Archive for February, 2012

Avena-A Monograph on Oats as Medicine

Wednesday, February 29th, 2012

Avena barbata-Wild slender oats

This is a monograph about oats, the same plant that oatmeal comes from, but here the focus will be on how it is used medicinally.

One thing that can be said about this plant is that unless you have a specific oat allergy, it is a very safe, nutritive plant. As such, a wide variety of people, including those that are often sensitive to other medicines, can use it. It is one of those plants that straddles the line of ‘is it a food, or is it a medicine’, which is often an arbitrary line anyway.

Avena Botany and Nomenclature

There are a couple of common names for Avena depending on which of the different parts of the plant is being used. The mature seeds are the part used for food and depending on how they are processed are called oats, oatmeal, rolled oats, etc. In herbal medicine the immature flower heads and the stems and leaves are the main parts used. Generally when the immature flower heads are made into a tincture (see Medicine Preparation below) it is called fresh milky oat tops, or milky oats. This is because there is a white fluid that is exuded from the flower head at this phase of its development, and it is the preferred time to tincture the plant.

The other parts of the oat plant employed for medicine are the dried stems (technically called a culm) and leaves. Sometimes the immature seed heads are sold along with the culm and leaves. These are most often used for tea and are called oatstraw or wild oats.

One of the things that always seemed ironic to me is seeing the dried plant straw sold in jars in markets for medicine, and then driving along and passing by large bales of hay sold for much less. The baled oatstraw is generally sold for animal bedding.

Botany

Avena is in the Poaceae (also called the Gramineae), the grass family, which is one of the largest families of plants and with one of the widest distributions. This family contributes a significant portion of the human diet and includes rice (Oryza), wheat Avena barbata with botanical details(Triticum), corn (Zea), sugar cane (Saccharum), rye (Secale), along with others. The grasses have their own distinct botanical characteristics. It is too technical a family to cover here but there is a photo of Avena barbata which shows a spikelet (the inflorescence) from the plant containing 2 florets (small flowers). The dangling parts (yellow on a thin string) are the stamen. Each floret has 3 stamens. And the feathery part is the stigma, where the pollen will be caught. The whole spikelet is the part that will eventually mature into the milky oat top.

The most commonly used species is Avena sativa (and it cultivars). This is the species that is cultivated for its consumption and if you see large fields of oats, it will be this species.

There are two weedy species that are probably useful as well. They look very similar to Avena sativa, and one would need to botanize them to see the differences. I don’t know if anyone purposefully gathers them, but they taste similar and probably are just as useful. The first is Avena fatua, which is a common weedy oats (meaning not purposefully planted) and is commonly found wherever people grow A. sativa. The second is another weedy species, Avena barbata, which is found mostly in California. These can be found growing along roadsides and other non-garden places, but so can Avena sativa.

Avena sativa-recently harvested

Wildcrafting and Gathering

The most likely place one will gather Avena sativa is from farms. It has a distinctive green color and once learned can be easily spotted while driving along. You can then ask the folks growing it if they wouldn’t mind you gathering some of the tops. This will likely bring incredulous looks (which the herbalist should be familiar with by now). It shouldn’t impact their crop, and you likely to get permission. You may want to find out if the crop is sprayed. The second place is along roadsides where you may find any of the three above-mentioned species.
I also ask my organic gardening friends if they will grow a row of it for me, as it is pretty easy to grow. I trade herbal medicine and consultations with local farmers for these favors.

Few tools are needed for gathering this plant. First I make sure it is the right time to be gathering the plant. It is easy to test, just squeeze the immature oat top and a medium-thin white fluid will emerge from the base. Those of you who enjoy pimple popping will like this aspect. Not all of them will exude this fluid, but a majority should. Now it is time to gather. I usually just bring a brown paper grocery bag and turn down the sides so that it stands upright. I then walk along the rows, using both hands in a loose fist and drag my hand upward along the stem gathering the oat tops. It takes a bit of practice and initially you will be pulling some of the oat plants out of the ground. It takes a while to fill a bag, but that is a good amount of medicine depending on what you are going to do with it. You may also want to bring pruners and cut a number of the stalks and dry them for tea.

