St. John's Wort • Hypericum perforatum
A plant of many faces, St. John's wort
(Hypericum perforatum) is regarded as
wildflower, weed, and an herb. As a healthful plant
it has interested herbalists since the earliest
Greek herbals. The first century Greek physicians
Galen and Dioscorides recommended it as a diuretic,
wound healing herb, and a treatment for menstrual
disorders. In the sixteenth century Paracelsus, who
ushered in the era of mineral medicines, used St.
John's wort externally for treating wounds and for
allaying the pain of contusions.
In the Middle
Ages, remarkable, even mystical properties were bestowed
upon the herb. It was used as a talisman to protect
one from "demons." Harvesting herbs during Medieval
times meant collecting on a specific day,
often a day with religious significance. One can speculate whether
harvesting on a specific holy day was simply a
means to convey the best time to
harvest the herb, or convey symbolism that imbued the herb with
some greater unseen power. St.
John's wort, as you might guess, is best harvested
on St. John's Day (June 24th), often the
time of peak blooming. If a sprig of the herb was
placed under the pillow on St. John's Eve, St. John
himself may even appear in a dream, blessing the
dreamer for another year.
History and Botany
The name Hypericum derives from the Greek name for the plant "hyperikon." The word roots are hyper (meaning over) and eikon (meaning image). One meaning translating to "almost over ghosts" refers to mystical properties attributed to the plant from medieval times. The common name St. John's wort derives from Anglo-Saxon tradition, when the plant was considered useful to drive away evil spirits and ward off the devil's temptations.
St. John's wort is native to Europe, occurring throughout that continent, except the extreme North. Hypericum perforatum is a much-branched perennial herb growing from one to three feet high. The leaves are covered by translucent dots easily seen by holding the leaves up to a light; these are the perforations that give the plant its species designation "perforatum". When the fresh flowers are crushed, they exude a blood-red juice, which stains the fingers blue-violet.
Although St. John's wort is native to Europe, it is naturalized in waste places and along roadsides in Asia, Africa, North and South America and Australia. It is one of those European native plants that have followed European settlers wherever they have traveled in the world. By 1793 the first recorded American specimen was collected in Pennsylvania.
Especially vigorous populations in western North America and Australia have made it a serious weed problem. It is particularly aggressive in rangelands with dry summers. Historically, the greatest economic importance of the herb focuses on St. John's wort as serious weed of rangelands in Europe, Asia, North and South Africa, Australia, and eastern and western North America. It invaded pastures, leaving them a blaze of yellow flowers. Most North American scientific studies devoted to the plant ironically have focused on how to eradicate the plant. Despite its value as a medicinal plant, eradication programs have been developed in Canada, California and Australia to eliminate this invasive foreigner. A natural enemy of the plant, the Chrysolina beetle has been used in California and introduced into Canada as a natural biological control to kill the plant.
St. John's Wort as a Medicinal Plant
Given the superstitions surrounding the herb, physicians dismissed it as a folk medicine by the mid-nineteenth century. Interest in the medicinal uses were kept alive by Eclectic medical practitioners, who found it to be a useful wound healing agent, especially for lacerations involving damage to nerves, as well as a diuretic, astringent, and mild sedative. A survey among physicians conducted in 1938 by a German physician, Dr. Gerhard Madaus, found that St. John's wort preparations were being utilized for nerve conditions, and disorders induced by "excessive intellectual efforts." It was also being used for neuroses, general restlessness and insomnia. A tea made from the plant is popularly used as a mild nerve tonic for the treatment of anxiety, depression, insomnia, and general unrest. It is also used as a diuretic, and for the treatment of gastritis. Vegetable oil preparations of the flowers are used externally for the treatment of hemorrhoids and inflammation.
In the past two decades, most of the scientific attention on St. John's wort and its preparations focuses on its potential for use in the treatment of mild to moderate forms of depression. The preparations enhance mood over a long period of time, generally not producing positive results for at least two to three weeks, and often taking two to three months before producing beneficial results. This shows one of the general differences traditionally recognized for herbal medicines. They often take a relatively long period of time to produce beneficial results compared with "magic bullet" conventional medicines, whose effects are often experienced immediately or within a few hours of treatment.
According to the German government's official monograph on the subject, a dose of 2-4 g of herb (0.2-1.0 mg hypericin), are used for mild antidepressant action (MAO inhibitor), or nervous disturbances. But remember, depression is not like the common cold. It is not a condition subject to self-diagnosis or self-treatment. Therefore, professional medical advice is essential when considering the use of St. John's wort for the treatment of mild to moderate forms of depression.
St. John's wort oil (flowering tops macerated in a fixed oil such as olive oil) is used for bruises, is anti-inflammatory, and is often used by herbalists to help speed healing of wounds and sores. Externally it is applied to bruises, sprains, burns, skin irritations, or any laceration accompanied by severed nerve tissue. The German government allows such external St. John's wort preparations to be labeled for the treatment or after treatment of sharp or abrasive wounds, myalgia (muscular pain) as well as first degree burns. This is not a new herbal treatment, but one that has been handed down for hundreds of years. Once known to pharmacists as "red oil" or "Hypericum liniment," it was still available in pharmacies in the early twentieth century. The practice of soaking the flowers in olive oil, infusing the oil in the sun, then using the oil internally as a diuretic and external application for wounds dates at least to the time of the first edition of Gerard’s Herbal (1597). It is simple to make St. John's wort oil. The herb is harvested just as the plant comes into bloom. Take about one cupful of the fresh flowers, adding a sufficient quantity of olive oil to just cover the flowers. The fresh herb should be finely cut or crushed, covered with the oil, then placed in the sun or warm area for two to three weeks until the herb imparts its qualities to the oil. Shaking it once a day helps to bring more plant cell surfaces in contact with the menstruum, enhancing this simple extraction process. Once the allotted time (2-3 weeks) has passed, the herb should be pressed, strained from the oil, and then stored in a dark, closed container in a cool place. The yellow flowers will turn the oil a deep blood-red color. Basically you are extracting the pigment, hypericin, considered one of the biologically active compounds of the plant, found in the flowers as little black dots along the petal margins. It is best to use the fresh flowers, as hypericin may degrade upon drying. Store the oil for up to a year in a cool dark place.