Skullcaps – Scutellaria SPP.: Medicinal Uses of the “Perfect Nervine” of Wild Plants

Table of Contents

All six species of skullcaps (Scutellaria SPP.) presently noted in Ontario on iNaturalist are native plants. The main two being the common/marsh skullcap (Scutellaria galericulata) and side-flowering/mad-dog (Scutellaria lateriflora). You can find them in wet shores, swampy areas in the woods and sometimes on sandy roadsides. These two common skullcaps around Haliburton are used similarly in Western herbalism.

The “mad dog” folk name refers to the snake oil rabies treatment this was once used for. Although it probably helped with symptoms it certainly didn’t cure rabies.

Skullcaps – Scutellaria SPP.
Skullcaps – Scutellaria SPP.

A few rarer species here include small skullcap (S. parvula), somerset (S. alytissima), downy (S. incana) and veined (S. nervosa). These have local observations on iNaturalist for Haliburton, Ontario that may or may not be correct IDs. Not all of them were in Haliburton Flora.

I’ve confused these skullcaps at a glance with Indian tobacco (Lobelia inflata), which has similar pale flowers and a similar small stature.

They are also confusable with wood sage when not covered in skull shaped flowers.

Skullcaps – Scutellaria SPP.
Skullcaps – Scutellaria SPP.

Medicinal Uses of Skullcap

Skullcap is primarily said to support these body systems:

  • Circulatory
  • Muscular
  • Nervous

Medicinal tags include Analgesic, Antispasmodic, Astringent, Diuretic, Nervine, and Sedative. See Medicinal tag key for more information.

Common usage includes the whole flowering herb used for herbal teas or in other preparations for nervous conditions and spasms.

Skullcap and the scutellarin it contains is considered one of the best nervines for anxiety and stress. Herbalists will often mix skullcap with other calming herbs like valerian (which will be covered next at Song of the Woods!) It’s also used for insomnia. While our local species are all said to have similar nervine properties, mad-dog (S. laterfolia) is the species generally sought out in Western herbalism.

For spasms, herbalists may use skullcap in tinctures for mild Tourette’s, palsies, Parkinson’s, menstrual cramps, tension headaches, etc.

The roots of mad-dog are antibacterial but require an alcohol extraction. They may have more baicalin than the Chinese skullcap (S. baicalensis). These plants may have use for antibiotic resistance.

Alternative Uses of Mad Dog

In some magical traditions skullcap is used before or after certain rituals.

Growing Scutellaria SPP.

The commercially bought herb is often adulterated with species that can be toxic to the liver, and the root is hard to come by. So herbalists will need to grow their own or find a trusted source. It’s also a fun native plant to sow if you have the right soil. Its preference is well drained soil, ideally in full sun. But partial sun can work too.

The endangered Karner blue butterfly (Plebejus samuelis) nectars on the plant. The Karner blue butterfly species has been extirpated or “eliminated” from Ontario, but perhaps there will be a future project to bring it back. Other butterflies, long tongued bees and some leaf beetles will also feed on skullcap. The deer should leave it alone.

Speaking of Karner blue, if you love butterflies you might like the APP Flutter from Netflix. In it you collect real world butterflies. Feel free to message me for a friend code.


It is possible to overdose.

And the Usual Cautions:

1) Most medicinal herbs, if edible, are meant to be eaten in moderation, even sparingly. Some require extra preparation. Tannins are toxic if consumed in excess.

2) People can be allergic or sensitive to nearly any plant; try new herbs one at a time at your own risk. For instance, saponins commonly cause stomach upset.

3) For medicinal use, I must recommend receiving a diagnosis and working with a reputed health care provider. I generally do not post specific treatments and dosages because I think that is best between you and your health care provider, and ideally monitored.

4) Anyone pregnant, nursing, or taking prescription drugs should talk to a health care professional before adding new food items to their diet.

5) Many plants have look-a-likes, and sometimes they are poisonous.

#ads in References

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The Complete Illustrated Holistic Herbal: A Safe and Practical Guide to Making and Using Herbal Remedies

Encyclopedia of Herbal Medicine: 550 Herbs and Remedies for Common Ailments

Reader’s Digest Magic and Medicine of Plants

Medicinal and Other Uses of North American Plants: A Historical Survey with Special Reference to the Eastern Indian Tribes

A Harvest of Herbs

The Herbal Medicine-Maker’s Handbook: A Home Manual

Herbal Therapeutics: Specific Indications for Herbs & Herbal Formulas (8th Edition)

The Green Pharmacy: The Ultimate Compendium Of Natural Remedies From The World’s Foremost Authority On Healing Herbs

Herbal Medic: A Green Beret’s Guide to Emergency Medical Preparedness and Natural First Aid 1st Edition

The Earthwise Herbal, Volume II: A Complete Guide to New World Medicinal Plants

The Herb Book: The Most Complete Catalog of Herbs Ever Published (Dover Cookbooks)

The Herb Bible

Indian Herbalogy of North America: The Definitive Guide to Native Medicinal Plants and Their Uses

The Yoga of Herbs: An Ayurvedic Guide to Herbal Medicine

The Poison Path Herbal: Baneful Herbs, Medicinal Nightshades, and Ritual Entheogens

A Modern Herbal (Volume 2, I-Z and Indexes)

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