Collecting the folklore and uses of plants


Selfheal, Prunella vulgaris, a usually low-growing, perennial herb with attractive bluish-purple, or more rarely pink or white flowers, is widespread in grassy places, but appears to have attracted little folklore.

W.M.E. Fowler in her ‘Superstitions regarding wild flowers in the Selborne country’, in Nature Notes 2: 193-4, 1891, records that in north Hampshire nursemaids would warn small children not to pick selfheal – known as black-man’s flowers – because the plant belonged to the devil who became exceedingly annoyed when it was gathered, and would  appear in the night to carry off any child which had so angered him.

All other known folklore refers to medicinal uses.

A.S. Macmillan in his Popular Names of Flowers, Fruits, etc., 1922, provides brown-wort as a Somerset name for selfheal and claims that it received this name ‘from its being  supposed to cure the disease called in German die braune, a kind of quinsy’.

Other names supposedly refer to the plant’s use to treat cuts:  carpenter-grass in Cheshire, and carpenter’s herb in Gloucestershire and Somerset.

H.C. Hart in his Flora of County Donegal, 1898, recorded the name heartsease and stated that ‘an infusion of the plant is highly esteemed for the heart’.  Nathaniel Colgan also mentions this use in his Flora of the County Dublin, 1904.

M. McNeill, in Colonsay, 1910, reported that islanders collected and dried selfheal in the summer for use as a popular remedy for chest ailments: ‘the plants were boiled in milk and strained before using; butter was added’.

Cures recorded by the Irish Folklore Commission’s School Scheme, 1937-39, include:

‘If you are anxious to get rid of a cough, go out and gather some … selfheal.  Put them in water and boil them.  Then drink the juice which has boiled out’ [Co. Wicklow].

‘The minerac herb [selfheal] cures the minerac [a mysterious wasting] disease …  Nine peices are got (saying the name of the person you require it for) washed clean and rubbed until a froth is produced from it.  The froth is mixed with water and turns it green.  The person that needs it drinks it three mornings in succession and blesses himself each time.  He is not allows meat, eggs or much butter when taking'[Co. Offaly].

No information on selfheal has been contributed to P-LA.

Adapted from R. Vickery, Vickery’s Folk Flora, 2019.

Comment: According to Alice Smith, in her Physick Garden: Ancient Cures for Modern Maladies, 2022:  Selfheal ‘thrives by waysides … often growing close to where agricultural accidents took place’.  It would be interesting to know where this idea came from [RV, November 2022].

Images:  beside North Downs Way, Ranmore Common, Surrey, July 2021; inset, Nantes Place, Battersea, London Borough of Wandsworth, June 2022.

Updated 12 November 2022.