The Amazing Non-Aromatic Skullcaps

One of the unsung heroes of the herbal family are the many types of skullcaps from the genus Scutellaria. The genus Scutellaria has 360-400 species and the most commonly used are the Western Skullcap, Scutellaria lateriflora, and the Chinese Skullcap, Scutellaria baicalensis. The Scutellaria genus is in the Mint family (Lamiaceae), which is well known in the herbal and spice world. The classic mint plants are aromatic and have opposite leaves and a square stem. These plants are so common in food and medicine, including peppermint, spearmint, catnip, holy basil, Italian basil, sage, lavender, bee balm, Oregano.

Most plants in the mint family are highly aromatic and non-toxic, although a few mints may not smell pleasant to all such as the NW native Stachys. There are a few genera like Scutellaria, Marrubium, and Prunella that are mostly free from aromatic terpenes. I think this goes against the classic aromatic, open and upward energy of mints, it's like having a grumpy Labrador dog, just different from the rest of the family. We tend to overlook the non-aromatic as mints as they don’t jump out as other aromatic mints, but what the skullcap doesn’t have in smell it makes up by an amazing group of secondary constituents.

The Scutellaria has been traditionally used as medicinal plants with anti-allergic, anti-hepatic anti-inflammatory, antithrombic, anti-bacterial, hepatoprotective and anti-mutagenic and antioxidant properties. We think of skullcap as a nerve tonic or as nerve food. The Eclectic physicians from the early part of the nineteenth century said that skullcap can be used “In all cases of nervous excitability, restlessness, or wakefulness, attending or following acute or chronic diseases, from physical or mental overwork”(2) The rich source of flavonoids and phenolic compounds are key to understanding the skullcaps. The Skullcaps contain a mix of secondary plant compounds including triterpenes, diterpenes, and iridoid glycosides, and phenolic compounds ( flavonoids ). A new research paper in the Biomedicine and Pharmacotherapy journal (1) explores the bioactive compounds and their effect on CNS disorders such as Alzheimer’s, Cerebral ischemia, depression, and anxiety. In this detailed 2018 review of Scutellaria find that Scutellaria to be a potential agent in combating the epidemic of neurological diseases.

Scutellaria baicalensis: Source of Baicalein, Baicalin, Wogonin, Wogonoside, Apigetrin, Oroxylin A, Melatonin, Serotonin

Scutellaria lateriflora: Source of Scutellarin, Melatonin, Serotonin

The pharmacodynamics influences of Skullcap compounds on the brain. Including

  • Strong antioxidant activity
  • Decreasing Beta Amyloid activity
  • Decreasing neuroinflammation,
  • Antidepressant and anxiolytic activity
  • Decreasing Cerebral ischemia

This interesting research helps us to understand and validate the long-held belief that Skullcaps are a nervine and a nerve tonic with unique compounds that can promote neurological and brain health. Maybe it’s time we look more into our non-aromatic skullcaps as a rich source of neurologically active compounds and a useful tool in dealing with the epidemic of neurological disease. It is clear that the Skullcaps produce a potent mix of useful compounds that have new clinical research which helps us validate our historical past. I think it can be useful to mix both species of Western and Chinese skullcap together as a tea or blend the tinctures as they have some overlap in similar compounds but the Chinese Skullcap root seems to be a little more diverse.

There is a long history of Chinese skullcap being used in Chinese medicine. The key indications are to tonify kidney Qi, Calm heart spirit, Calm liver yang, and liver wind (3). In the west we can think of this as an anti-inflammatory, supporting insomnia, restlessness, anxiety and nervous exhaustion. What a great combination that all herbalists and holistic physicians should get acquainted with the East and West species of Scutellaria.

  1. King's American Dispensatory (Felter & Lloyd) 1898
  2. Biomedicine & Pharmacotherapy 102 (2018) 185–195
  3. A Clinical Materia Medica, by Jeremy Ross. Verlag Fur Ganzheitliche Medizin (2010)