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Searching Out Skullcap

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Searching Out Skullcap

Skullcap is one of my favorite herbs, not only because of its relaxing, antispasmodic actions but also because it has antiviral properties.  Skullcap (Scutellaria), is mostly an Asian and American herb that seemingly has little traditional use in western Europe.  It may have been unknown to the Greek and Roman herbalists, and did not enter into British herbal medicine until colonization of the Americas.  The earliest reference to its use that I have found, so far, in European herbalism was by Brother Aloysius, the protege of Fr. Kneipp.  Brother Aloysius was expert in Monastic and German Folk Medicine.  Writing around 1900, Brother Aloysius wrote that Skullcap (Scutellaria galericulata) was used for intermittent fever, throat infections, dysentery and difficult urination.

Skullcap may have entered into the Germanic pharmacopeia through its traditional use in Russian Herbal Medicine.  Igor Villevich Zevin, in A Russian Herbal, tells us:

Skullcap (Scutellaria baicalensis)

The use of skullcap traces its origins to the early inhabitants who lived in eastern Siberia, especially near the shores of Lake Baikal, Russian’s deepest and most beautiful lake.  It is believed that knowledge of this herb originally came from China, where herbalists called it huantesin.  Since skullcap grows in many parts of the world (there are three hundred known varieties of this herb), it has become a major part of most folk-healing traditions.

Mrs. Grieve, writing just 30 years or so later than Brother Aloysius, tells us that use of the native British Skullcaps were known to herbalists and gives some insight into the history of this herb:

The Scullcaps, belonging to the genus Scutellaria, are herbaceous, slender, rarely shrubby, labiate plants, scattered over different parts of the world, in temperate regions and tropical mountains, being specially abundant in America. There are about ninety known species belonging to this genus, only two members of which are natives of Great Britain - Scutellaria galericulata and S. minor. Both are found on the banks of rivers and lakes, and in watery places generally, and are decumbent or spreading, seldom quite erect.

Scutellaria galericulata

The Common or Greater Scullcap is fairly common in England, though rare in Scotland and local in Ireland.

Scutellaria minor

The Lesser Scullcap, which grows chiefly in bogs, is not common, except in the western counties and in Ireland.

Scutellaria lateriflora

The American species, Virginian Scullcap, flowering in July, with inconspicuous blue flowers in one-sided racemes, is one of the finest nervines ever discovered.

Popularly this plant is known in America as Mad-dog Scullcap or Madweed, having the reputation of being a certain cure for hydrophobia.

The English species, Scutellaria galericulata and S. minor, possess similar nervine properties to the American, and with S. integrifolia and other American species with the flowers in one-sided terminal racemes, are often used as substitutes.

Among the cultivated species are S. micrantha, from Siberia and the north of China, a handsome species with spiked racemes of blue flowers; and S. Coccinea, from Mexico, with scarlet flowers.

The French name for this plant is Toque.

Medicinal Action and Uses---Scullcap has strong tonic, nervine and antispasmodic action, and is slightly astringent.

In hysteria, convulsions, hydrophobia, St. Vitus's dance and rickets, its action is invaluable. In nervous headaches, neuralgia and in headache arising from incessant coughing and pain, it offers one of the most suitable and reliable remedies. The dried extract, given in doses of from 1 to 3 grains as a pill, will relieve severe hiccough.

Many cases of hydrophobia have been cured by this remedy alone.

It is considered a specific for the convulsive twitchings of St. Vitus's dance, soothing the nervous excitement and inducing sleep when necessary, without any unpleasant symptoms following.

Fluid extract, 1/2 to 1 drachm.

It may be prescribed in all disorders of the nervous system, and has been suggested as a remedy for epilepsy. Writing on this point in the British Medical Journal, 1915, Dr. William Bramwell says: 'Its efficacy appears to be partly due to its stimulating the kidneys to increased activity....'

Overdoses of the tincture cause giddiness, stupor, confusion of mind, twitchings of the limbs, intermission of the pulse and other symptoms indicative of epilepsy, for which in diluted strength and small doses it has been successfully given.

The usual dose is an infusion of 1 OZ. of the powdered herb to a pint of boiling water, given in half-teacupful doses, every few hours. Both fluid and solid extracts are prepared and Scutellarin is also administered in doses of 1 to 2 grains.

