Meet Skullcap, Scutellaria lateriflora, ID and Medicinal Properties

skullcap flowers

Scutellaria lateriflora, known as Skullcap, Scullcap, Helmet Flower, Hood-Wort, Blue Skullcap, Mad Dog Weed, and Mad Weed, is native to North America. The mint family, Lamiaceae, contains approximately 300 species in the genus Scutellaria. They are annual or perennial herbs or shrubs growing across temperate zones and some in tropical regions. Of the 300 species, 90 species occur in North America. This article is about the medicinal uses and related topics specifically of Scutellaria lateriflora; however, there are many species in this genus used medicinally.

Etymology: What does Scutellaria mean?

Scutellaria is from the Latin name scutella meaning little dish or tray referring to the calyx which sits below the petals. Lateriflora refers to the one sided arrangement of flowers (inflorescence). The English name Skullcap refers to the tiny medieval helmet shape of the calyx.

Botanical Description: How does Skullcap grow?

7-23 inches (20 to 60 cm) tall; Underground Parts thin rhizomes; Stem thin, tall, sparsely hairy to no hairs; Leaf opposite, ovate to lanceolate, toothed, truncate to rounded at the base, acute tip; Inflorescence (Floral Arrangement) raceme; Flower calyx (sepals) .05 -.11 inches (1.5 – 3 mm), the upper lip shaped like a dome or a hood; corolla (petals) .23-.31 inches (6 – 8 mm), violet to blue, with lower lip violet to blue, inner surface hairy; Fruit more or less spherical shaped, brown nutlets.

This perennial herb flowers from May to September boasting the most beautiful floral arrangements (racemes) of two lipped (bilabiate) violet to blue flowers. Scuttelaria lateriflora occurs in the wild along streamsides, wetlands, and marshes. It is common in the garden as an ornamental for its beautiful flowers or as a medicinal herb. Despite Skullcap being a member of the mint family of plants, it does not have much of the scent that one would associate with the mint family.

If you plan on cultivating your own Skullcap, intend on providing partial to full sun and moist well drained soil.

Skullcap Adulteration: Source your Skullcap Carefully!

There is literature and online articles that claims hepatoxicity associated with Skullcap, Scutellaria lateriflora, that occurred in the late 80’s, 90’s and early 2000’s. The first cases of hepatoxicity were reported in the United Kingdom. People were diagnosed with liver damage after taking tablets containing Skullcap and other herbs made by the product companies Kalms and Neurelax. Other cases of liver damage were reported in Norway and Australia. Eventually suspicion of adulteration caused investigation of these herbal supplements and eventually analysis of the ingredients had revealed that the supplements were adulterated with Teucrium canadense, Pink Skullcap, and T. chamaedrys, European Germander.

There have been many theories as to the adulteration of Skullcap from accidental to intentional. One reason was mislabeled seeds that were planted in farms as Skullcap crops. Another reason was the mis-identification of the plant when it was wild harvested. Guessing is unacceptable and is unethical to do when it comes to harvesting any plant. Therefore, proper identification is beyond important, also Scutellaria and Teucrium do not look like one another. Experts are now saying it was deliberate since Teucrium species are heavier in dry weight than Scutellaria which means there is a higher yield harvesting Teucrium. 

Industry expert Steven Foster, president of Steven Foster Group, Inc., believes that “there is no accidental misidentification of Teucrium canadense as Scutellaria lateriflora. That is a myth. One can easily harvest a pick-up truck load of T. canadense in a morning, whereas one would be hardpressed to harvest a few pounds of any Scutellaria spp. from any wild habitat anywhere in the United States in a day. The adulteration of Scutellaria lateriflora with Teucrium canadense is pure and simple ‘under the radar’ economic adulteration.”

When it comes to sourcing Skullcap, I prefer to source from friends who know their botany and cultivate their own Scutellaria, or from companies like Mountain Rose Herbs who test for adulteration and purity. Oshala Farms out of Applegate, Oregon, cultivate their own organic Scutellaria. All their plants are vibrant and “full of chi.” The plants are a full green color which shows they are fresh and have not been sitting on a shelf or a warehouse. I am cautious of where I source Skullcap as it is easy to misidentify.

Parts Used: How do I use Skullcap?

The aerial portions are traditionally used, but I have found the Cherokee People used the roots as an emmenagogue, nervine, emetic, and for diarrhea. Use of the root is not recommended for pregnant people. I have personally never used the root in any medicine. The aerial portions do not have the same effects as the roots. The aerial parts, like the roots, contain tannins; so Skullcap tops are astringent, but I have never used them for cases of diarrhea.

