Tag Archive | shen disturbance

Skullcap: The Integrator of Consciousness

Scutellaria lateriflora

Skullcap, or Scullcap, tomato or tomatoe? Isn’t it interesting that this member of the mint family, which contains approximately 300 species, can be found spelled either way with a “c” or a “k?” Even the herb companies have taken sides. For example, Herb Pharm spells their product Skullcap, while Nature’s Way spells it Scullcap. Somewhat confusing, I know, when you also consider that spell check doesn’t like skullcap spelled with a c, i.e., “not found in dictionary.” No matter how you choose to spell skullcap, the plant I will be discussing as the integrator of consciousness is the botanical Scutellaria lateriflora.

The name skullcap derives from the Latin scutella meaning, a small dish and referring to the shape of the flower. Even though Chinese skullcap (Scutellaria baicalensis root) shows up in many formulas, I tend to use American skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora) as a “simple.” What that means is that I like to use one herb at a time, when appropriate, because then I don’t have to wonder which herb is working or which one is not.  With simples, if a person is worried about interactions between the pharmaceuticals they take and herbals, it makes the interactions simple to observe and simpler to avoid. Besides, you can only put so many herbs in your body at one time (like food). Adding too many together at the same time may dilute the potency and create a confusing smorgasbord for your body. I also believe that healing takes place in the context of relationships, and using one herb at a time allows for a deeper intimacy with that plant and helps build trust.

Harvesting Skullcap

Because I live in the Appalachian Mountains of Western North Carolina, I am particularly interested in the plants that grow here. Skullcap is one of these and a North American native highly valued by the Cherokee people who use it as a nerve tonic and sedative. It likes to grow along the sunny edges of damp meadows near small bodies of water. As a perennial, it thrives in the moist eastern woodlands. Small pale blue or violet-blue flowers are not long-lived and bloom in the summer between June and September. These flowers are in one-sided racemes from leaf axils, which makes skullcap easier to identify. Tincture the aerial parts when fresh and in full bloom.

According to medical herbalist David Hoffman, skullcap is perhaps the most relevant nervine available to us in the Western materia medica.  It soothes nervous tension while strengthening the central nervous system and has a long history of use for petit mal seizures, sleepwalking, night terrors, and insomnia. It also relieves nervous irritability, tension headaches, and PMS tension. Skullcap lessens the symptoms of drug and alcohol withdrawal. Herbalist Patricia Kyritsi Howell says that skullcap is a specific remedy for mental fatigue and nervous exhaustion caused by over-stimulation and the effects of long-term stress.

My encounters with skullcap have been most rewarding. Gathering it in and of itself is a blissful occupation. I have made and used fresh skullcap tinctures for both myself (nervous exhaustion) and with clients. One skullcap success story resulted when a mother brought her 9-year-old son to me for a consultation regarding his bedwetting. Let us call him Jimmy. Jimmy had been sleepwalking, bedwetting, and having night terrors for as long as his parents could remember. They had recently adopted a sister for Jimmy from China. Consumed with caring for this new family member who had special needs, they no longer wanted to be up in the middle of the night with Jimmy. Besides, they were genuinely frightened and concerned for his safety and wellbeing when they would find him walking around in the middle of the night completely asleep. Jimmy did not know what was happening and woke in the morning with no recall. He was also diagnosed in school with ADD. I recommended skullcap tincture in the morning and evening, along with some dietary changes (no wheat and dairy) with a one-month follow-up. At one month, I tried contacting the mother, but she never got back to me. A few months later, I ran into them at a social gathering and asked how Jimmy was doing.

“Oh, great!” She said and went on to tell me about all the exciting things they had been doing.

“Great!” I said, “ but what about the night terrors, sleepwalking, and bedwetting?”

“Oh!” She answered back, mildly surprised. “That is completely gone, and he’s had no problems with that since. I can’t thank you enough!”

What I realized was that she had simply gotten on with her life and not looked back. Then she told me that they had been unable to make any dietary changes but that Jimmy had started to improve almost immediately with the skullcap. I stood looking at her, amazed.

On another occasion, a friend of mine’s daughter called me and sounded frantic. Her  9-month old baby girl wasn’t sleeping and woke to cry hysterically every night and had a hard time getting back to sleep. That had been going on for three months. The mom felt like she had tried everything, including more food to settle the baby’s stomach if she might be hungry and different food. She tried chamomile tea, homeopathic remedies, ruled out teething, and had the baby checked by a pediatrician. Do you want to know what worked? Skullcap. She gave her daughter five drops of alcohol tincture up to 3 X a day. The beauty of skullcap is that it is a tonic that can be used long-term and is not addicting.

