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The Great General’s Herbal Remedy – Skullcap

Feb 2023
Author : Green Power

The use of herbal medicine has a long history in China. Most of the herbs are named with reference to their appearance or functions. Skullcap (Scutellaria indica), however, has a special Chinese name – “Han Xin herb”, after a famous military general of the Western Han dynasty. Legend has it that General Han Xin used the herb to help his wounded soldiers to speedily recover, and the soldiers were so grateful that they named the herb “Han Xin”. The herb is now widely used to stop bleeding and relieve pain.

There are as many as thirty Chinese folk names for Skullcap. In Hong Kong, it is mainly called “Han Xin herb”, or “ear pick grass”—as the latter name indicates, the flowers look like picks that are used to clean the ears! The English common name Skullcap also reflects the appearance of the flower, which resembles a cap.

Whether looking most like an ear pick or skullcap, the flower of Skullcap is the most eye-catching part of the plant. A member of the Lamiaceae family, its flowers are labiate in shape, generally divided into two parts: the upper part consists of two petals that function as an umbrella to protect the androecium and stigma inside, while the lower part comprises three petals with coloured speckles like a landing platform, making it alluring to pollinating insects.

The structure of the labiate flower is well-adapted to insect pollination. When an insect visitor lands on the lower part, its weight pushes down the androecium to spread pollen on the back of the visitor. As the visitor journeys in search of more food, it may carry the pollen to the stigma of the next flower, helping to complete pollination.

The story of Han Xin

Skullcap is commonly found in farmland, on riversides, and in sparse woodland with moist, shaded environments. The herb has long been used to stop bleeding, relieve pain, treat swollen wounds, clear heat and detoxify.

How the herb came to be related to Han Xin is another story. Born in the late Qin dynasty, a period of wars and chaos, Han lived a poor and lonely childhood, with his parents both dying early. He lived by catching fish from the river. Once when he was selling his fish in the market, he was beaten up by some hooligans in the village. His neighbor treated his wounds with a herb picked from the field. Han kept the herb in mind after his recovery.

Later, he served in the military and rose to the rank of general. In the frequent fighting, many of his soldiers were wounded. Han sent his staff to collect the herb from the fields and made remedies for the wounded soldiers. Many were successfully healed. Someone proposed naming the herb “Marshal herb”, but others opposed this idea, and suggested the more direct “Han Xin herb” as an endearing remembrance of the great general. The herb was hence named after the mighty hero in Chinese history.

Labiate flowers of Skullcap
Labiate flowers of Skullcap

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