Processing, Medicine making and Preparations

There are two common ways of processing the Avena, one is drying it for tea, and the other is tincturing the fresh oat tops.

First, directions for preparing the tincture. Freshness is important in preparing fresh milky immature seed tops tincture. The day that I gather them I set aside as the day I will also process them. After trying a number of different methods I feel the best way to get the medicine from them is by using a blender. There are a number of reasons for this, and one is that the oat tops are light and bulky and take up a lot of room in the jar you will tincture them in. So that if you try to cover them with alcohol, it is weak, even if you jam them tight in the jar. Blending them breaks down the plant material much further and makes for a stronger medicine. I use a Vita-mix blender for preparing tinctures, they are a bit pricey, but I think worth it. (If you decide to purchase one, I would suggest a used one and the kind that has a reverse motion to its motor, which is very useful for tincturing). I blend the tincture at 1:2 80% ethanol, and it turns a psychedelic lime green color.

If you do not have a blender, try to double macerate it fresh. It would be very helpful to have a tincture press for this method. If you grow them yourself this wouldn’t be too hard. Gather the amount you want to tincture at the earliest date of the oats going milky. Press them firmly into a jar and cover with 80% ethanol. The oats should stay milky for a week or so. Before they become dry (that is, when you press on the oat heads, nothing comes out) press the tincture you have already made. Gather more fresh milky oats and add the previous tincture onto them. That should make it substantially stronger.

The second oat medicine is by drying the culm, leaves and any leftover tops. Warning, the culms (the fatter part of the stem bearing the leaves and flower top) mold easily even after they seem dry. I have had this happen a few times. I dry the aforementioned parts (usually in a dehydrator) and then put them in a jar to keep. Some time later I will open the jar to find the culm (not the leaves nor tops) moldy. I assume there are some persistent fungi within the culm, and in the right conditions (such as a jar with a lid) it does its moldy thing. I suggest storing them in a paper bag, as they less often become moldy. But still, make sure to dry them thoroughly.

A Processing Story

Some years back, I was on a class field trip to the Adirondacks, visiting my friend Paul Murtha who owned a beautiful piece of land he called Myrthwood. While we were in the Adirondacks we also visited Jean Argus of Jean’s Green’s who let us pick a whole bunch of the Avena she had sowed. So we gathered the milky tops and brought them back to Paul’s and I asked to use his blender to process them.

Before I go further in this story, it is important to know that Paul had just finished building his kitchen and painted part of it white (a bit of foreshadowing here).

I was blending the oat tops and adding alcohol and….shwoosh, the top flew off and the blended Avena flew out. The tincture splattered the walls, leaving them that lime green color I mention previously. It stained all too well and Paul had to re-sand and re-paint the areas where the accident occurred. If you are reading this Paul, once again I apologize and thank you for letting me take so many of my students to your lovely place. Paul now lives in Ecuador, hopefully not due to all the classes I brought to Myrthwood.

Medicinal Attributes

The main medicinal attribute of Avena is as a nerve tonic. A tonic meaning it is more useful taken regularly for its nerve calming

Avena sativa-Oats

properties rather than an on-the-spot first aid plant (such as Scutellaria). It does not have dramatic action, it slowly and consistently helps restore ones ‘nerves’. But what does ‘nerves’ mean? Here I am referring to a feeling acquired from those that have pushed and pushed and now feel tired, out-of-sorts, or just plain disconnected much of the time no matter how much they rest or sleep.

I think of Avena primarily as a vata remedy, and would like to characterize some vata traits. While it is a fun exercise to generalize these characteristics, it is important to remember they are just caricatures. Individuals who may have some of these characteristics, may also have other parts of themselves that don’t fit the vata mold at all. One’s traits are most pronounced when that part of them is out of balance. An example, I’ve talked elsewhere about how pitta-types may react if they get a flat tire while running late for an important event. Their tendency is to start bossing everyone around and laying blame. In the same circumstance, a vata-type may lose their ability to concentrate and start to panic, and run in circles; “what are we going to do, what are we going to do?” But what is important to understand is that anyone could also just rationally and realistically work their way through the situation. It is the dosha imbalanced (at least temporarily) that we see these actions. While it is important to take the individual into account during treatment, there are times when these archetypical characteristics are helpful in making herbal and lifestyle recommendations.

