Plant Rant: Dog Days and Mad-dog Skullcaps

annual cicada, Tibicen canicularis - the Dog-day cicada

9/6/2011 Below is a plant rant I wrote a couple of weeks ago that became lost in the pile of uncompleted summer projects.  Reading through this rant once again, it already feels outdated, but yet retains a notion of a timelessness true to me.  From the time of this earlier writing, there has been a significant change of weather from the extreme high temperatures and drought to late summer’s susceptibility for hurricanes. This evening as I write, the incessant rains of tropical storm Lee are rapping hard upon the sliding glass door and causing flash flooding throughout the region – further aggravating already swollen rivers and creeks from Hurricane Irene of last week. The garden endured Irene but was littered throughout with leaves, branches and countless splayed out plants. Any plant that was just a bit top-heavy took a beating, and I was granted several days work righting them back up. The rains of this week can be blessing for the water table, fabulous for mycological hunts, but also dampen my best efforts to tame the garden.

Cortinarius violaceus

8/20/2011 These final dog days of summer are marked by cicadas’ whining drone by day, katydids’ echoing chants by night, ripening milkweed pods, Joe-Pye blooming at six feet high, tiger swallowtails at the anise hyssop, ruby-throated hummingbirds at the cardinal flower, and the tangled growth of mints. As a gardener, an aspect of my role is to tame nature, to control the mints and to select which plants are to live or let die. Taming nature involves elimination and therefore creates negative space. This negative space allows Jim Duke and me to readily see the medicinal plants for teaching purposes.

tiger swallowtail, Papilio glaucus, butterfly on cardinal flower, Lobelia cardinalis

Although I set out to control the growth and make negative space, I find within the tangle of itinerant mints, my love of the lighthearted and the wild traveler. Ah, to be able to roam haphazardly and wander freely like a peppermint with no clear direction  satisfies a youthful yearning in me. Typically, summer should be the time to embrace this carefree personality with the music flowing, zephyrs, vacations, tepid waters to swim, juicy fresh peaches, ripe tomatoes, melons and sweet corn.

100 plus degrees

During this particular summer, my interns, volunteers and I have endured extreme temperatures up and over 100 degrees, torrential downpours, mosquitoes, milkweed tussock moth caterpillars devouring all of the  Asclepias tuberosa‘s (butterfly weed or pleurisy root) leaves in about one day, hundreds of marmorated stink bug nymphs clustered in Angelica nodes or consuming the tomatoes, broken irrigation timers and faulty pond pumps. I have also had to withstand my own aging body with its ever-increasing cricks and creaks as well as accept that Jim and Peggy are transitioning with ambulatory and health matters. At times, I am burdened and stressed by global and national political turmoil, high unemployment, health concerns, the fluctuating stock and housing market, deadlines and my own mental mumblings and tangle of much to do.

In the family of mints, I can find support for these anxieties and the accompanying worries. Once such mint, well-known in the herbal community, is mad-dog skullcap, Scutellaria lateriflora, known for its “neurotrophorestorative” qualities.

Scutellaria lateriflora leaves and racemes in flower

Mad-dog skullcap is not the typical “minty” smelling mint; in fact, it is of a slight bitter flavor and produces virtually no aroma. Skullcap also does not have the tangled appearance as do the peppermints and spearmints and is found in the INSOMNIA, ADD, and ADDICTIONS plots in the garden. (Note: as of 9/5/2011 skullcap is past flowering and looks a bit disheveled and messy, but not tangled).  If we had a STRESS or ANXIETY plot, skullcap would also be found there.

Mad-dog Skullcap shooting up in Addictions plot

Skullcap is a native plant and grows in moist environments throughout. Even though it blooms during these “dog days” of summer, the common name of mad-dog skullcap is due to its alleged 18th and early 19th century use as a prophylactic and treatment for rabies from mad-dogs.  The Latin name Scutellaria is from scutella meaning “little dish” to describe the shape of the calyx and lateriflora is because all of the flowers on the raceme or flower stalk are turned to one side.

Scutellaria lateriflora skullcap seed heads

Brief History of Skullcap: Native Americans used this native herb for menses, diarrhea, breast pains and expelling of the afterbirth. In the mid 1800’s skullcap gained a reputation for nervous diseases such as convulsions, tetanus, St.Vitus’ dance, and tremors. By the mid to late 1880’s and into the early 1900’s skullcap continued to be recommended for  its use as a nervous system tonic and recommended for insomnia, neuralgia, irritability, chorea, twitchings and women’s menstrual pains.  Although skullcap was listed in the US Pharmacopoeia from 1863 to 1916 and the National Formulary from 1916 to 1947,  the US Dispensatory in its 22 edition claimed that skullcap was “as destitute of medicinal properties as a plant may be, not even being aromatic…with no obvious effects and probably is of no remedial value …” (U.S. Dispensatory, 1937, p. 968). However, Jethro Kloss in Back to Eden, writes that skullcap “is one of the best nerve tonics…very quieting and soothing to the nerves of people who are easily excited…” (Kloss, 1939, p.313) In the late 1980’s, skullcap’s safety reputation suffered and was under scrutiny for many years from a nutraceutical product, which incorrectly claimed it contained skullcap but actually was found to be adulterated with germander. The germander, not the skullcap, caused four cases of hepatotoxicity and eventually manufacturers became more diligent regarding the source and identification of their products. Recent research has revealed that skullcap contains the flavonoids baicalin, baicalein, wogonin and scutellarin as well as the amino acids glutamine, glutamate and GABA, which possibly attribute to its anxiolytic properties.

To this day, skullcap continues to be used as a nervine and neurotophorestorative for anxiety, PMS and insomnia. Skullcap can be used as a hot infusion by pouring 1 cup of boiling water over 1 -2 teaspoons of dried herb for 15 minutes or taking as a tincture extract.

Before public speaking, which typically makes me a “Nervous Nellie (Jim Duke’s term),” prior to test taking, or just when I feel frazzled and tangled up in life, I may reach for a calming tincture of skullcap, oats and chamomile. I am not ruling out that it is the placebo effect from this ritual that sedates my nerves, but I prefer to think it is the power of the herbs and their constituents working in concert to tame the mad-dog in me.

Echinacea in bloom

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3 Responses to Plant Rant: Dog Days and Mad-dog Skullcaps

  1. claire denenberg says:

    Helen, enjoyed the article, brought back memories of the term paper I did on herbs in women”s health while an NP student in Philadelphia in 1984. Would enjoy any others you produce, is there a site where they are available? Thanks, Claire

    • greenfarmacy says:

      Hi Claire,
      I have written other (but shorter) blogs on that same site – but it has been a very busy summer and the blogs have not been as numerous as I had intended. In the future, I hope to keep up with more in-depth blogs…but cannot predict how my follow through will be. I would love to hear if you were able to incorporate any of your research into your work as a NP. I would also enjoy to reconnect in person with you…Helen

  2. I loved that installment! Keep going!

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