TCM 5 Element Theory

From the perspective of Traditional Chinese Medicine’s five-element theory, I learned that skullcap is a cooling, bitter herb, which calms the mind and restores the shen to the heart (Fire Element). In TCM, the mind refers to the heart. In this context, the shen corresponds to the mind and consciousness, with the process of thinking accomplished by the heart. One of the hearts main duties is to store the shen, which describes spirit or the animating force of life. The word shen translated from the Chinese means both “mind” and “spirit.” As the integrator of consciousness and perception, the shen unites the disparate aspects of the self. When the shen is restless for any reason, as we have seen in the examples above, skullcap has the amazing ability to restore the shen. We may call this restlessness “nervous anxiety” or “nervous tension,” but the nervous system is what carries the electrical impulses generated by the brain and heart. Heart-Mind in TCM corresponds with the Fire Element and the Summer season. The benefits of Skullcap to reduce nervousness and treat insomnia by quieting the spirit or shen and helping it to stay centered in the heart cannot be over-estimated. Summer is the perfect time to be introduced to skullcap in her season of bloom So I invite you to bring her into your life in whatever manner you may choose and get to know her, for her gift is great. 

When the heart is serene, pain seems negligible.

– Inner Classic

Fresh Tincture Dosage: 30 drops (1 dropper full) 1:2 (75A:25W) 2-3 x a day

Can also be tinctured fresh using Vodka in the folk tradition.


Making Plant Medicine, Richo Cech, Horizon Herbs

Medical Herbalism: The Science and Practice of Herbal Medicine, David Hoffmann, Healing Arts Press

Medicinal Plants of the Southern Appalachians, Patricia Kyritsi Howell, Botanologos Books

The Cherokee Herbal: Native Plant Medicine from the Four Directions, J.T. Garrett, Bear & Co

Learn more strategies for harmonizing the Fire Element in Thea’s work-at-your-own pace online class Heal Your Heart: Nervous System Health & the Fire Element at Five Element Academy.

Anise Hyssop

Anise Hyssop: Agastache foeniculum

A Perennial Native

Anise Hyssop

Strolling one recent afternoon with my English friend, Rachel Clearfield, through her wild and magical garden, I couldn’t help but drink in the soft summer light that filtered through the weeping willows trees.  There were also peach, plum, apple and apricot, all of which Rachel had planted herself.  She loved sharing the abundance of this amazing garden; introducing me to exotic vegetables, and calling the various flowers and herbs by name as we made our way down the narrow paths.  This garden clearly feeds her soul and is the same garden that inspires her fine “classical visionary” oil paintings for which she is so well known.

Laying my eyes for the first time on this idyllic scene I recalled one of my favorite paintings simply titled, “Rachel’s Garden. “  It graces the cover of my CD recording entitled, “My Mother’s Garden,” which also features her cellist husband, Ron Clearfield.  The vision was becoming clear as we sat on the gazebo swing with Rachel pointing out the lilies she had included in the painting.  Rachel’s mother was an English gardener, as was my own and we were the daughters carrying it on. And so it was through the oils of Rachel’s paints and the eyes of her vision that I first entered this paradisiacal garden nestled in an Appalachian Mountain holler.

Have you ever had the feeling that you were waking up in a dream, or that you were walking into the flat canvas of a painting that suddenly became vividly alive with color and dimension?  That was how I felt standing next to Rachel on the quaint wooden bridge above the gentle stream beneath the weeping willow. I gazed out across the garden to where her dappled grey Arabian horse stood grazing in the pasture beyond.  In that moment an Anglewing flew past me and landed on Rachel’s shoulder. Lesser Anglewing Katydid, Microcentrum retinerve to be exact, but Angel Wing was the word that came to mind.  She didn’t notice the creature so I pointed it out to her. Personally, I believe that it was a fairie in disguise as I have seen them take on these forms before in order to be more visible to our human eye.  She lightly brushed it aside.

We continued down the garden path dropping to our knees to weed around the blooming thyme.  We also took the time to stop and smell the fragrant white lilies that intoxicated us.  At a particular point where the paths converged, a good distance from where we first started into the garden over the bridge, I was introduced to an herb that I had never met before.  It seemed to stand out from all the rest which was notable since the competition for attention was fierce among the “Dragon’s Lingerie” string beans and colorful self-seeding poppies. I instantly knew that this plant was Rachel’s ally and told her so.  She was curious and asked how I knew this, and what medicine did it have for her.  That was when I noticed the Anglewing Katydid crawling up the stem of this small and seemingly insignificant plant toward its delicate, pale purple wand of a flower.  It was a sign I could not deny. Rachel pinched off a piece of the plant for me to smell and taste – and I fell in love with Anise Hyssop.