Making Medicine with Skullcap

Skullcap is soluble in both water and alcohol. Following Michael Moore’s Materia Medica for tincture; fresh plant 1:2, 95 percent, dry plant 1:5, 50 percent. Standard infusions can be prepared using aerial portions taking 1 ounce (28 g) of dried plant to 1 quart (946 ml) of hot water and letting it steep for a minimum of 4 hours up to 8 hours. Tea can also be prepared using 1 teaspoon (5 ml) of dried plant to 8 ounces (236 ml) of water.

Skullcap Dosage: How much do I use?

I do not subscribe to a “standard dosage.” There are many factors that influence a different dose for each individual as we are all unique in our own constitutions, weight, etc. There is no standard dosage for allopathic medicine; I view it the same for botanical medicine. I start with one full dropper with some plant medicine, other medicines just a drop and others I need three full droppers. It is all about finding the right dose that works for you.

Some literature and blog posts say to use fresh Skullcap rather than dry with no tangible evidence as to why. I compared both dry and fresh tincture for muscle tightness and found both preparations to be effective. Of course, you do not want to use a Skullcap that has been sitting on the shelf for two years either for a tea or tincture. When I read through William Cook’s Physiomedical Dispensatory, he talked about its use both fresh and dry. It will lose some of its “chi” as it ages, so label and date your dry herb and treat it as though it has an expiration date.

Medicinal Uses: Applying Skullcap’s Properties

Skullcap is a relaxing nervine without sedation. The Eclectics used Skullcap as a nerve tonic for conditions brought on by nervousness and stress, i.e., asthma, rashes, eczema, and headaches. Skullcap is trophorestorative (nourishing to the system) for the nervous system in low doses long-term to improve and restore nervous system function.

Skullcap for Anxiety and Stress Relief

For those who feel anxiety or stress related to social engagements where you may have to preform, engage with folks, get up in front of a group of people and speak, or otherwise “be on”, I like adding a little Kava Kava with Skullcap. While Kava Kava acts as the social lubricant, Skullcap aids in relaxing the nerves and relieving stress and anxiety.

Skullcap is a potentiating herb, meaning it helps the efficacy of other herbs. I add it to many client blends like my Respiratory, Trauma, Grief, and Heart-Ease formulas.

Skullcap for Emotional Work

I have found it to be helpful for use in emotional work. It helps us carry on and process changes that we find difficult like breakups, divorce, loss of a loved one, grief, anger, sadness, fear, anxiety, betrayal, and melancholy. Incorporating Skullcap as a daily tonic can help us process the grief while we work on a path of healing and not fall into a hole of despair and dysfunction.

Skullcap was helpful after losing our beautiful cat Larrea. I was barely functioning; it took everything to get out of bed, engage with folks and work. I drove up and down our neighborhood calling her name, walking the desert looking for a sign of struggle, or if she was afraid and hiding under a shrub. I was obsessed in finding her or finding closure. I was not getting enough sleep. When I did sleep, I was easily awoken by coyotes howling at night. I would wake up to chase them away. I was teetering on dysfunctionality. Skullcap helped in the “freak out” hysteria, anger, and guilt I was feeling. Although the pain of the loss of our cat was never going away, I became hopeful and optimistic instead of doom and gloom.

Howie Brounstein clinical herbalist, botanist and founder of Columbines School of Botanical Studies teaches that Skullcap “slows down the physical response so you can eat and sleep.” In his article on dissolving partnerships called “Can’t Get You Out of My Head,” he gives a perspective on processing through a break-up with the help of herbs which include Skullcap. It is a beautiful article that really opens our eyes to our overall health during a breakup.

Skullcap for Muscle Tension and Nerve Pain

Skullcap does not work well alone for nerve pain (neuralgia) issues like sciatica. It does help in relaxing the muscles, tonifying the tissues. For internal use, adding California Poppy, St. John’s Wort, or CBD can help in relieving nerve pain while Skullcap acts to relax the muscles, so they are not tense and tight.

In many situations, we tend to focus on the pain and discomfort which can sometimes get to be obsessive. Skullcap is effective in those patterns of obsessive worry and thinking.

Can Skullcap be Used Topically?

