Scutellaria lateriflora-photo by Louise Harmon 2012
One of the most cherished residents of my herb garden is Skullcap, Scutellaria laterflora. When I first planted her three years ago, I was cautious not to let her run amuck in the garden as is her nature, placing a flexible garden border around the plants, large enough to allow for growth, but deterring her from taking over the rest of the garden. Last year, feeling this was perhaps overkill, I removed the border to allow Scutellaria just a little more freedom to roam the garden. However, Comfrey and Skullcap now appear to be engaged in a bit of a ‘turf war’. Such is life in the herb garden…
Skullcap, a member of the labiatae or mint family, derives its common name from the flower’s resemblance to military helmets worn long ago. It is a wonderful nervine-its gentle action is calming during times of stress, relaxing for tight muscles and spasms and eases the restlessness of tossing-and-turning into restorative sleep. I add Skullcap to my migraine headache formula to reduce the facial and neck muscle tightness which often accompanies headaches. I combine Skullcap with Hops, and a little Valerian root (all in tincture form) to help with more persistent insomnia especially if it is accompanied by neck, shoulder or back pain with spasms.
I have successfully used Skullcap during my weight loss program whenever an attack of ‘I-want-to-munch-on-everything-in-sight’ threatened to derail my efforts. Ten minutes after taking a dropperful of Skullcap tincture, those destructive urges subsided, allowing me to stay on track with my diet plan. I lost 65 pounds and have continued to maintain my weight loss. I still turn to Skullcap if I need a little help in controlling the occasional nervous munchies.
Although Skullcap can be taken in capsules or made into an infusion, my preference it to use the tincture. Not only are tinctures easier to dose but with proper storage, they have a long shelf life.
When purchasing Skullcap or any other herbal products, there are a few things to consider. Exposure to heat and light will speed up deterioration, lessening the herb’s medicinal properties. So if the shop you visit has its herbs stored in glass jars displayed in direct sunlight or over a heating vent, consider shopping some place different.
Always question shelf life when it comes to dried herbs. Powdered herbs (used in making capsules) have a fairly short shelf life (somewhere between three to six months); dried whole herbs will usually be potent for about a year. It is possible that the herb sitting in the jar on the store’s shelf could be several years old. Before you purchase bulk herbs, always ask questions regarding the source and age of the herbs. If the seller declines to provide you with answers, shop elsewhere.
Properly dried and stored herbs should retain their smell, color and vibrancy-they should still feel alive. Good medicine cannot be made from old, brown, dusty herbs! As always, unless you grow your own plants, be careful to obtain your herbs and herbal medicines from reliable sources. You want to have some assurance that the herbs you are purchasing to enhance you wellbeing were not gathered from an area sprayed with chemicals, exposed to car exhaust or were growing near toxic plants which could all cause contamination. You also want to be assured that the herbs you are buying were properly identified in the field and are what the label states them to be. There have been occasional instances of adulteration of commercially available dried Skullcap with small amounts of the toxic plants Teucrium canadense and Teucrium chamaedrys, both commonly known as Germander.
There is also the aspect of ethical harvesting to consider. Were the plants gathered with good harvesting techniques which leave the remaining stand of plants healthy, minimizing human impact on the surrounding area? Ethical wildcrafting ensures the continued availability of precious medicinal herbs for everyone and leaves the environment intact for the creatures who call the land home.
Two sources for purchasing herbs and tinctures which I use almost exclusively are Herb Pharm and Mountain Rose (see links below). Both offer high quality herbal products which are ethically harvested.
Skullcap grows quite easily in the garden, requiring good soil, adequate water and partial to full sun. Freshly harvested Skullcap is great for making into a fresh plant tincture or to dry for use as an infusion. Harvest the top third of the plant, just as the flowers are beginning to open. Rinse under cool water to remove dust and bugs, patting dry with a clean dish towel or paper towels. Pick off any yellow, withered or bug-munched leafs. I dry my herbs on a baking rack on top of my refrigerator-the gentle warmth speeds the drying process plus they are out of hunting range of our two cats. Just make certain to spread the herbs out into a single layer and check them often, moving them around a bit to enhance air circulation. Toss out anything that begins to mold. When the plants are thoroughly dry (the leaves should be crunchy and crumble when rubbed between you finger tips), pull off the flowers, buds and leaves and store in a CLEAN dry jar with a lid (canning jars work well). The stems can be recycled back into your garden as compost. If you are reusing old jars, make certain they do not have any residual smells, unless you want your Skullcap smelling like pickles! ALWAYS label you jar with the name of the herb, both common name and Latin name, where you obtained it from, and the date it was harvested. Store dried herbs in a cool, dark place. I have a cupboard in my kitchen, far away from the stove and other heat sources, that works well to hold all my herbs.
Dosage is really quite dependent on each individual’s response and it is always wise to start with a lower dose first to evaluate your own response. For an infusion, use a heaping teaspoon to tablespoon of dried herb to a cup of almost boiling water, allowing it to steep for about 20 minutes. For a tincture, follow the directions on the bottle. If this dose is a bit too sedating, use less the next time. Doesn’t work that well? Try a little more-remember: ‘start low, go slow’ when increasing a dose. Although Skullcap is a fairly safe nervine, be careful not to mix with alcohol or other sedating prescription medications as you may experience a cumulative effect. Avoid Skullcap during pregnancy and if you have any questions regarding your use of Skullcap or any other herbs, always consult your healthcare provider.
-Mountain Rose Herbs:
-For a good list of ethical wildcrafting practices, read the Wildcrafting Checklist under Wildcrafting from Columbines School of Botanical Studies:
This information is offered for educational purposes and is not intended to take the place of personalized medical care from a trained healthcare professional. The reader assumes all risk when utilizing the above information.
Copyright© 2012 Louise Harmon
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