Botanical and Common Names
- Family Labiatae
- Scutellaria lateriflora (Skullcap/Scullcap, Virginia Skullcap, Blue Pimpernel, Helmet Flower, Hoodwort, Mad-dog Weed, Madweed, Madderweed, Mad-Dog Skullcap, Quaker Bonnet/Hat)
- Scutellaria baicalensis syn. S. macrantha (Baical Skullcap, Huang quin/qin)
- Recent research is showing that the liver toxicity associated with the herb may be caused by germander, an herb that is occasionally sold as skullcap.
Native to North America, skullcap still grows wild in much of the US and Canada, thriving in such damp conditions as river bank, and requiring plenty of sun. The herb is perennial, growing to about two feet in height with an erect, many-branched stem and pink to blue flowers that grow along one side of the stem. It is cultivated in Europe. The aerial parts are harvested in the summer when in flower from three or four year old plants. There are about 300 species of Scutellaria that can be found virtually everywhere in the world, except South Africa.
Baical skullcap is found in China, Japan, Korea, Mongolia, and Russia, thriving on sunny, grassy slopes and usually found in open areas between 350 feet and 8,000 feet above sea level. It is also a perennial that grows from one to four feet high, producing lance-shaped leaves and purplish-blue flowers. The roots are harvested from three or four year old plants in the autumn or spring.
Its botanical name (lateriflora) resulted from the way the dish-shaped seedpods and flowers grow on only one side of the stem.
There are eight species of skullcap found throughout the Prairie Bioregion of North America. The herb was used by Native Americans for rabies long before its adoption by European herbalists, thus its nickname of Mad dog. There has been much controversy over the use of the plant in treating hydrophobia. In an 1830 herbal, that controversy was referred to when one doctor, in 1772, claimed to have cured 400 persons and 1,000 cattle who had been bitten by “mad dogs;” and many other physicians claimed the same success. However, several other physicians denied these facts. It seems, history does not change. Adding to the confusion, the plant was listed in the US Pharmacopoeia from 1863 to 1916 and in the National Formulary from 1916 to 1947. On the other hand, the US Dispensatory stated in its 21st-23rd editions (1926-1944) that it was “as destitute of medicinal properties as a plant may be”.
The Mesquakies used the small skullcap (Scutellaria parvula) in the treatment of diarrhea.
The Cherokee used skullcap to stimulate menstruation, relieve breast pain, and encourage the expulsion of the placenta after childbirth. It was also used in purification ceremonies when menstrual taboos were broken.
Followers of a 19th century Anglo-American school of herbal medicine were called Physiomedicalists and were the first to discover skullcap’s use as a nerve tonic. They recognized that it had a “deeper” action on the nervous system than any other herb and used it for hysteria, epilepsy convulsions, and such serious mental illnesses as schizophrenia.
In 1973, ninety-two wooden tablets were discovered in a 2nd century tomb in northwestern China. Among the herbs listed there was baical skullcap. Other prescriptions were noted as well, including decoctions, tinctures, pills, and ointments. This Chinese variety of skullcap has a long and central place in Chinese herbal medicine and used to treat “hot and damp” conditions as dysentery and diarrhea.
- mild bitter
- relaxing nervine
(b) Baical Skullcap
- promotes bile flow
- strongly anti-inflammatory
- flavonoids (scutellarin)
- bitter iridoids (catalpol)
- volatile oil
(b) Baical Skullcap
- flavonoids (about 12% including baicalin, wogoniside)
- benzoic acid
- Aerial parts (skullcap), root (baical skullcap)
- Research has shown that skullcap species have several constituents that have antispasmodic properties.
An infusion of the fresh aerial parts (if possible) is used to soothe nervous exhaustion, excitability, overanxiety, and premenstrual tension. It is also combined with wild lettuce or passionflower and taken at night to treat insomnia.
Tinctures are best when made from the fresh herb. They are a very potent remedy for calming the nerves.
A decoction of the root is used in combination with such other cold, bitter herbs as goldenseal to purge heat from the system. When combined with such herbs as ju hua (a variety of chrysanthemum), they reduce high blood pressure.
Capsules are a convenient way to treat nervous tension and headaches.
Tablets often contain other sedative herbs in addition to skullcap. These are taken for insomnia.
Poultices of baical skullcap are applied to sores, swellings, and boils and are especially helpful for circulatory problems arising from diabetic conditions.
Today, skullcap is one of the best herbs for treating nervous disorders and is a tonic for times of stress. It has a bitter, slightly astringent taste. Its restorative properties help support and nourish the nervous system, calm stress, and relieve anxiety. Its antispasmodic action is particularly useful when stress and worry cause muscular tension.
Skullcap is often prescribed on its own or mixed with other sedating herbs to treat insomnia or menstrual pain.
In the past, European skullcap (S. galericulata) and the lesser skullcap (S. minor) were used in a similar way as S. lateriflora, but today they are considered to have a lesser importance in therapeutic action.
Baical skullcap has been extensively researched in China, which clearly showed its strong anti-inflammatory properties largely because of the flavonoids. In common with other herbs that have significant levels of flavonoids, it is likely that Baical skullcap may help venous problems and fragile capillaries.
Since baical skullcap is a “cold and bitter” herb, it is used to treat such hot and thirsty conditions as high fevers, coughs with thick yellow phlegm, and gastrointestinal infections that cause diarrhea. It is also given for painful urinary conditions and allergic conditions. When combined with other herbs, it is used to treat high blood pressure, arteriosclerosis, varicose veins, and easy bruising. It is also useful for such problems arising from diabetes as cataracts.
Small doses are beneficial for nervous spasms, tension headaches, muscular tremors, arrythmias, sleeplessness, irritability, chorea, Parkinson’s disease, as well as hydrophobia (a morbid fear of water), which is also a classic symptom of rabies. Scullcap is not used for that disease anymore, and the two conditions must be distinguished.
Some Canadian varieties of scullcap are particularly astringent, and herbalists there apply the liquid extract to open wounds to promote a rapid healing of the tissues.