The question arises often if Skullcap can be used topically and the answer is no. There are many other herbs we can choose from for topical use for pain, nerve pain, muscle aches, etc., that can be used topically while Skullcap is taken


Herbal First-Aid with Skullcap

I keep Skullcap tincture by my bedside. it is part of my herbal first-aid kit. I carry Skullcap with me because one never knows when you will need it. From menstrual cramps, muscular soreness, aches and pain, muscle tension, to the overworking mind that prevents sleep with circulating or obsessive thoughts of the list of things that need to be done that has one tossing in bed rather than getting a restful sleep. It also is helpful for stressful moments and those stress induced shakes. It quiets the mind chatter in turn helping attain sleep.

Skullcap to Quiet Down and Sleep

I wouldn’t consider Skullcap to have sedative effects, but it can chill one out. I met someone who described Skullcap as a sleeping aid because it was in their sleep tincture which had other herbs that had sedative like properties. It is common to find Skullcap in sleep blends as it helps quiet the mindless chatter, obsessive thoughts, and relax the nerves and muscles, but it will not induce sleep when used as a simple herb. When someone is already tired and takes Skullcap alone, it will allow one to rest and eventually doze off into dream land. However, I would not use Skullcap alone for all insomnia, but I would try it for insomnia associated with worry and stress, pairing it with herbs like Vervain or Valerian if needed.

You can use Skullcap at any time of the day. If you need to function, be alert, and engage, it has minimal sedative effects. For those long road trips where your body is aching, Skullcap tea or tincture can be taken without drowsiness.

Skullcap for Spasm, including Coughs and Muscle Spasms

As an antispasmodic, it is for bronchial spasms, coughing, involuntary muscular twitches, restless leg and feet, and eye twitches. I personally use Skullcap for spastic coughing associated with bouts of asthma attacks along with Mullein and Licorice Root. Sometimes I add Yerba Santa when it is a humid asthma attack. For the shakes associated with over excitement or just too many stimulants like the caffeine shakes, Skullcap will help with the tremors.

Skullcap has a history of use for weaning off barbiturates. William Cook wrote in The Physiomedical Dispensatory in 1869 of Skullcap’s use in withdrawal: “In chronic wakefulness and even the horrid sleeplessness that arises under the effort to abstain from habitual use of opium.” Skullcap use in weaning off drugs helps those who experience shakes, fear, anxiety, freak-outs, and restlessness. It may be helpful for bad psychoactive trips. Those who are weaning off caffeine may find Skullcap to be a helpful support.

There are flavonoids present in Skullcap. Skullcap’s flavonoids are:

  • tonifying to tissues
  • anti-inflammatory
  • anti-oxidant rich
  • antispasmodic
  • improve tissues elasticity
  • cardioprotective
  • reduce inflammation
  • supports structural stability of tissues

Are All Skullcaps Interchangeable?

In the literature, different Skullcap species are interchangeable for most of their uses.

I encourage you to research and explore the other medicinal Skullcaps. However, with a recent species addition to the Scutellaria genus based upon phylogenetics (DNA sequencing), this has now changed. We can no longer say that all Skullcaps are interchangeable. There is a desert species, formally Salazaria mexicana, that has changed to the Scutellaria mexicana. I, along with others, cannot find any western or Indigenous medicinal use of this species S. mexicana.

Scutellaria mexicana does not look anything like the Skullcaps I work with. Scutellaria mexicana, Mexican Bladdersage or Paperbag Bush, is a perennial drought deciduous shrub native to the Mojave, Sonoran, and Chihuahuan Deserts. Someone new to herbalism, or unfamiliar with plant name changes, may assume  because the plant is in the Skullcap genus that it can be used like garden Skullcap. It is so important to be study the plants outside of their therapeutic uses.

Wild Harvesting Scutellaria lateriflora in California

In California, where I live, S. lateriflora is listed as “rare, threatened or endangered but more common elsewhere.” In California its ranking is “S2 = Imperiled in the state because of rarity due to a very restricted range, few populations (often 20 or fewer), steep declines or other factors making it very vulnerable to extirpation from fewer the nation or state/province.”

With the rising popularity of wildcrafting, the increase in weekend wildcrafting workshops offered, and the natural desire to connect with and live off the land, please do thorough research into what plant you are gathering. Checking if it is rare, threatened, endangered, at risk, or on a watch list. Frankly, it is impossible to teach “ethical” wildcrafting in a mere weekend. Check your state’s native plant society, state, and federal ranking status of a plant, along with being familiar with the plants on the United Plant Savers Species AT-RISK list.


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