Here are some more concepts of vata, and hence characteristics of people who might benefit from oats. Their thoughts easily becoming scattered and have a hard time staying focused, especially with a lot of distractions around (think sports bar). This type of person lives for spontaneity and creativity which is often at its peak in the wee hours, when the rest of world is quieter. It may be difficult to gain weight and there is a constant need to snack. If there is nothing to eat, disorientation sets in. They can be very empathic and may find themselves crying during television commercials. These are just a few traits and hopefully give a glimpse into the vata archetype.

While oats are a fine vata tonic, anyone feeling frayed can enjoy a cup (or quart) of this tea. One of the reason it is more specific for the vata constitution is the same reason it is so widely eaten as food, and that is that it is nourishing. And if there is one fundamental treatment for vata types, it is feeding deficiencies. Building up.

The tea is a better building tonic than the tincture, and the fresh milky oat top tincture is stronger than the tea. For those who feel exhausted or easily scattered it may be helpful to drink the tea throughout the day, and use the tincture when needed.

Some other nervine qualities of Avena are for anyone who feels they have plundered their nervous system reserves and now have a hard time focusing and have become rather snappy. It may also help folks who have difficulty falling asleep who when they lay down, their mind becomes a cacophonous enclave of disconnected swirling thoughts. This is different than a more pitta-type of insomnia where the person goes through a litany of all the things they should have done that day, or could have done better. (Or, for the true pitta ‘check’, telling people off in your mind).

Dosage

Avena preparations are some of the safest nervine remedies. While they don’t have the punch of some, they rarely leave one feeling addled or tired. The amount used is really just an individual decision. The main suggestion is to use it on a regular basis. And schedules can help bring order to a scattered mind, so consider using them at a regular time throughout the day.
The tincture is also useful to take throughout the day, ½-2 dropperfuls (.60-2.5ml) as often as needed, taking larger amounts when troubling circumstances lie ahead (or behind).

Summary

I hope this monograph gives insight into using this safe, easily prepared, non-endangered plant. Just drink a few cups and see if you like it’s oaty flavor, and perhaps you will find it a helpful nerve restorative.

Pedicularis (Lousewort) Monograph-Pedicularis as a Skeletal Muscle Relaxant

Tuesday, February 21st, 2012
Inflorescenses of 4 species of Pedicularis

Inflorescences of four species of Pedicularis

This  monograph will explore the genus Pedicularis, the plants often called lousewort or wood betony. It will give a wide overview of the genus as well as focusing on its use as a helpful skeletal muscle relaxant. And on an aesthetic level, this genus is one of my favorite plants to find. The various shapes and shades of leaves and the lovely twistingly curved colorful flowers. Yes, a beautiful group of plants.

Botany and Name Derivation

Pedicularis is derived from Pediculus the genus for lice. It seems this connection results from an old idea that when this plant was ingested by livestock, they acquired lice. Though as herbalists are well familiar, these tales become contorted over time and there may be a more believable story at its root. Or not. Either way one of the most common of its common names is lousewort, leading to an even more thorough connection to these insects, as a single lice is a louse. This is where the word lousy comes from. Interesting, eh?

Stachys officinalis-the other Wood betony

Stachys officinalis-the other Wood betony

The genus Pedicularis is currently in the Orobanchaceae. It was formerly (and to some still) in the Scrophulariaceae. All the Scrophulariaceae that are partly or fully parasitic on the roots of other plants were moved to this family.

The common name lousewort was already discussed, but what about wood betony? I do not use this common name as it is too often confused with Stachys officinalis (see photo), which are also commonly called wood betony (or just betony).  The older name for Stachys officinalis was Betonica officinalis, so maybe a connection there. But instead of more speculation on this name, remember that there are two plants commonly called wood betony; Pedicularis and Stachys. And again, to avoid confusion, I will not be calling it wood betony here.