Anglewing KatydidAnise Hyssop, Agastache foeniculum is in the mint family, Lamiaceae, and a perennial native to North America.  More resistant to drought than many other members of the mint family it likes to grow at the edge of open woodlands and is considered a cottage garden herb. Cultivated forms of Anise Hyssop are often grown in flower gardens and these cultivars frequently escape and establish populations in the wild. Plants that grow in their native habitat, however, and in soil for which they are designed carry the most potent medicine. More than plants that have been introduced or even naturalized, native plants embody the spirit of place.  The aromatic fragrance, distinct flavor and delicate color of Anise Hyssop would make a believer out of anyone.

Its name derives from the Old English ysope, the Irish Latin hysopus and the Greek hyssopos.  Hyssop is a word of Semitic origin that describes any of several aromatic herbs used medicinally and in purification rites and ceremonial sprinkling.  It is a sacred plant used in Judaism and appears repeatedly in the Hebrew Bible.  It is often used to fill the Catholic ceremonial aspergillum, a liturgical implement, which the priest dips into a bowl of holy water and sprinkles onto the congregation to bless them and to heal the sick.  An aspergillum in the form of a natural brush made from tree branches and twigs is also used by Witches at the ‘Turning of the Wheel’ to cleanse the Circle prior to seasonal rituals and to aid in creating sacred space. Pure spring water, rainwater or water charged with moonlight is used instead of Christian holy water.  But really, its all the same as religious rituals are adapted down through time and are a part of our human evolution. Anise Hyssop is a blessing to any gardener.

Native Americans found many uses for this plant. They included it in their medicine bundles and burned it as incense for protection. Its uplifting fragrance was also used to treat depression. Anise Hyssop made into a poultice can be used to treat burns and in wound healing. As a wash for poison ivy it helped to reduce itching.  Internally it was used to treat fevers, and diarrhea.  It is antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, and very useful as an infusion for relieving congestion. As a medicinal herb it has soothing, expectorant and cough suppressant properties. A tea made from the leaves and flowers is sedating and relieves pain from coughing with chest colds. Used in combination with licorice it is especially effective for lung conditions such as bronchitis and respiratory tract infections.

The foliage of Anise Hyssop actually smells like licorice with complex notes of lemon, pine, sage, black pepper and camphor. There is no floral scent. Leaves and flowers are edible and may be baked in breads or added to salads. It is a feast for the senses and well deserving of its place in the wild garden.  It attracts bees and butterflies but controls pests while encouraging pollination. Deer avoid eating this plant but rabbits love it. Hummingbirds also find it attractive and goldfinches eat its seeds. Rachel had successfully managed to incorporate various aspects of the wild garden into her own promoting biodiversity and benefiting the wider environment.

The first date that I had scheduled with Rachel to connect and spend time with her in the garden had to be rescheduled because she had a bad cough and was down with a cold. I offered to bring her some of my wildcrafted horehound syrup, but she didn’t want to expose anyone and was making teas from herbs in her garden.  Her cough and cold might have been reason enough for Anise Hyssop to be a potential ally. But as Rachel and I continued meandering through her garden that day, we talked about how healing it was to be surrounded by beauty.  We also discovered that we were both incest survivors. This garden that so clearly fed Rachel’s soul was also healing my own.

In herbal medicine a shock or trauma is said to cause what is know as a shen disturbance, or in other words – its causes the shen to flee the physical body. Shen is a concept borrowed from Chinese medicine that equates to “spirit” in Western terms. The shen is seen as residing in the heart and following shock or trauma it must be restored to the heart in order for healing to occur.  The earth-spirit medicine of Anise Hyssop does exactly this, and its flower essence is said to bring back sweetness after the weight of guilt and shame, which is always unwarranted in the case of early childhood sexual abuse. Its flower essence is also used for body-soul integration of pain and suffering.  It is a post-trauma stabilizer aiding the ability to forgive and to accept forgiveness.

There is no question in my mind that we were divinely guided to this sweet little plant that warm summer day in Rachel’s garden.  It is clearly an ally for Rachel, but now it has also become a personal ally of my own.  So if ever you happen to notice an Angel Wing (or Anglewing!) katydid lighting amongst the flowers, best not to be in a hurry or fooled by the disguise. If I were you, I’d let her be my guide.

~ ~ ~

Learn more about Thea’s class Heal Your Heart that teaches about shen disturbances.

Learn more about Thea’s Healing Herbal Retreats and Rachel Clearfield’s magical realism in fine classical oil paintings.

To listen to the song of the Lesser Anglewing Katydid, visit: Microcentrum retinerve

Lesser Anglewing Katydid – Microcentrum retinerve  Photo by Stephen Durrenberger