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Valeriana officinalis L. Valerianaceae Valerianus, Phu, Nardus sylvestris, Setwal. Distribution: Europe. Popular herbalism attributes sedation to Valerian, but this is not mentioned by Coles (1657) or Gerard (1633) or Lobel (1576) or Lyte (1578) or Dioscorides (ex Gunther, 1959) or Fuchs (1553), where he quotes Pliny, Dioscorides and Galen, or Parkinson (1640), or Pomet (1712). The English translation of Tournefort (1719-1730) covers a whole page of the uses of all the different valerians, but never mentions sedation or treating anxiety. Quincy (1718) does not mention it. Because it was used in epilepsy, for which Woodville (1792) says it was useless, Haller, in his Historia stirpium indegenarum Helvetae inchoatae (1768) advocates it for those with irritability of the nervous system, as does Thomson's London Dispensatory (1811) although he lists it as an 'antispasmodic and stimulant' and for inducing menstruation. Lindley (1838) notes (as many did) that the roots smell terrible and that this makes cats excited, and in man, in large doses, induce 'scintillations, agitation and even convulsions' so used in asthenic fever, epilepsy, chorea, hysteria and as an antihelminthic.' Fluckiger & Hanbury (1879) give a wonderful account of the history of its names, but give its use as 'stimulant and antispasmodic' as do Barton & Castle (1877). but by 1936 (Martindale's Extra Pharmacopoeia) its only use was 'Given in hysterical and neurotic conditions as a sedative. Its action has been attributed to its unpleasant smell'. The European Medicines Agency (2006) approves its use as a traditional herbal medicine for mild anxiety and sleeplessness for up to 4 weeks. Despite what is written continuously about its use in ancient Greece and Rome, the only reason for its use has been because it was thought, for a brief while, to be good for epilepsy and therefore might deal with persons of a nervous disposition because of its foul smell. It has been suggested that even its Greek name, 'Phu' came from the expression of disgust which is made when one sniffs an unpleasant odour. For 1,800 years, before the last century, no-one had thought it sedative. Photographed in the Medicinal Garden of the Royal College of Physicians, London.
- Dr Henry Oakeley
Scutellaria baicalensis Georgi Lamiaceae. Baikal skullcap. Distribution: China. There are several hundred species of Scutellaria, also known as skull caps, so correct identification is important - in particular from Scutellaria lateriflora an American species known as Blue skullcap. The latter is used as an abortifacient and to expel placenta by the Cherokee and for cleaning the throat by the Iroquois (Austin, 2004). Much vaunted as a treatment for rabies with unlikely statistics (1,400 cases cured by one doctor alone). Also as ‘antispasmodic, nervine, [for] chorea, convulsions, tetanus, tremors, delirium tremens, [and as a] diaphoretic and diuretic'. Toxicity symptoms include mental confusion, stupor, headache, vertigo, photophobia, dilated pupils, difficulty in micturition, bradycardia, tremulousness and languor, followed by wakefulness and restlessness (Milspaugh, 1974). Hutchens (1991) reported that it reduces sexual desire and was used for almost every nervous illness. Scutellaria baicalensis contains baicalin, baicalein and wogonin (European Medicines Agency, September 2010). It is used in Traditional Chinese Medicine for treating inflammation, cancer, bacterial and viral infections of the lungs and gut and is one of the '50 Chinese herbs' in the lists of some authors. Scutellaria lateriflora (combined with Verbena officinalis, Passiflora incarnata and the seed of Avena sativa (oats) is licensed for use in Britain as a herbal medicine for temporary relief of mild symptoms of stress such as mild anxiety and to aid sleep, based upon traditional use only. Scutellaria baicalensis is not licensed for use in the UK (UK Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA)). Photographed in the Medicinal Garden of the Royal College of Physicians, London.
- Dr Henry Oakeley