Wildcrafting

Pedicularis bracteosa from Washington

Pedicularis bracteosa in Washington state

As there are a number of Pedicularis species, it is hard to generalize on how to ethically harvest them. Around upstate New York Pedicularis canadensis is usually found in spread out patches, and should usually be left alone. But in the Southeast it is much more common and if one spends time traveling and looking, they can usually find a patch or two to gather from.
The same holds true for the Rocky Mountain and Western species. While none are endangered, they can be spread thin. Make sure there are a number of large self-sustaining patches where you are gathering. Come back and check on them to make sure that you are doing an environmentally healthy job gathering them. It is often best to keep your wildcrafting spots to yourself, or

share with trusted friends. If teaching, instill the importance of ethical and sustainable harvesting to your students.

Pedicularis canadensis in carmine

I suggest all readers to go out and seek your local Pedicularis species. In the east there is Pedicularis canadensis (which sometimes sports a lovely shade of carmine, see photo). The Rocky Mountains seem to have the most species, and then a number of species westward. Some species are woodland dwellers and others grow in open marshy areas.

Pedicularis groenlandica

Medicinal Uses

Pedicularis is a useful skeletal muscle relaxant. A quick review; skeletal muscles are those that you can generally move voluntarily (‘I am now going to look over my right shoulder’), and smooth muscles are those that are a part of your viscera and are involuntary, you don’t have to think about coordinating your gastrointestinal tract to propel food from one end to the other.
I find it most useful for back pain, upper to lower. Now, this is not a narcotic, so it cannot remove all the pain associated with sore skeletal muscles, but by relaxing the tension it can decrease the need for stronger pain medicines. Also please remember that when pain is decreased, it does not mean that the underlying problem is resolved, and so caution is necessary to make sure one does not reinjure themselves (an all too often occurrence).

Pedicularis is also useful for neck and shoulder tension. For massage therapists, giving this plant to particularly tight patients before working on them can be helpful. An advantage of skeletal muscle relaxants is that they do not dumb down one’s thinking and so can be taken throughout the day (with the consideration of not reinjuring).

While I have outlined the back, shoulders and neck here, Pedicularis can be tried for any skeletal muscle pain.

For medicine I have primarily used Pedicularis groenlandica (Elephanthead), the main reason is that it is one of the first I learned and find this species to be effective. But many other herbalists use a number of the different species growing around the US. And I am beginning to experiment more myself.

Safety

Pedicularis racemosa (Parrot's beak)-Colorado

Pedicularis racemosa (Parrot's beak) in Colorado

Another advantage of Pedicularis is its general good safety record, negative side effects are uncommon. The most common is the medicine causing some ‘spaciness’ or mild disorientation. For some people this will be enough to warrant trying a different remedy, for others it can be helpful as it reduces their sensation of pain further.

There is concern about this genus’s potential to pick up potentially toxic constituents from nearby plants. The reason is that Pedicularis is a hemiparasite and often obtains nutrients from nearby plants through its roots (though it does not need this association to survive). Some of the plants that it parasitizes do have potentially harmful constituents, such as the pyrrolizidine alkaloids from Senecio triangularis. There is clear proof that this connection exists (see links below), and so the question is what to do about this situation. I avoid gathering it when it is growing very near a toxic plant such as Arrowgrass (Triglochin maritima), but it is hard to know really what roots it is feeding on. My recommendation is to avoid gathering it near plants you know are toxic, say Aconitum. It is hard to know exactly how much Pedicularis medicine one would have to ingest and if the potentially toxic compounds are bioavailable. I have not seen this poisoning yet and I have worked with people who take large amounts of Pedicularis daily, however we are, as always, in an herbal learning phase and need to be open to possible consequences of the medicines we recommend.