Fluid extract, 1/2 to 1 drachm.

The European species, S. galericulata, was at one time given for the tertian ague, and was said to have proved beneficial where the fits were more obstinate than violent, 1 to 2 OZ. of the expressed juice, or an infusion of a handful or two of the herb, being given. In England, however, the remedy was not in use.

Giving us insight into the traditional Native American use of this herb, William H. Banks, writing in Plants of The Cherokee in 1950 tells of the following information that he learned front he older traditional Cherokee healers:

Scutellaria incana

The root is one of the ingredients in a kidney medicine.  A decoction is taken for nerves.  The root tea is a medicine for female monthly periods.  The root of “it is bruised: and Hlianthus are boil into a tea for young women.

Scutellaria lateriflora (Mad Dog Skullcap)

A decoction of the four varieties of “Ga ni gwi lis ki”, S. lateriflora, S. elliptica, Hypericum spp. and Stylosanthes spp. Is drunk to promote menstruation, and the same decoction is also drunk and used as a wash to counteract the ill effects of eating food prepared by a woman in the menstrual condition, or when such a woman by chance comes into a sick room or house under taboo.  A decoction is drunk for diarrhea.  The root is used with other herbs for breast pains.  A decoction of the roots is drunk to get rid of afterbirth.  Afterwards, vomiting is induced with a tea of Polymnia uvedalia.

Resources of The Southern Fields and Forests, published by the Confederacy during the Civil War tells us:

MAD-DOG  SCULLCAP  (Scutellaria  lateri- flora.) Grows  along  ditches;  Eichland;  collected  in  St.  John's; Elliott  says  it  is  found  in  the  mountainous  districts.

Watson's  Pract.  Physic,  386;  U.  S.  Disp.  1294,  Appendix; Mer.  and  de  L.  Diet,  de  M.  Med.  vi,  274;  Bulletin  de  la  Faculte, vii,  191,  ann.  1820,  where  Spalding's  (of  Geo.)  report  concerning its  anti-hydrophobic  virtues  is  referred  to.  Youatt  spoke  in favorable  terms  of  this  remedy  as  enjoying  the  reputation  for some  time  of  being  the  only  one  for  this  disease.  See  Watson, loc.  Cit.

The  above  meagre  account  was  all  that  I  could  collect  with reference  to  this  plant  when  the  first  edition  of  this  work  was prepared.  To  show  the  increased  attention  which  it  has  received I  add  the  following  contained  in  the  12th  Ed.  of  the  U. S.  Disp.

It  is  thought  by  some  practitioners  to  have  valuable  therapeutic properties.  Drs.  Ariel  Hunton  and  C.  H.  Cleveland,  of Vermont,  speak  in  strong  terms  of  its  efficacy  as  a  nervine. They  have  employed  it  in  neuralgic  and  convulsive  affections, chorea,  delirium  tremens  and  nervous  exhaustion  from  fatigue or  over  excitement,  and  have  found  it  highly  advantageous. Dr.  Cleveland  says  that  he  prefers  it  to  all  other  nervines  or anti-spasmodics  except  where  an  immediate  effect  is  desirable. He  prefers  the  form  of  infusion,  which  he  prepares  by  adding half  an  ounce  of  the  dried  leaves  to  a  tea  cupful  of  water,  and allows  the  patient  to  drink  ad  libitum,  (Am.  J.  Phai'm.,  xxiii, 370;  N.  Jersey  Med.  Eeport,  v,  13.)  Two  preparations  are now  used,  scutellarine,  though  erroneously,  adds  Dr.  Wood,  as  it has  no  claim  to  be  considered  a  true  proximate  principle;  the other  a  fluid  extract.  Dr.  C.  gives  the  scutellarine  in  a  dose varying  from  one  to  three  or  four  grains  and  finds  very  happy effects  from  it  in  quieting  nervous  disorders,  (N.  Jersey  Med. Report,  viii,  121.)  The  fluid  extract  prepared  by  Messrs.  Tilden is  used  in  the  dose  of  one  or  two  fluid  drachms.  Dr.  Jos.  Bates speaks  highly  of  it  as  a  nervine,  (Bost.  Med.  and  Surg.  Journal lii,  337    U.  S.  Disp.

