Japan's 72 Microseasons - #28
"The Heal-All Plant Withers"
June 21 - 26
”The heal-all plant withers”
Among the hundreds and thousands of flashy flowers blossoming in verdant fields during the peak of summer, one unpresuming purple plant reaches the end of its growth and begins to wither and dry out. Far from a quiet, unnoticed event, these browning bundles drew careful attention and respect from the people of historical Japan—the heal-all plant earns its spot in the 72 kō precisely because it is the dried plant that will help ease people’s ails for the rest of the year. With a lifespan bookmarked by the solstices, this meek medicinal herb would be a welcome sight through winter and spring, promising a fresh supply of accessible pain relief.
Prunella vulgaris (as it’s known in the language of science) or utsubo-gusa (as it’s known in the language of Japanese1), has long been used as a natural treatment for reducing inflammation, headaches, coughs, muscle tension, and other ills. It can be dried and used as a tea, or applied to the skin as an oil made from freshly picked plants.
Not just in Japan, either: its scientific name is derived from the German name for a throat infection, which heal-all was commonly used to soothe. In English it is also called “self-heal,” “woundwort,” and the rather mystical “heart-of-the-earth.” It has been gathered in India for use in medicinal bathing (it also smells nice and has similar fatty acids to soap ingredients). The Nlakaʼpamux people of British Columbia drank it. Across oceans and continents, across centuries and civilizations, this simple mint-relative has offered relief to people in pain.
And although such effects needn’t always be chemical in nature to help someone who’s feeling bad, the heal-all does contain a variety of anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial, and diuretic compounds such as betulinic acid, hyperoside, and lupeol2. Many of which are being isolated and studied as cancer preventatives and treatments alongside their other existing benefits. While there’s no substitute for rigorously researched, time-tested modern medicine with their reliable dosages and effects, it’s important to remember that nearly all of them originated in herbal remedies and what we learned from people’s usage of them. After all, aspirin came from willow bark.
The heal-all withers but does not die during this period. As a perennial plant, it merely drops its greenery and rests for a few months after propagating, only to begin sprouting anew in winter. And although I said at the top that it earns its spot in the Koyomi’s 72 kō, it actually earns two. Around the winter solstice, at Kō 64, is Natsukarekusa shōzu, “the heal-all plant sprouts.” Not just a reliable marker of the start and end of the solstice periods (they are the kō that kicks off each), but also undoubtedly worth noticing so that they can be used later to refresh supplies. It’s a rare honor given in the list of microseasons, especially for when a flower is withering rather than blooming, but certainly seems plenty deserved.
In addition to heal-all, here are the other flora and fauna enjoying their moment in the sun this kō:
● Seasonal fruit
natsu-mikan, 夏みかん, Chinese citron
● Seasonal seafood
ayu, 鮎, sweetfish
● Seasonal flower
hatazao kikyō, 旗竿桔梗, creeping bellflower
If you are in the northern hemisphere, I hope that you were able to enjoy and appreciate the longest day of sunlight a few days back! If you are in the southern hemisphere like yours truly, well, warmer days are already on their way. And wherever you are, may you find your own panacea for whatever ails you.
See you next kō~
Keep up with the seasons
So named for its resemblance to a quiver (utsubo) full of arrows, but as ever with bits of nature that have long been noticed and talked about there are several names for the self-heal plant in Japan—in the context of its medicinal use natsukare-kusa (which is used in the reading of this kō) and kakosō are common, which are both transliterations of the original Chinese (夏枯草) and literally mean “withers-in-summer-grass”
Some others: kusuri-gusa (“medicine plant”), bijō-gusa (“chronic disease plant”), chidome-gusa (“styptic plant”), and differing lots of regional terms including the colorful hebi-no-makura (“snake’s pillow”)