Pedicularis crenulata (Meadow lousewort) in Wyoming

Combinations

Pedicularis combines well with a number of other plants.  Other skeletal muscle relaxants include Black cohosh (Actaea racemosa, please be aware of side effects from this plant) and Skullcap (Scutellaria). Add antiinflammatories such as Arnica (small doses here), Willow (Salix) and Turmeric (Curcuma). And also use with anodynes (pain relievers) such as Wild lettuce (Lactuca), Hops (Humulus) and Valerian (Valeriana). One of my favorite combinations is equal parts Pedicularis, Black cohosh, and Skullcap in a tincture. If the injury is recent, than I might add 10 drops of Arnica tincture into a one ounce bottle of the above blend. I sometimes keep the anodyne herbs separate, especially if there is a lot of pain, so that they can take large amounts of the skeletal muscle blend without losing mental function and take a larger amount of the anodyne tincture to help with sleeping.

Medicine Preparation

Community Herbal Intensive 2008-Gathering Pedicularis groenlandica in Wyoming

I tincture Pedicularis fresh and use the aboveground parts when the plant is in flower. If the plant is very stemmy, such as with P. procera, I might take the leaves off the stem. It is an easy plant to process as the tissue if very soft and easy to cut. I tincture it 1:2 in 95% ethanol.

I have made an infused oil with the plant as well, but don’t feel experienced enough to know if it works. I chop the aerial parts and then dry and infuse them in extra virgin olive oil.

Pedicularis procera (Giant lousewort) in WyomingDosage

I don’t often see unwanted side effects from this tincture. And as with all medicines, I have seen it not work, especially with intractable back pain. As I mention above some people experience some spaciness with the tincture. The effects of Pedicularis are often felt soon after taking the tincture, so try a few drops, wait a minute or three to see if it is helpful or creates this or other undesired effects.

Dosage is a matter of quantity and frequency. With Pedicularis, it is important to experiment with both. Some people will find helpful something like 1 dropperful (1.25 ml) every 3 hours or so, while others may do better with a half dropper (.60 ml) every hour or more. And yet for other people, they may do best with large quantities such as 2-3 dropperfuls (2.5-3.75ml) whenever they feel the pain coming on. Help your patients learn to experiment with dosage, offering them some guidelines depending on their health issues and constitution.

Summary

Pedicularis species are a valuable medicine for the practicing herbalist’s remedy kit. They are a useful skeletal muscle relaxant with minimal side effects. It is a lovely plant to get to know and watch where it grows. Spend some time around a local species to appreciate its beauty and charm.

Links

  1. This abstract is from a technical article describing some Pedicularis species up-taking toxic constituents
  2. This is a rough photocopy of the above article.
  3. A non-technical articlea discussion on the environmental considerations for the plant and its parasitism, and a quick note for herbalists.

Flowers of Pedicularis canadensis

Pedicularis canadensis post flower in West Virginia

Pedicularis canadensis post flower in West Virginia

The Skullcaps-A Scutellaria Monograph

Sunday, February 12th, 2012

Skullcap-Scutellaria lateriflora

Skullcap is a favorite plant among many favorite plants. It is a plant I have spent a lot of time around, which will add to the length and depth of this monograph. I hope that this writing helps people appreciate skullcap both as a medicine and also as a creek bed denizen.

My Story

I have been intrigued by skullcap for many years, since my early days studying herbal medicine. This is partially because it is so well-spoken of in the medicinal herb world, plus it is a plant I can find on my own and watch grow through the seasons. While it is not a particularly showy plant, it has a striking dark green color, nice veins, and grows in the kind of streamy lowland woodlands that I like to naturalist my way around in.

A story. I used to live in an un-electrified cabin in a community in the woods outside of my adopted hometown of Ithaca, NY. One afternoon after waking from one of my regular daily naps, I had a strong notion where I might find this plant, which I hadn’t seen around often. So groggily I walked the quarter mile or so to a place I have walked frequently and there it was, growing along a streamlet. Well, that surprised me. But once I realized its preferred habitat, I was able to find it in a number of places around my home. Which was my beginning of getting a first-hand view of this plant.