EUROPEAN  SCULLCAP,  (Scutellaria  galericulata,  L.) "Wet  places,  N.  C.  and  northward.

It  has  been  employed  in  intermittents.  Dr.  H.  W.  Evans,  of Canada  West,  uses  an  infusion  of  two  ounces  of  the  herb  to eight  of  water,  of  which  he  gives  in  epilepsy  a  fluid  ounce every  eight  hours,  doubling  the  quantity  after  a  week.  To effect  a  cure  he  says  it  must  be  continued  for  six  months,  (Am. J.  Med.  Sc.  xvii,  495  U.  S.  Disp.,  12th  Ed.

Scutellaria  integrifolia,  L.  Diffused  in  swampy  soils ;  collected in  St.  John's;  vicinity  of  Charleston.     Fl.  June.

Intensely  bitter,  probably  useful  as  a  tonic.     U.  S.  Disp.  1294.

King’s Medical Dispensatory of 1898 has a very full entry on the medicinal use Skullcap:

The herb of Scutellaria lateriflora, Linné"—(U. S. P). The green herb is preferred in Eclectic pharmacy.

Nat. Ord.—Labiatae.

COMMON NAMES: Scullcap, Skullcap, Madweed.

Botanical Source and History.—We introduce this plant, accompanied with illustrations, to overcome the confusion that has existed in commercial circles regarding the plant ordinarily sold as scullcap. The official species is the Scutellaria lateriflora, but the larger part of the drug sold upon the market under that name is derived from two other species of Scutellaria. The genus Scutellaria is well characterized by the calyx, which in all the species consists of 2 round lips closed in fruit, the upper lip of which has a helmet-shaped appendage, giving to it the appearance of a mask or cap; hence the common name scullcap.

Scutellaria lateriflora, Linné, the official scullcap, is the most widely-distributed of the species. It is common in every section of the United States, and is found growing in damp places on the banks of streams, and in similar situations. Inasmuch as this is the proper scullcap to use in medicine, and as it is often confounded with other species, we will give a close description of the plant. The stem is slender, herbaceous, 4-angled, much branched, and from 1 to 2 feet high; it is smooth, green when the plant grows in shady situations, but turns brown on exposure to the sun. The leaves are small, from 1 to 2 inches long, and about one-half as wide, ovate, rounded at the base, and acute at the apex. They are smooth, crenate, and are borne on opposite leaf-stalks, which are about 1 inch long. The flowers appear late in summer, and are borne in numerous, slender, simple, one-sided racemes, from the axils of the leaves; they are small, opposite, and have short pedicels, subtended at the base by small bracts. The calyx is about the length of the pedicel, and has the peculiar helmet-shape characteristic of the genus. When the fruit is mature, the calyx splits in the base, the upper lip falling away, the lower one remaining. The corolla is small, blue, about one-fourth of an inch long; it has a slender, exserted tube, and 2 subequal lips, the upper of which is arched, the lower, spreading. The stamens are 4, and included in the corolla. The fruit consists of 4 small nutlets.

Scutellaria versicolor.Scutellaria versicolor, Nuttall, and Scutellaria canescens, Nuttall, are the species generally collected by herbalists, and substituted for Scutellaria lateriflora. …S. canescens can readily be distinguished from official scullcap, by their being much more robust, having thicker stems, and growing from 2 to 4 feet high. The flowers are large in both, being 1 inch long; and instead of being borne in very slender, lateral racemes, as with S. lateriflora, they are borne in a single, large, terminal, branched raceme. The leaves are also much larger than those of S. lateriflora, being from 2 to 4 inches long, and nearly as broad. They are cordate at the base, and acute at the apex. The leaves of S. versicolor are thin, softly pubescent, and of a bright-green color; those of S. canescens are thick in texture, light-green, and often variegated with a purple line around the margin.

