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Scutellaria laterifolia, Virginian skullcap

Summary

Its unverified narcotic properties are thought to be used by modern witches as an aid to flying rather than the substantially more toxic members of the Solanaceae family previously favoured.

Family

Lamiaceae or Labiatae (the Mint family)

Meaning of the Name

Scutellaria
From the Latin ‘scutella’, ‘small shield’ or 'dish' from the look of the fruit.
 
laterifolia
From the Latin ‘latus’, ‘wide’ and ‘folium’, ‘leaf’. From the shape of the leaves.

Scutellaria laterifolia, Virginian skullcap

Scutellaria laterifolia, Virginian skullcap

Common Names and Synonyms

Virginian skullcap, maddog, madweed

How Poisonous, How Harmful?

Contains pyrrolizidine alkaloids which are hepatotoxic. Also mildly narcotic, though the reason for this has not been established, and can cause fits in large doses.

In overdose it was reported to cause mental confusion, stupor, headache, photophobia, retention of urine, bradycardia and languor followed by an inability to rest as the effects wore off.

Incidents

No reported incidents directly linked to Scutellaria. A 2003 report, however, said that ten, out of twenty, patients being considered for liver transplant, at a centre in the USA, had used herbal remedies with known hepatotoxic properties. Six of these had no other risk factors for liver failure. Though the actual substances taken are not detailed, 'Skullcap' is a widely available herbal supplement. 

Folklore and Facts

Once believed to be able to cure rabies. In American Medicinal plants, Charles F. Millspaugh says that a Dr. Vandesveer, in the late 18th century, claimed to have successfully treated fourteen hundred cases of rabies using Scutellaria. His son, after him, cured forty cases in just three years. Millspaugh is suspicious of these claims as seeming to be an awful lot of cases for one doctor to encounter.

Many shared Millspaugh’s scepticism but it was also supplied by regular doctors as well as quacks. A Dr. White claimed that he had administered it to himself and survived the bite of a rabid dog from which others died. Dr. Williams, who was usually amongst the first to cry ‘charlatan’ or ‘quack’ was a supporter of its efficacy.

Writing in a publication called ‘The Pomegranate’, in 2001, Charles A Clifton of the University of Southern Colorado says that many ‘Neopagans’ shy away from the use of the traditional flying ointments such as belladonna and henbane because of their fear of the toxicity of these plants. He suggests that many of these people rely on Virginian skullcap or the Lactuca virosa, the wild lettuce, using their slightly sedative properties to produce a trance like state.