brownish-yellow seeds, encased in the persistent calyx. These drop from the calyx when ripe.
Varieties: The two subspecies of this species are subsp. lanceolata (W.C.P. Barton) Hultén (shown here) and subsp. vulgaris which is native to Europe, known as Lawn Prunella.
Habitat: Heal-all is often found in fields, woods, waste places, pastures and disturbed sites, where there is moist to mesic rich soil with full to partial sunlight. There are both North American species and European imported species with the European varieties usually shorter and can be found in lawns, hence one of the alternate common names. It can be propagated by seeds but the sprawling stem can root also.
Names: The genus Prunella is derived from the Latin prunum, meaning 'purple. More details below. The species vulgaris is used to represent 'common' as in a frequently found species. Lanceolata means 'spear shaped' referring to the leaf of narrow shape with sides tapering to a point. The author name for the plant classification - 'L.' refers to Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778), Swedish botanist and the developer of the binomial nomenclature of modern taxonomy.
Comparisons: While the mint family verticillasters occur on a number of species, the shape and color of the spike here is not going to be confusing. The European variety, Lawn Prunella, P. vulgaris, subsp. vulgaris, is shorter and usually not erect (photo below).
Above: 1st photo - The plant is semi-erect and short. 2nd photo - Detail of the verticillaster. 3rd photo - Stems are angled and hairy. Leaf stalks are hairy.
Below: 1st photo - This top view shows how flowers are arranged in the verticillaster. 2nd photo - Detail of the flower showing the upper hood the lower fringed lip. Note how the stamens and style nest against the upper lip.
Below: The upper surface of the leaves is smooth while the underside (2nd photo) is hairy, particularly on the veins.
Below: 1st photo - The basal leaves are more rounded and also have hairy stalks. 2nd photo - For comparison- this is the Lawn Prunella, subsp. vulgaris which is short and frequently found in lawns as was this example.
Notes: Heal-all is not indigenous to the Garden. Eloise Butler first brought in plants on April 13, 1910 (no source) and more on Sept. 27, 1912 from a source in Solon Springs, WI. Martha Crone made notes of the plant blooming in 1938 and planted it in 1946. It was listed on her 1951 plant census and on the subsequent census reports. Both the native and the European variety are found in Minnesota. The DNR does not break the varieties to county level but the species is found in most counties except the SW quadrant. In North America it has been found everywhere except the very far north Canadian Provinces.
More on names: The common name of Heal-all would be better replaced by it’s other common name of “Self-heal” as in a number of plant reports “Heal-all” is used as another common name for Stoneroot (Collinsonia Canadensis Linn.), an entirely different plant. The generic name, Prunella was originally “Brunella,” from the German “breun” meaning “quinsy,” an inflammation of the mouth and throat. The plant gained prominence when military physicians used it to treat a contagious fever that raged among Imperial armies in Germany in 1547-1566. A brown coated tongue was a symptom - called “die breuns” - so that is where the Latinized name Brunella came from. Brunella and Prunella became interchangeable names.
Lore and Uses: With the blossoms having what appears to be a mouth and a throat, under the Doctrine of Signatures the plant was considered a mouth and throat healer. Nevertheless, the medicinal applications of the plant have always been very limited. The plant contains ursolic acid, which is known to have diuretic and anti tumor qualities. A useful mouthwash and gargle is made by boiling early spring leaves. It is an effective astringent, useful in stopping blood flow by taking an infusion made from the root and using this as a wash for bruises and cuts. Mrs. Grieve (Ref.#7) reports extensively on additional uses. The fresh leaves applied as a poultice also work for bites and scratches, as crushed leaves and flower spikes are astringent and anti-inflammatory. In fact, both Moore (Ref. #30) and Tilford (Ref. #39) attest that fresh juice of the plant preserved with 25% vodka or 10% alcohol can be used as a vulnerary, almost ouchless, for treating childhood wounds. Tilford also states that the entire plant is edible when young, said to have the flavor of bland romaine lettuce.
References: Plant characteristics are generally from sources 1A, 32, W2, W3, W7 & W8 plus others as specifically applied. Distribution principally from W1, W2 and 28C. Planting history generally from 1, 4 & 4a. Other sources by specific reference. See Reference List for details.
Friends of the Wild Flower Garden, Inc. Text and photos are by G. D. Bebeau unless otherwise credited. "www.friendsofthewildflowergarden.org"