Scullcap is an indigenous herb, growing in damp places, meadows, ditches, and by the sides of ponds, flowering in July and August. Besides the names given above it is known by the names of Blue scullcap, Side-flowering scullcap, Mad-dog weed, and Hoodwort. The whole plant is official, though but the mature leaves and flowering tops should be employed. It should be gathered while in flower, dried in the shade, and kept in well-closed tin vessels. Alcohol or boiling water extracts its properties. It is officially described as" about 50 Cm. (20 inches) long, smooth; stem quadrangular, branched; leaves opposite, petiolate, about 5 Cm. (2 inches) long, ovate-lanceolate or ovate-oblong, serrate; flowers in axillary, one-sided racemes, with a pale-blue corolla and bilabiate calyx, closed in fruit, the upper lip helmet-shaped; odor slight; taste bitterish"—(U. S. P.). The drug loses its properties largely when dried, and by age becomes inert; hence the many failures in therapy from the use of scutellaria.

Chemical Composition.—Scutellaria lateriflora contains volatile and fixed oil, tannin, gum, sugar, and a bitter principle (Cadet de Gassicourt, 1824). C. O. Myers and H. R. Gillespie (Amer. Jour. Pharm., 1889, p. 555) obtained this bitter principle in the form of acicular crystals by treating an alcoholic extract of the drug with water and abstracting the principle from the aqueous solution with ether. The authors found it to be a glucosid; the presence of tannin in the drug could not be verified.

From the root of Scutellaria lanceolaria, Miquel (Scutellaria baicalensis, Georgi), growing in Japan, Takahashi (1889) isolated scutellarin (C10H8O3), crystallizing in yellow tasteless needles, sparingly soluble in hot water, soluble in other simple solvents and in alkalis. It is not a glucosid, and seems to be physiologically inert.

Action, Medical Uses, and Dosage.—Scullcap is tonic, nervine, and antispasmodic. This is one of those valuable agents which a certain class of physicians consider inert; yet it has proved especially useful in chorea, convulsions, tremors, intermittent fever, neuralgia, and many nervous affections. In delirium tremens, an infusion drank freely will soon produce a calm sleep. In intermittents it may be beneficially combined with lycopus. Where teething has impaired the health of children, an infusion maybe given with advantage. In all cases of nervous excitability, restlessness, or wakefulness, attending or following acute or chronic diseases, from physical or mental overwork, or from other causes, it may be drank freely with every expectation of beneficial results. The warm infusion has a tendency to keep the skin moist; the cold has a tonic influence, and either may be drank freely. When its soothing effects have ceased, it does not leave an excitable, irritable condition of the system, as is the case with some other nervines. Scullcap has been extolled as a remedy in hydrophobia, but this is still a matter of uncertainty. That it influences the cerebro-spinal centers, controlling nervous irritation there can be no doubt and this fact is well illustrated by its control over functional cardiac disorders, due to purely nervous causes, with or without hysterical manifestations, and exhibiting intermittency of pulse. Specific scutellaria well represents the plant. Half an ounce of the recently dried leaves or herb, to ½ pint of boiling water, will make a very strong infusion. Dose of specific scutellaria, 1 to 30 drops; of scutellarin, 1 to 5 grains; fluid extract, 1 to 60 drops.

Specific Indications and Uses.—Nervousness, attending or following acute or chronic diseases, or from mental or physical exhaustion, teething, etc.; nervousness manifesting itself in muscular action; tremors, subsultus, etc.; hysteria, with inability to control the voluntary muscles; functional cardiac disorders of a purely nervous type, with intermittent pulse.

Related Species.—Scutellaria pilosa, Linné, Scutellaria integrifolia, Linné, and Scutellaria hyssopifolia, Linné, now regarded as a variety of the last-named species, are sometimes employed. They are decidedly bitter. They possess properties similar to scullcap.

Odor, alliaceous; taste, bitter. Applied to old ulcerations, and given internally in intermittents..

Derivative of Scutellaria.—SCUTELLARIN (Scutellarine). The preparation, erroneously called scutellarine, is one of the concentrations and is to be classed therewith. It is of a light greenish-brown color, with a faint, tea-like odor, and a peculiar, herbaceous, somewhat gritty, resinous, tea-like taste. It is reputed a nervine and tonic, especially useful in cases of depression of the nervous and vital powers after long sickness, over-exercise, excessive study, or from long-continued and exhausting labors. One grain will, it is stated, frequently produce its quiet and soothing effect, controlling nervous agitation, and inducing a sensation of calmness and strength. It has been advantageously combined with oleoresin of cypripedium, resin of cimicifuga, and resin of caulophyllum, in various female disorders, both in the gravid or nongravid state, accompanied with an excitable or irritable condition of the nervous system. It may be used wherever scullcap is indicated. Its dose is from 1 to 5 grains, 3 or 4 times a day, though an increased quantity will not produce any unpleasant effects (J. King).

