Skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora), or American Skullcap, is a beloved herb amongst Western herbalists and herbal medicine enthusiasts. In fact, herbalist 7Song calls it a “gateway herb” because of its ability to demonstrate to the general public just how powerful herbs can be.(1) It boasts an undeniable effectiveness in reducing stress and nourishing the nervous system.
Etymology & Botany
Skullcap is a member of the Lamiaceae, or Mint family. Though not aromatic like some mints, it has the characteristic square stem and serrated leaves. Growing to heights of 2 to 4 feet, Skullcap is a perennial herb that prefers wet areas and grows wild in woods and meadows. It produces small purple helmet-shaped flowers that bloom from leaf axils on one side of the stem; this attribute is responsible for the common name, Skullcap.(4) Best harvested while in full flower, it tends to bloom in July and August. Skullcap is native to North America, though it is now widely cultivated throughout the world.(5)
American Skullcap should not be confused with or used interchangeably with Baikal Skullcap (Scutellaria baicalensis). In Traditional Chinese Medicine, the roots of Baikal Skullcap are used, whereas Western herbalists use the aerial parts of American Skullcap.(1) American Skullcap has a long history of varied use in North America.
First People tribes used this herb medicinally to treat many different maladies; as a bitter tonic for the kidneys, as a remedy for sore throat, to help the horrible symptoms of rabies, and as an emmenagogue, or menstruation stimulator, to induce labor and to expel delayed placenta and afterbirth. It was used by certain tribes in ceremonies of menstrual initiation, or to cleanse and purify if menstrual taboos were broken. In other ceremonial uses, Skullcap was smoked like Tobacco to induce visions.(4)
In the 19th century, a group of Anglo-American herbal medicine practitioners called Physiomedicalists realized this herb’s application as an invaluable nerve tonic, and used it for mania, convulsions, and mental illnesses like schizophrenia.(5) Once pharmaceutical sedatives came onto the market in the early 20th century, the mainstream medical establishment went to lengths to discredit Skullcap by its claim to be able to cure the madness of rabies. In modern Western herbalism, Skullcap is generally still used as a nervous system tonic and restorative tonic herb.
Skullcap’s Herbal Indications
It is a bitter herb with cooling properties, indicated in cases of heat, inflammation, hyperreactivity, and excitation. It has an affinity for the Central and Autonomic Nervous System, liver, stomach, lungs, heart.(4) Like every herb, this plant has more uses and applications than we can fully understand, however following are some popular uses in modern, Western herbalism.
Nervous System Tonic
This herb is perhaps best known for its anxiety relieving properties, and its ability to decrease chronic stress when taken for long periods of time. Considered a neurotrophorestorative, Skullcap is a nervous system tonic that quite literally nourishes and restores the nervous system. It also works well in cases of anxiety or panic attacks, where symptoms come on suddenly and acutely, so it is of value in emergency situations as well.(1) Herbalist Sam Coffman writes, “Skullcap (Scutellaria spp.) and Passionflower are two that have never failed me as a formula to help someone cope quickly with shock-related anxiety.”(3)
Mostly due to its ability to relax the Central Nervous System (and thus, both skeletal and smooth muscles), this herb is a mild anodyne, or pain relieving herb. IT can be used for muscle tension, menstrual pain, TMJ, injuries, headache, and even teething; it’s a time-tested remedy for irritable, teething toddlers. Several studies have shown that it has a relaxant effect on uterine tissue, making it a premier herb for pain due to menstrual cramping or painful, delayed menses.(5)
Though not a sedative, this herb can be used to induce restful sleep without the drowsy, groggy effect other herbs can have. (1) One double-blind, placebo controlled study showed that this herb had measurable relaxing effects without reducing mental alertness or ability to concentrate (2). It pairs well in sleep promoting formulas with more popular herbs for insomnia, like Valerian or Hops. This herb will quiet overactive, often self-critical mental chatter as well as relax tense muscles enough to encourage sleep.
This herb is considered a safe, tonic herb that is suitable for use by most people. Though in the late 1980s it was wrongly accused of causing liver damage, modern herbalists now attribute these claims to adulterated herbal supplements.(4) As always, it’s very important to source your herbs from reputable distributors. As with any herbal or supplement, consult an informed herbalist and primary healthcare practitioner before use.
Methods of Medicinal Use
Skullcap can be employed in many forms by the skillful herbalist; the following preparation suggestions are the most widely used and accessible to obtain.
A daily infusion of tea is a great option for long term use as a tonic herb. To make, infuse two tablespoons of dried leaf to 8 oz of just boiled water; steep covered for about 15 minutes, strain, and enjoy. A very strong infusion of Skullcap is preferable for cases of insomnia; the King’s American Dispensatory recommends about “Half an ounce of the recently dried leaves or herb, to 1/2 pint of boiling water” to encourage sleep.(5)
Tincture is helpful to have on hand in cases of anxiety, panic attacks, shock, trauma, and the like. A fresh tincture of Skullcap is the preferable preparation; using a 1:2 ratio of plant matter to liquid. Higher proof alcohol is best to use; the tincture should be no lower than about 40%. (1) Recommended doses vary based on the individual and their necessity, but it is always advisable to start low and go slow until the desired effect is achieved.
This herb can be a lovely ingredient in massage oil or salve; even externally, it has a relaxing effect on muscular tension and pain. To make Skullcap oil, simply submerge freshly dried flowering Skullcap tops in your oil of choice (olive oil, jojoba, sweet almond, and apricot kernel oil all work nicely) and leave in a warm place for 2-3 weeks, then strain out plant matter. Melt with beeswax to harden oil into a salve.
It is a popular ingredient in smoking blends and in instances of acute anxiety, smoking the herb will most quickly impart the anxiolytic effects into the bloodstream. To smoke, roll the dried herb in a rolling paper or add it to a favorite pipe. Skullcap pairs well with other smokable herbs and is flavorful and adaptable in blends.
While Skullcap is not particularly prolific, it does grow in the wild in large stands and can be easily cultivated. If wildcrafting this plant, it’s recommended to harvest just the top 2/3rds of the flowering plant, so the rest can flower and re-seed. It is also recommended to only harvest from populated, healthy-looking colonies and only one out of every ten plants. Otherwise, it can easily be grown in a garden (it prefers borders and damp areas) or purchased from reputable sources like your local herb shop or a well respected online herb dispensary. The Alchemist’s Kitchen carries several beautiful, intentional products featuring Skullcap as a primary ingredient, including these potent, calming Skullcap and Stress Finesse tinctures by Homestead Apothecary and this accompanying Stress Finesse Tea.
- 7Song. (2012) “The Skullcaps-A Scutellaria Monograph” http://7song.com/the-skullcaps-a-scutellaria-monograph/
- Brock C, Whitehouse J, Tewfik I, Towell T. (2014) “Scutellaria lateriflora: a randomised, double-blind placebo-controlled crossover study of its effects on mood in healthy volunteers.” Phytother Res: 692–8
- Coffman, Sam. (2016) Plant Healer Magazine, “The Herbal Clinician” p. 11
- de la Foret, Rosalee. “Skullcap Herb: A Restorative Relaxing Nervine” https://www.herbalremediesadvice.org/skullcap-herb.html
- Whelan, Richard. “Skullcap” https://www.rjwhelan.co.nz/herbs%20A-Z/skullcap.html