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Plant of the week: Plant used by native Americans to bind couples together

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Name: Skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora)

Otherwise known as: Mad Dog Weed, Quaker’s Bonnet

Habitat: A perennial herb of the Labiatea family growing to about 1m in moist woods and meadows in North America, Europe and Asia. The plant has branching stems of oval to triangular leaves, with blue, tubular flowers, which look like the hats worn by the early Puritan settlers of New England.

What does it do: Skullcap was a valued medicinal plant by the Native Americans and played a part in their religious ceremonies. It was used to bind couples together in wedding rituals, and was thought to protect against evil spells. Those that broke an oath, sworn while bound by skullcap, were to suffer dire punishment.

The New England physicians used this herb to treat hydrophobia (rabies) with some success; over 400 cases were claimed to be cured. In their society, where sexual excitement was thought to be a mental disorder, skullcap was given to reduce this condition. It has a similar effect to St John’s Wort, being a sedative that treats stress and hysteria and was recommended for calming the recently bereaved, and those recovering from long-term illness and to combat St Vitas Dance (chorea). Currently it is used in cases of depression, migraine, pre-menstrual tension, sleeplessness, rheumatism, neuralgia, rickets and shock. Many elderly patients are said to experience restored memory capacity after taking the herb; it improves blood flow to the brain.

Recent research has indicated that skullcap may play an important part in reducing addiction to barbiturates and alcohol. It is also claimed to reduce the pain of multiple sclerosis. Modern herbalists have achieved moderate success in relieving constant dry coughing, and in stimulating the kidneys.

Two Chinese relatives, Scutellaria baicalensis and S. barbata, are claimed to be effective against blood pressure, and certain tumours. A research programme into properties of S. baicalensis, indicates it may inhibit Hepatitis B.


Alexander McCowan is author of The World’s most Dangerous Plants

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