As mentioned earlier, Skullcap is considered a powerful antiviral in the Chinese tradition.  Chinese Skullcap (Scutellaria baicalensis) is one of Stephen Harod Buhner's favorites herbs, and it is an excellent antiviral herb. Traditionally, several varieties of Skullcap have been used as anti-virals (recall our discussion on the folk use of Skullcap for rabies, hence the name   "Mad Dog Skullcap"), but Chinese Skullcap may be particularly good. The root is used  as a tincture. Chinese Skullcap is a broad spectrum anti-viral. The use of the root is unique, as most western herbalists use the aerial parts of the plant.  This may be why the antiviral use of the herb is less known in western herbalism.  Buhner speculates that if more research was done on the roots of the other varieties of Skull cap, many (if not all) would show antiviral properties.

Buhner's 7 favorite anti-viral herbs are Chinese Skullcap, Elder, Ginger, Houttuynia,

Isatis, Licorice and Lomatium.  His book, Antiviral Herbs discusses many other herbs that are either antiviral or help prevent the damage done by several viruses - I highly recommend it.

Herbalist, Michael Moore listed Skullcap as  primarily used for pain as an antispasmodic.  From  SPECIFIC INDICATIONS FOR HERBS IN GENERAL USE Third edition:


Herpes, early nerve pain, before eruptions. Supportive to other measures; anxiety syndromes in chronic cardiopathies. Functional neurocirculatory disorders; palpitations in evening with emotional agitation. Sydenham's chorea. Convulsions, when other medications may not be necessary. Delirium tremens in sthenics. Epilepsy, when aura is present but condition is marginal for standard medication; petit mal while sleeping. Insomnia in sthenic individual, or from exhaustion following excitement; wakefulness in chronic disorders. Multiple sclerosis, agitated and irritable from distress and fear. Trigeminal neuralgia. Pruritus senilis, with itching. Depression with physical agitation, over- sensitivity to stimulus. Hysteria with great over-sensitivity to stimulus. Pain, neurogenic, with agitation and increased CNS sensitivity. Pain, made less bearable by fear, agitation.

Plants for A Future lists four varieties of Skullcap:

Medicinal use of Baikal Skullcap: Baikal skullcap is commonly used in Chinese herbalism, where it is considered to be one of the 50 fundamental herbs and is used primarily in treating "hot and damp" conditions such as dysentery and diarrhoea. It has been used medicinally for over 2,000 years and recent research has found that the roots contain flavonoids that greatly enhance liver function and also have anti-inflammatory and antiallergenic effects. The root is anodyne, antibacterial, anticholesterolemic, antipyretic, antispasmodic, astringent, cholagogue, diuretic, expectorant, febrifuge, haemostatic, laxative, nervine, mildly sedative, stomachic and tonic (for TB). It reputedly calms the foetus in pregnant women. The root is used internally in the treatment of enteritis, dysentery, diarrhoea, jaundice, chronic hepatitis, urinary tract infections, hypertension, threatened miscarriage, nosebleed and haemorrhage from the lungs or bowel. It is one of the ingredients of the Chinese drug "injection of three yellow herbs". The root is harvested in the autumn or spring from plants 3 - 4 years old and is dried for later use. The seed is used to cleanse the bowels of blood and pus.

Medicinal use of Barbed Skullcap: Used as a detoxicant, mainly in the treatment of certain types of cancer, liver diseases, pharyngitis and poisonous bites. Depurative, diuretic, febrifuge. The juice of the plant is applied to wounds.