Skullcap-Scutellaria lateriflora

Skullcap Botany

Skullcap is the common name (often modified with a preliminary word, such as mad-dog skullcap) of the genus Scutellaria. Both the common name and the genus allude to a sticking-up part on top of the plant’s calyx. Scute means ‘little dish’ and you will have to use your imagination for this allusion. But the important thing is when trying to determine if it is a Scutellaria, is to look for this protuberance on top of the calyx, a good indicator to the genus as this feature is only found on Scutellaria (the plant must be in at least in the early flowering stage to see this).

The genus Scutellaria is in the mint family-the Lamiaceae (also known as the Labiatae). While many mint family relatives are noticeably aromatic, Scutellaria is not. This family contains a number of other useful nervines including, Motherwort (Leonurus), Lemon balm (Melissa), and Tulsi (Ocimum).

There are many species of Scutellaria around the US and Canada. Most of my writing here is refers to Scutellaria lateriflora, because it is the one that I have used the most, as it is the most common around where I live. It is also the one most cited in North American herbal literature.

Scutellaria galericulata showing the distinctive protuberances

But other species are often used as well. The herbalist Joshua Muscat in Oakland uses a west coast species Scutellaria antirrhinoides, and Kiva Rose, an herbalist in the Gila region of New Mexico uses her local species, Scutellaria potosina which she calls blisswort.

A species I would like to try more often is Scutellaria galericulata, as I see this one with some frequency. Like S. lateriflora, it also inhabits wet places.

The point here is that many Scutellaria species are used as medicine. So learn your local species, look and ask around to see if you can find any resources about it, and please make sure it is not threatened or poisonous before using it.

Scutellaria potosina, a Southwestern species

Medicinal uses

So why all the fuss about skullcap? Here is a list a few of its uses which will be covered in a little more detail further on.

  • A generalist herb useful for a number of nervous system related problems
  • Nerve tonic (also known as a neurotrophorestorative), mainly for Pitta types.
  • Pain remedy
  • Both skeletal and smooth muscle relaxant
  • A relaxing sedative generally without the knock-you-out effect, making it useful for daytime use
  • Works well in formula with other nervines and relaxants.
  • Can be used for acute conditions or as a tonic for long-term problems
  • Gateway herb, to help get people interested in herbal medicine due to its effectiveness.

To start with the obvious and necessary, while Scutellaria can help with the above conditions, it may not, as individual constitution dictates. While I have seen it help many people over the years, ironically it does very little for me. I have taken large (and by large, I mean swallows) of the tincture. And for an experiment during one of my gathering trips, I ate about 10 plants worth. And, well, very little action. But as any clinician knows, you cannot use yourself as the standard barometer for treatment.

I generally use this plant in two forms; fresh plant tincture and dried plant tea. I use the tincture for all the below situations and tea mainly for its nervine effect, (usually mixed with other herbs).

Pain

Skullcap is a useful general pain remedy, helpful for a wide range of problems such headaches, injuries, spasmodic pains such as cramps and general body pains.

It is not the strongest pain remedy I know, but it has some particularly useful traits. It can help focus and amplify the efficiency of other remedies. For instance, if you are giving crampbark (Viburnum opulus) for menses pain, by adding some skullcap to the mix as it can augment the crampbark to help with the cramping. Other examples include using it with feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium) for headaches, or Pedicularis for back pain.

Another helpful characteristic is that Scutellaria is less likely to cause lethargy or mind fog then plants like valerian (Valeriana spp.) or hops (Humulus lupulus). This is important as a pain medicine and for its use as a nervine, as people can take it while performing tasks that they need to be cognizant for.

Dosage for pain. Remember individuality here, especially with nervous system remedies. Start small, you can always initially try just a few drops to check for reactions. You can then have the patient take measured amounts, continually increasing them incrementally in ½ dropper doses, until they find the relief they seek, or realize that Scutellaria is not helping and to try a different medicine. The general rule when administering any herbal medicine is to consider the amount and the frequency. For background chronic pain between ½-2 dropperfuls (.60-2.5 ml) as often as every 2 hours. For acute pain, there really is no limit except for the person possibly feeling out of it eventually. It is a useful first aid remedy and for those doing first aid work it is helpful to have a large bottle on hand.

