Saint Johns Wort, a Rich and Colorful History

It was great working with my sister Sam in Mountain Song Herbals Tea Shop and Apothecary this year at the Arizona Renaissance Festival. I got to know a great little plant that I think you will just love, Saint John’s Wort! After speaking with a wonderful woman who came into the shop, helping her with a sample of our Ease All Body Balm, the woman commented on the fact that it contained Saint John’s Wort and she was only familiar with its use for depression and emotional balancing. My own knowledge of this plant was also limited to its anti-depressant qualities and her comment spurred my curiosity as a researcher. What I unearthed is not only a plethora of medicinal uses but also a rich and colorful history!

SaintJohnsSt. John’s Wort is native to Europe, Western Asia and North Africa. It can be found in grasslands, pastures, meadows, forested areas in natural clearings and areas that have been disturbed by fire, logging or road construction. This plant grows to 1 – 3 feet tall with slender stems that are reddish and woody at the base.5 The flowers are yellow to bright yellow-orange with black dots around the edges.5 The leaves are green-yellow in color with scattered translucent dots that create a perforated appearance when held up to the light.5 It is best to collect this plant when it’s in bloom; the parts used for medicinal purposes are the flowering tops, stems and leaves.

There are a multitude of folk names for St. John’s wort, including: balm of warrior’s wounds, the devil’s scourge, herb John, the Grace of God, the Lord God’s wonder plant and witches herb.1 This plant has been used to heal wounds since the first century and it is believed witches may have been drawn to it because when the flowers are pressed with cooking oil, it produces a thick, blood red liquid.1 This liquid was an important ingredient in spells of sorcery, conjuration, love potions and poisons.1 Christians believed this liquid was the blood of St. John the Baptists and the flowers were gathered on the Eve of St. John’s Day (June 24th).1 I am excited to see if there will be more about this herb from a biblical perspective this spring at Mountain Song Herbals Living Light Series. I also discovered that this herb was hung over the doors of cottages on St. John’s Day to drive away evil spirits. It was the belief in its power to ward off evil spirits that earned it the name “Fuga Daemonium” or “Devils Flight” in the middle-ages.

In many parts of the world, it is a highly valued medicinal plant. Greek physicians used it in the first century as a diuretic, wound healer and treatment for menstrual disorders. In the Ukraine it is still widely used by villagers as their leading home remedy, especially for kidney and intestinal diseases.1 In China it is used as an ornamental and medicinal plant; it is used in similar ways as the Ukraine but is also used to alleviate the effects of snake bites.1 Japanese St John’s Wort has been shown to have antitumor activity in animals and the Cherokee used a compound decoction as an abortifacient and the leaves in an infusion to reduce diarrhea, fever and gastrointestinal pain.5 They also used a milky compound to rub on sores and sniffed the crushed plant for nosebleeds. The Iroquois also used the plant as a fever medicine, and the roots to prevent sterility.5 In Spain, the flowers are macerated in olive oil and applied externally as a treatment for wounds, burns or chapped skin.5

SaintJohnsWort1St. John’s Wort can be used to treat a long list of ailments, I uncovered 45 and I wouldn’t be surprised if there are more!! I will not list them all in this article but along with those mentioned in the previous paragraph, this herb is used to treat: spinal cord and nerve injuries, mild to moderate depression, phantom limb pain, acute and chronic infection from enveloped viruses (ie cold sores, genital herpes, chicken-pox, shingles), sciatica, rheumatic pain, bruises, varicose veins, and shock. There are additional effects of this plant to be aware of before making the decision to take it internally. It can cause photosensitivity, especially in fair skinned people.3 It has menstrual stimulating and abortifacient effects; pregnant woman should speak with their health care provider before use.6 Caution should also be used by those taking birth control pills, blood thinners, anti-depressants, anticoagulants, immune suppressants, anti-HIV drugs, chemotherapeutic drugs and anticonvulsants.3 St. John’s Wort has many amazing properties including a wonderful anti-inflammatory effect on the skin, however, seeking the guidance of a skilled herbalist or health care provider before use it is advisable.7

Once again, I am blown away by the potential one plant holds and find myself eager to see what other wonders I will discover!

Resources:

  1. Doctor Schar. “St. John’s Wort Materia Medica”. com. Web. 4 March 2016.
  2. Hoffman, David. “St. John’s Wort: Herbal Medicine Materia Medica”. net. 1984. Web. 4 March 2016.
  3. Materia Medica. “St. John’s Wort”. Herbal Medicine Resource. 28 June 2013. Web. 4 March 2016.
  4. Rose, Kiva. “Gifts of the Solstice: St. John’s Wort”. The Medicine Woman’s Roots. 3 July 2014. Web. 4 March 2016.
  5. Sheahan, C.M. 2012. “Plant guide for common St. Johnswort (Hypericum perforatum)”. USDA-NRCS, Cape May Plant Materials Center. Cape May, NJ. Web. 4 March 2016
  6. Tilgner, Sharol. “Materia Medica, St. John’s Wort”. Herbal Transitions.com. Web. 4 March 2016.
  7.  University of Maryland Medical Center, “Saint Johns Wort” Complementary and Alternative medicine guide. http://umm.edu/health/medical/altmed/herb/st-johns-wort.  6.24.14
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