Foraging For Scullcap
Updated: Feb 27, 2021
When I first started playing around with herbalism, I kept jars of dried herbs on a shelf in my bedroom. I noticed a terrible smell developing in my room. It couldn’t be the plants, because herbs smell good, right? I washed all my laundry and scrubbed my feet extra well in the shower. I washed my sheets and washed all my clean laundry over again. Nothing helped. I started drinking herbal concoctions for body odor. Finally, somewhere in my tower of herb books, I read that valerian infamously smells like stinky feet. I had blended it into my first version of Dream Tea because my books said it was calming and good for sleep.
Since then I've gardened valerian in backyards and harvested it along our beautiful Oregon rivers, untangling it's wild, venous roots from soil in numbingly cold currents. I’ve made it as tea, as a tincture, and I’ve nibbled it straight fresh from the ground.
Sedative and Tonic Nervines
When I went to herb school I learned there are two different kinds of calming herbs: sedative and tonic. Sedative herbs are, gentle or not, suppressive to the nervous system. They make you tired. That’s valerian. Sometimes it's good to have an herb that simply does the one thing it says it's going to do. But tonic nervines, by contrast, nourish the nervous system, help it be more agile, more resilient. Tonic nervines lift the stress off, and they don’t necessarily make you tired. In short, valerian feels like a bit of a tool, where scullcap, the herb you are about to meet, feels like an instrument.
When I discovered Scullcap, I ditched stink-bomb valerian for good. Scullcap, unlike sedative calming herbs, supports and nurtures the nervous system overtime as well as in the moment. Scullcap can calm cramping muscles, can untangle incessant thinking, can even wake you up when you have the kind of stress that makes you tired, or put you to sleep when you have the kind of stress that keeps you awake even though you are deeply exhausted. A 2014 scientific study showed that scullcap enhances mood and mindset without reducing energy. That’s a pretty fancy act for an herb in the “calming” category.
Our Eastern Oregon Scullcaps
In Oregon we have many varieties of scullcap growing wild, from the banks of our rivers, to Eastern Oregon hillsides, to cute little Scutellaria Nana growing at the base of the Ponderosa Pines.
A few weeks ago, I went looking for scullcap near Crooked River’s eastern stretches. I was in a beautiful, stark juniper desert scape with streaks of crumbled lava rock stretching down the hillsides, just settled enough for some plants to grow up from them.
Lots of the plants in this environment are purple. I walked for hours and hours from purple desert patch to purple desert patch. Purple penstemons standing in their juicy stems, little heliotropes in their delicate lace, larkspur pointing their fingers and lupine glowing above their silvery leaves. And then, growing up from the lava rocks on the hillside, looking just the shade and shape of penstemon from a distance, was my beloved scullcap!
I climbed up the hillside, out of view and far off the trail, and plucked a few plants from each dense purple patch I found, checking each time for scullcap’s signature “cap” and its square stem (a mint family signature) to be sure I picked only the correct purple flower.
Standing on the side of the hill, overlooking juniper silhouettes and the Cascade mountainscape, I plucked a scullcap from the rocks and chewed it fresh: bitter, a little spicy, and... round, if round could be a flavor. Exhausted from my long day of hiking in the baking sun, more exhausted from the hours of not finding the scullcap and wondering whether I would, I took a huge sigh and felt the stress of the day lift off like letting go of a big purple balloon and watching it float up above the juniper plateau horizon. New, completely alone, and incandescently happy, I scaled down the rocky hillside to the trail, and hiked home to my dear life of family and tea.
Scullcap is blended into our Dream, Tummy Tea, and Stress Less teas.