Synonyms and Common names: Skullcap, hoodwort, quaker bonnet, helmet flower, European skullcap, greater skullcap, American skullcap, blue skullcap, blue pimpernel, hoodwart, hooded willow herb, side-flowering skullcap, mad-dog weed, and mad weed.
Description and Habitat: Scutellaria is a large genus, about 300 species, growing from Siberia to Sri Lanka. It is well adapted to the North American climate where it has over 90 species. Plants are herbaceous, slender, rarely shrubby, scattered over temperate regions and tropical mountains around the globe. They flourish under full sunlight, limited feeding, and well-drained soil. It is possible to either buy a small plant of skullcap from a herb breeder or obtain seeds and grow in a greenhouse. It does take time, however, for the seeds to begin to grow, so plenty of patience is required!
Its generic name is derived from the Latin scutella (little dish), from the lid of the calyx. The fibrous, yellow root system supports a branching stem 30 to 90 cm tall, with opposite, ovate, and serrate leaves. The root is a short creeper which supports hairy, square, and branched stems from 15 to 45 cm tall, or in small plants, nearly simple, with opposite leaves, heart-shaped at the base, 1 to 6 cm long with scalloped or toothed margins. The blue to lavender flowers are in racemes and grow from the leaf axils. The flowers are tube-shaped, hooded, with two lips, the upper lip being the hood and the lower lip having two shallow lobes. Flowering generally occurs from May to August.
Collection and preparation: Once flowering begins the plant is cut with shears. The whole of the aerial parts are cut late in the flowering period during late summer. When harvesting skullcap, keep the freshly cut herb in the shade until harvesting is complete or take it immediately to the drying area. Do not allow the plant material to heat up.
Skullcap can dry in three to five days but should be turned often. The fresh herb is approximately eighty per cent water, if you can manage to dry the herb flat without touching each other then that’s all the better. A warm location with adequate airflow is needed for drying. Dry at a 95-1000F, turning the herb often to allow for aeration and to prevent mould from developing. Good airflow is essential. For a quality product, the full colour of the herb must be retained after drying.
Package the dried herb in woven poly bags that are light proof or in corrugated boxes, and store in a cool, dry, dark location Keep very dry and away from anywhere that may become damp. You can keep dried skullcap in a tightly lidded jar, but keep it somewhere dark and dry.
Parts used: aerial parts.
Constituents: flavonoid glycosides (scutellarin and scutellarein), iridoids (including catalpol), a trace of volatile oil, waxes, tannins, bitter principles.
Actions: anticonvulsive, sedative, nervine, central nervous relaxant and restorative, antispasmodic.
Indications: chorea, hysteria, nervous tension states, and headache. Specifically indicated in ‘grand mal’ (a type of seizure characterised by loss of consciousness, falling down, loss of bowel or bladder control, and rhythmic convulsions.)
Therapeutics: Skullcap is perhaps the most widely relevant nervine available to us in the material medica. It relaxes states of nervous tension whilst at the same time renewing and reviving the central nervous system. It has a specific use in the treatment of seizure and hysterical states as well as epilepsy. It may be used in all exhausted or depressed conditions and can be used to ease pre-menstrual tension. It is useful in insomnia and nervous headaches. Its bitter taste is also strengthening and stimulating to the digestive system. A useful herb during menopause, when skullcap helps with night sweats and insomnia.
Contraindications: Skullcap may exaggerate drugs which may induce drowsiness, do not take during pregnancy as it can produce an abortion of the foetus. Otherwise, there are no known side effects at this time.
Preparation and dosage:
Infusion: pour a cup of boiling water onto 1 to 2 teaspoonsful of the dried herb and leave to infuse for 10 to 15 minutes. Should be drunk three times a day.
Tincture; take 2 to 4ml of the tincture three times a day.
Folklore and additional comments: Once called ‘mad dog skullcap’ because of its use in treating rabies. Its common name of ‘skullcap’ refers to its use for mental patients.
Skullcap is well known among the Cherokee and other Native American tribes, as a strong emmenagogue and medicinal herb for females. It is used by some tribes as a ceremonial plant to induct young girls into womanhood.
Native Americans used skullcap to promote menstruation, and it was reputed to be effective against rabies, hence some of its common names.
Cherokee women use skullcap to maintain healthy menstrual cycles, and a root decoction is taken after the birth of a child to stimulate the reproductive system.
Skullcap is also used in purification ceremonies if menstrual taboos are broken.
The Iroquois use an infusion of the root to keep the throat clear.
Other Native American tribes use closely related species as bitter tonics for the kidneys. The herb is used to induce visions and as a ceremonial plant to be smoked as tobacco by some Native Indians.