Students gathering Scutellaria lateriflora in the Adirondacks

Nervine

Besides its use for acute and chronic pain, skullcap is helpful as a constitutional tonic. Before I go into specifics, please consider experimenting with this plant even if the situation doesn’t fit the below guidelines. In terms of Ayurveda, it is most helpful for Pitta types. I see it most useful for people who constantly need to take charge. They make constant contingency plans and feel personally insulted when things don’t go their way. They may have insomnia and cannot initially fall asleep due to thinking about all the things they could have done differently that day. They might worry about their performance about everything (‘was the dinner okay?’) and are expert at criticizing themselves, and others.

One other place I find skullcap helpful, is for people who have an emotional attachment to their injury. This is common. When the person thinks about how they sprained their ankle or got stung, there is an upsetting emotional quality to it. With this type of person you may see them blaming themselves for the injury (‘I knew I shouldn’t have run that trail’) Skullcap may help relieve the physical pain and some of the emotional pressure.

Consider using some other nervine tonics in conjunction with skullcap such as passionflower (Passiflora incarnata), Jamaican dogwood (Piscidia piscipula), blue vervain (Verbena hastata) and catnip (Nepeta cataria).

Skullcap can be given at least a few ways for the above implications. With tincture, regular tonic doses somewhere between ½-2 dropperfuls (.60-2.5 ml) 2-5 times daily, or for more acute situations anywhere from a ½ dropperful to a teaspoon. For tea, a good strong cup (.40 oz to 1 quart water) drank a few times a day in half cupfuls. Experiment.

Jocelyn preparing Scutellaria lateriflora

Medicine making and Preparations

With Scutellaria I gather aboveground parts including the stems, leaves, while the plant is in flower for medicine. I mainly prepare it as fresh plant tincture, 1:2 in 95% alcohol soon after gathering it. I comb through the plants and pick off sick looking leaves, and then chop it all up with a cleaver. It is a soft plant and easy to process.

It is also a useful tea, but I rarely gather enough to dry any. It is very light, and so you have to have a lot, to get just a pound of tea. But I sometimes receive donations for the Ithaca Free Clinic, and I use it often there in this form.

Wildcrafting

This section is going to be about Scutellaria lateriflora as I gather this plant nearly yearly from the same spot and have been taking many notes along the way. You may have to indulge my rather long wildcrafting chapter here.
First, this is a plant that one must be careful about harvesting, as while it is not uncommon in its favored habitats, it is rarely prolific. So please walk and wildcraft gently where you do find it. Make sure after gathering that you can look back and still see a healthy population in a not very disturbed ecosystem. I should say that I have told only 1 or 2 people about the spot I go to. It may be selfish of me, but I feel like this large area I gather from can only sustain one wildcrafter. I go there to harvest by myself and have not yet seen another person, which allows me to be more present with the plant, the environment, and myself. Whenever gathering any plants, do not gather from the first patch you find it in, as it might be the only one around. Give yourself time to wander and make sure there is enough that you can harvest some and there is plenty left to reseed itself as this Scutellaria is an annual.
I generally gather the upper 2/3’s of the plant, making sure some of them have seeds left on them. They have a delicate root system, so be careful to not pick them out of the soil thus not give the plant time to mature its seeds.
I gather two ways, sometimes I use my pruners and other times I pinch the stems off with my fingers. Both ways work well,  I just alternating my patterns.

Around Upstate New York, the best time to gather is while the plant is in full flower, sometime between mid-August and early September. This skullcap likes it shady and wet. I find it most often along small creeks in woodlands. There are some mosquitoes this time of year, so bring a long-sleeve shirt and hat and I’d recommend wearing a good pair of sandals and some pants you can roll up, as you will probably be doing a fair bit of stream walking. It takes a little while to learn to sort Scutellaria out from amidst the other vegetation, but once you do, it becomes much easier to see. One of its most distinctive features is the dark green color.  Some of its common plant associates include

  • Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis)
  • Goldenrod (Solidago species)
  • Early flowering Asters (different genera)
  • Raspberry (Rubus idaeus)
  • Witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana)
  • Hemp nettle (Galeopsis tetrahit)
  • Turtlehead (Chelone glabra)
  • Sensitive fern (Onoclea sensibilis)
  • Bracken fern (Pteridium aquilinum)
  • Avens (Geum species)

A few more wildcrafting notes. It is easy to get lost gathering Scutellaria as you will be meandering and following an unorganized path through the rivulets. Make sure to take stock of where you are every once in a while. As it can take a few hours to gather enough I suggest bringing snacks and water with you. I use large brown paper bags as I can fold the tops back so I can put the bag down and it will stand on its own while I am gathering. Double bagging is helpful, as the ground will be wet and the bag may rip. Bring a few extra.

