SKULLCAP Scutellaria laterifolia Mint family
Appearance: Skullcaps are differentiated from other mints by their blue or white flowers, which are borne (in most species) from the upper leaf axils in symmetrically arranged sets of two or more. The flowers are two-lobed and tubular in shape; with one lobe that forms an upper lip, and one that forms a larger, apron-like lower lip. The lance-shaped, finely to coarsely toothed leaves are opposite (like all mints), with very short (almost absent) petioles. Like most mints, Skullcap has distinctly four-sided stems.
Habitat & Range: There are several native species of skullcap in North America, most of which live in moist meadows, spring seeps, and riparian thickets. Scutellaria laterifolia and several other cultivars are grown throughout the world.
Cycle & Bloom Season: An annual or perennial (depending on species and climate) that blooms from June to August.
Parts Used: The leaves, stems, and flowers.
Actions: Nervine, sedative, antispasmodic, anticonvulsant.
Affinities: Nervous system.
Preparation: Tea, tincture, dried or fresh herb.
Specific Uses: For centuries, herbalists have recognized skullcap as one of the most effective herbal nervines available. It is commonly used for acute or chronic cases of nervous tension ;or anxiety;, and to help relieve pain from nerve related injury or disease. Historically it has been used to treat convulsions;, epilepsy;, multiple sclerosis;, hysteria;, and delirium tremens;. Scutellaria laterifolia is still known by many people as “mad dog weed”, from its use in the eighteenth century as a cure for rabies. Yet, despite its rich history and current popularity among herbalists, very little scientific study has been focused on this plant. From the studies that have been conducted, we have learned that the chemistry of skullcap varies considerably between species. However, all species that are marketed and used as herbal medicine contain scutellarin,; a flavonoid compound; which has been shown to possess sedative and antispasmodic; qualities.
We find skullcap especially effective for general nervousness and excitability in dogs and cats, and for any condition characterized by over sensitivity of the peripheral nerves. It is useful for relieving nervous tension related to pain or a traumatic experience. It is also useful as an antispasmodic in nervous irritations of the cerebrospinal system, such as sciatica or post-traumatic neuralgia1.
Unlike valerian and other herbal sedatives, skullcap by itself does not bring about drowsiness, nor does it dull the reflexes or interfere with motor coordination. Instead, skullcap acts to moderate an animal’s responsiveness to physical or non-physical stimuli, and helps alleviate general restlessness and nervous twitching. This makes it very useful in high-strung felines who are recovering from a frightful experience, but who need all of their survival mechanisms intact during their daily outdoor adventures.
Herbalists consider skullcap a specific remedy for grand mal seizures, and the authors have received several very encouraging reports from people who are using skullcap to reduce the severity and frequency of seizures in their epileptic dogs, especially when the herb is combined in equal parts with valerian. Science has not yet revealed exactly how skullcap works in this capacity, but herbalists theorize that it may calm nerve impulses throughout the body, while inhibiting activity in higher brain centers where epileptic seizures might be triggered. Skullcap’s effectiveness in moderating epileptic episodes may explain it’s traditional reputation as a cure for rabies— back in the eighteenth century, little was known about epilepsy, and it’s likely that many epilepsy sufferers were misdiagnosed with rabies.
For epileptic dogs, 0.5 to 1 milliliter of a low-alcohol tincture can be fed twice or three times daily— but see your holistic veterinarian for a thorough work-up of your companion before proceeding. For generalized nervousness or to help relieve pain in dogs and cats, 0.5 ml. per 20 pounds of the animal’s weight can be fed as needed, up to three times daily for up to a week. However, it’s important to remember that skullcap and other herbal sedatives can only relieve the symptoms of such disorders, they cannot address the underlying causes (see “Anxiety and Behavioral Disorders”). For nervousness in horses, mules, or goats, one half to one ounce of the dried herb can be added to their feed once per day, as needed.
A study from 1957 has shown that skullcap can prevent rises in serum cholesterol in animals on a high-cholesterol diet2, which means that the herb might be useful as a dietary adjunct in animals, such as miniature-Schnauzers and Beagles, that are predisposed to hyperlipidemia.
Availability: Available in dried herb form or tinctures, through herb retailers. The plants are available through nurseries that specialize in herbs.
Propagation & Harvest: Easy to grow from transplants. Skullcap likes consistently moist, rich soil, and does best when allowed a few hours of shade each day. Harvest the plants by clipping the upper third of the flowering plant. The plant can be hung in small bunches and dried for later use (the herb will keep for about a year), or the fresh herb can be made into tincture (the optimum choice).
Alternatives and Adjuncts: For epileptic dogs, or for use as nerve-calming sedative, combine skullcap with an equal part of valerian. Oatstraw and gotu kola; also serve as a good adjunct. For nerve pain and spinal injuries, combine skullcap with an equal amount of St. John’s wort.
Cautions & Comments: Although skullcap is generally very safe, excessive use may be damaging to the liver, and it should not be used in animals with preexisting liver conditions. If you are considering skullcap for long term use in your animal, first have your animal thoroughly examined by a holistic veterinarian— dietary adjustments and hepato-protective measures might be in order. By folkloric accounts, skullcap was used to promote menstruation and eliminate afterbirth. Therefore, it’s best not to use skullcap in pregnant animals.
1. Priest, A.W. & Priest, L.R., Herbal Medication, 1982.
2. Aonuma, S., Minuma, T. and Tarutani, M. “Effects of coptis, scuttellaria, rhubarb and bupleurum on serum cholesterol and phospholipids in rabbits.” Yakugaku Zasshi 77. 1303-1307. 1957.)