Scutellaria antirrhinoides, ‘snapdragon skullcap,’ Lamiaceae (Mint family)
by Holly Nielsen
The species can be found throughout Northern California (N of Bay Area), throughout Oregon and most of Idaho. This proving was conducted to test its use in formulas as a possible local substitute for the traditionally-used skullcap species, lateriflora.
It has axillary blue/purple snapdragon-like flowers in less than 1 cm in length and a rhizomatous growth habit with short upright stems. One stem will have flowers in all stages of development from bud to developing seed. It grows in the cold Northern Intermountain deserts and dry coniferous forest of California within mesic microclimates of exposed rocky outcrops at all elevations. Its preferred soil retains moisture longer due to the rocky “mulch.” Occasionally the plants grow upon barren gravels along a creek, having their feet near the water table. The plants dry up and become dormant mid-summer, greening up quickly with the advent of more rain.
I experienced this plant to be primarily bitter, also slightly acrid, and cool in nature. After drinking a strong infusion in the evening, it wasn’t long before I went to bed even though it was still early. When drinking these strong infusions throughout the day, I noticeably felt more patient and easy-going. While eating the raw plant, I would sneeze several times. I experience this with many bitter-flavored things, like dark chocolate. As Michael Tierra points out, in Ayurveda, sneezing is a Vata phenomenon and the bitter flavor aggravates Vata. Thus in prescribing this herb, the bitter flavor needs to be balanced with sweet and demulcent herbs to soothe those with vata or yin-deficient constitutions.
From a traditional Chinese medicine standpoint, snapdragon skullcap affects the Heart meridian with its strongly bitter flavor. More specifically, the blue-purple color is associated with calming the Shen aspect of the Heart. Drinking this infusion definitely helped with the minor insomnia I had been experiencing that I attributed to a restless spirit/mind, or Shen.
Scutella is Latin for “shield.” The calyces enlarge and look like little green shields when developing seed. The clue this may give to the herb’s use, as suggested by the Doctrine of Signatures, may be a protective mechanism. Perhaps against too much stimulation, or input, aggravating the Shen. This species also apparently influences the Liver meridian through its action of decreasing irritability and increasing patience, perhaps relieving stress on the Wood element/Liver. This action may occur through the engendering cycle of the Five Elements. The calming of Heart/Mind may have the effect of calming the Liver, as the unruly child (Fire element/Heart) can be draining/ stressful to its parent (Wood element/Liver), when this is resolved, there can be a reduction of stress in Wood, the parent element.
Scutellaria antirrhinoides is demonstrated to be a very effective sedative, nervine, and spirit/mind-calming herb. It works better for me than the common skullcap, S. lateriflora. I attribute this difference to the ability of S. antirrhinoides to thrive within a harsh yang climate of intense high elevation, sun and extreme temperatures, on rocks. I thought this could be a metaphor for the ability of the herb’s sedative, nervine effects to take root and benefit even a very yang-type of individual, which I am. I find this is often the case with herbs that grow in a very moist, shaded, yin type of environment; they do not seem to ‘take root’ in me as well as those that have the ability to thrive in a harsher, yang type of climate. This may be a factor to take into account when deriving a formula for a specific individual.