The Land of Skullcap

Final Notes

As should be obvious by now I admire Scutellaria lateriflora. I enjoy finding it on creek bottoms, spending time gathering it for medicine and observing the other life around where it grows. I also like it as a broad-ranging nervous system remedy and a fairly safe herbal remedy for a wide variety of people and problems. I hope this monograph enhances your appreciation of this plant as well, and that you use this and other species of Scutellaria in your herbal practices.

Blue Vervain-Verbena Hastata

Friday, February 10th, 2012

Blue vervain-Verbena hastata

Blue vervain (Verbena hastata, Verbenaceae). This plant probably tops many people’s ‘love that plant’ list. Yes, mine included. It is handsome and graceful and sturdy and what a gorgeous sight with many blooming at the same time covering an expanse of bog or swamp.
What I find interesting is that it seems our current use of Blue vervain as medicine is derived from its European relative Verbena officinalis (Vervain, Simpler’s joy and others). And while Verbena officinalis is easy enough to grow, the native here is the preferred plant. I don’t see that very often, where a famed European medicinal plant is usurped by the local. Well, bravo, and personally I think both plants work rather well.
And what is that use? As a nervous system tonic (a neurotrophorestorative to folks like me who just like long medical-sounding words). I like it better as a nerve tonic rather than for acute ‘nerves’. I have seen it help many people, often in formula with nervine cousins such as California poppy (Eschscholtzia) Hops (Humulus), Jamaican dogwood (Piscidia), Skullcap (Scutellaria) and similar. Each of these is different and by mixing and matching, one can come up with an impressive individualistic formula.
I use it specifically for over-thinking worrywart types, that is to say Pitta-on-fire. You know the type, always planning, and

Common vervain-Verbena officinalis

having a hard time accepting changes to the schedule. Or people who cannot help but work and push and work and become obstinately cranky. They may need to relearn how to breath and listen, but this medicine can help too. It seems to relax what looks like excessive neurotransmitter firing.
Now we can divide worriers into two types here (Vata and Pitta for you in the Ayurvedic know). I don’t see this as helpful for the vata worrier, whose mind will become very scattered when things go awry and may go blank or will fill with lots of fog, fizz and fuzz. The type I see it  helpful for is more the typical Pitta pattern. That is when plans change abruptly, say a flat tire, they will get all busybody like and tell everyone what to do, and do I see some anger there?  Or they will indulge in heaping cupfuls of self-recrimination (“I knew we should’ve taken my car!”)

It is helpful to take regularly, something like ½-2 dropperfuls (.60 ml-2.5 ml) 2-4 times daily. At first the person may not notice a difference, but ask again a few weeks after taking it and they may say they feel as if their feathers are not as easily ruffled. I don’t know if I’ve yet seen very negative reactions to this plant medicine, just some neutral ones (as in, it doesn’t seem to do anything).
I tincture the fresh (or fresh dried) inflorescence (flowertops) and leaves. It is common around here, but still, I am careful not to take too much from any one area, as I do not want to disturb the beauty quotient of where it grows.
I also use the dried leaves and inflorescences as tea. If it is dried too slowly the leaves get a blackish hue, which I am not sure is a problem, but I use a dehydrator where the leaves stay green and some of the flowers keep some of their purple.
It is bitter tasting, though less biting then some.
I hope this paints a helpful portrait. Try this plant if you have not. You know who to give it to.

Blue vervain in wetland-Verbena hastata

A mass of Blue vervain

A mass of Blue vervain