Medicinal use of Common Skullcap: The herb is anti-inflammatory, antispasmodic, slightly astringent, febrifuge, nervine and strongly tonic. In the home an infusion is sometimes used in the treatment of throat infections. The plant is harvested in the summer as it comes into flower and can be dried for later use. This plant is rarely if ever used in herbal medicine, though it is said to have the same applications as S. lateriflora. These applications are:- Skullcap was traditionally used in the treatment of a wide range of nervous conditions including epilepsy, insomnia, anxiety, delirium tremens, withdrawal from barbiturates and tranquillisers, and neuralgia. An infusion of the plant has been used to promote suppressed menstruation, it should not be given to pregnant women since it can induce a miscarriage. This plant should be used with some caution since in excess it causes giddiness, stupor, confusion and twitching.

Medicinal use of Virginian Skullcap: A commonly used herbal medicine, Virginian skullcap is a very effective nervine that has traditionally been used in the treatment of a wide range of nervous conditions. Its tonic and restorative properties help to support and nourish the nervous system, calming and relieving stress and anxiety. Very little research has been carried out on this species, despite its long use in American and British herbal medicine. Research is sorely needed, and may reveal more uses for this valuable herb. The leaves are antispasmodic, slightly astringent, diuretic, nervine, sedative and strongly tonic. They are harvested in early summer and dried for later use. It is used in the treatment of various problems of the nervous system including epilepsy, insomnia, anxiety, delirium tremens, withdrawal from barbiturates and tranquillisers, and neuralgia. An infusion of the plant has been used to promote suppressed menstruation, relieve breast pain and encourage expulsion of the placenta, it should not be given to pregnant women since it can induce a miscarriage. This plant should be used with some caution since in excess it causes giddiness, stupor, confusion and twitching. The plant was once believed of use in the treatment of rabies, though there is no evidence to support this.

The way I most often use Skullcap is combined with Mullein and Lobelia as an anti-asthmatic smoking mixture.  I also include it in a tincture with Passion Flower and Hops Bud to promote sleep.  When I am teaching or leading plant walks, I usually take a tincture of Skullcap and Cramp Bark with me in case any young women are experiencing bad menstrual cramps.  It also combines well with Valerian and Pedicularis as a sedative and for pain.  Skullcap is an extremely useful herb that belongs in the garden and home apothecary of every herbalist.  

Author: Judson Carroll.  Judson Carroll is an Herbalist from the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. His weekly articles may be read at http://southernappalachianherbs.blogspot.com/

His weekly podcast may be heard at: www.spreaker.com/show/southern-appalachian-herbs

He offers free, weekly herb classes: https://rumble.com/c/c-618325

His New Book is Christian Herbal Medicine, History and Practice

Read about his new book, Christian Medicine, History and Practice: https://southernappalachianherbs.blogspot.com/2022/01/christian-herbal-medicine-history-and.html

Available for purchase on Amazon: www.amazon.com/dp/B09P7RNCTB
His other works include:

Herbal Medicine for Preppers, Homesteaders and Permaculture People by Judson Carroll

You can read about and purchase Herbal Medicine for Preppers, Homesteaders and Permaculture People here: southernappalachianherbs.blogspot.com/2021/10/herbal-medicine-for-preppers.html

Also available on Amazon: Herbal Medicine for Preppers, Homesteaders and Permaculture People: Carroll, Judson: 9798491252923: Amazon.com: Books

Look Up: The Medicinal Trees of the American South, An Herbalist's Guide: https://southernappalachianherbs.blogspot.com/2021/06/paypal-safer-easier-way-to-pay-online.html

The Herbs and Weeds of Fr. Johannes Künzle: https://southernappalachianherbs.blogspot.com/2021/05/announcing-new-book-herbs-and-weeds-of.html


The information on this site is not intended to diagnose or treat any disease or condition. Nothing on this site has been evaluated or approved by the FDA. I am not a doctor. The US government does not recognize the practice of herbal medicine and their is no governing body regulating herbalists. Therefore, I'm just a guy who studies herbs. I am not offering any advice. I won't even claim that anything I write is accurate or true! I can tell you what herbs have "traditionally been used for." I can tell you my own experience and if I believe an herb helped me. I cannot, nor would I tell you to do the same. If you use any herb I, or anyone else, mentions you are treating yourself. You take full responsibility for your health. Humans are individuals and no two are identical. What works for me may not work for you. You may have an allergy, sensitivity or underlying condition that no one else shares and you don't even know about. Be careful with your health. By continuing to read my blog you agree to be responsible for yourself, do your own research, make your own choices and not to blame me for anything, ever.
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