Come mid-November, and my heart begins to listen intently for the voice of one crying out in the wilderness. That first call is electric, generally serendipitous, often fortuitous, but always most highly anticipated. The year is not complete until I hear it. It’s the call of Hypericum perforatum, or Saint John’s Wort, as it’s rugged blossoms appear like a beacon in the landscape, to signal the coming of the light in it’s fullness at Summer solstice.
Staring transfixed out of the passenger window as we take the kids on a Sunday country drive, my eyes are busily scanning the passing landscape – a million miles a second – searching diligently amongst the ever-shifting hues of greens and browns for that golden bloom. There’s a luminosity that emanates from this wort. This, I find, is a plant that speaks to the soul. All plants do on some level, but this one – like rose – goes deep. When this plant speaks to me, my heart hears it, but it’s my solar plexus that responds. This plant speaks of nobility, and fortitude, strength, and joy. It’s a plant for people who need to develop some real nerve. A plant for people who need more sunshine in their lives. And, coincidentally (or maybe it was by design), it’s a plant for people who need their physical nerves repairing, and soothing.
As one approaches the plant, or sees it from a distance, it appears at first to be a bit unruly, scraggly, rugged – and it’s often found in rugged landscapes, often besides roads in gravelly soil. Surrounded by other scraggly species. It’s chosen area of growth indicates poor soils. On closer inspection however, Saint John’s Wort stands tall and upright, growing between one-three feet in height. There’s an order to it’s lance-shaped leaves, ‘greener-on-the-topside’, that grow along a many branched stem, which viewed from above takes the image of a cross. When held up to the light, the leaves reveal tiny holes or perforations. This is a key identification feature, and gives Saint John’s Wort its second latin name perforatum. The whole affect of St Johns Wort is topped off with a crown of golden flowers, green and yellow buds, and flecked here and there with the russet-coloured remnants of former glories. The flowers are 5 petalled, a little rough-edged, and from their midst spring up several stamen surrounding a carpal with three slightly shorter styles. They are all of the one golden yellow. When held to to the light, the flowers can be seen sprinkled with something like microscopic drops of dark blood. These ‘specs of blood’ are the oil glands, which if we crush a flower or a bud, will leave the signature deep purple-red resinous stain on our fingers. When we infuse the fresh flowering tops in oil for topical use, the oil takes on this blood-red hue. The same occurs when we infuse the fresh flowering tops in alcohol or water. The whole impression of the flower, is of a radiant sun; the solar plexus, or the light in the core of our being.
North American herbalist, Matthew Wood says that it takes it’s common name St Johns Wort from the fact that in the European tradition it begins flowering around the catholic feast day of St John the Baptist, just before summer solstice. Whilst there are traditional pagan associations with the ‘Green man’ signalling coming summer abundance, I am drawn by the similar characteristics of this plants overall essence to the figure that was John the Baptist. In the Biblical account, he appears as a rugged individual, dwelling in the wilderness, wearing a camel hair garment, and living on wild honey and locusts (or carob pods or locust beans – depending on whichever translation you prefer, or bioregional botanical knowledge you might have). No doubt he was a little unkempt in appearance. A little non-conforming to the society of the time. And yet, on closer examination, we find a noble and upright character. A man who had real nerve. His was the voice that cried out in the wilderness that the prophet Isaiah spoke of centuries before, heralding the first coming of the fullness of Light into the world. A beacon of righteousness if you will. Even that Man who carried the Light, Yahoshua HaMashiach (who the Hellenes call Jesus Christ), said this concerning this John:
“What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? But what did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft garments? Look, those wearing soft garments are in the houses of kings. But what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yea, I say to you, and more than a prophet. ……Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has not risen one greater than Yohanan the Immerser [John the Baptist]…” (Mattityahu 11:7-14 The Scriptures 1998 ed. Institute for Scripture Research)
In those times past, when plants had as much psycho/spiritual significance as they did physiological (you know, in those wonderfully sage times before medicine separated from common sense, and when the humans understood that mind/body/and soul could not be separated without actual death occurring), St John’s Wort garnered lore for it’s apparent ability to offer protection from various nefarious influences. These included -but were not limited to – protection from witchcraft, little people (fairies), evil spirits, and possibly even alien abductions (folklore didn’t stop in the Middle Ages – it just shape-shifted to accomodate the same denizens dressed in the garb of the modern era.). It’s Greek name Hypericum also implies this belief, meaning ‘above the icon’, or as Matthew Wood ponders, possibly eluding to it’s ‘power ‘over the image’, or spectre.’ Nowadays, it has been much hyped in the natural health world as a remedy for depression. Having suffered from severe depression, I can attest that the black cloud that embraces the soul is something like a dark spirit that drags you down into even darker depths. Which possibly also makes one more vulnerable to even darker spirits showing up. The light of St John’s Wort does give some hope, but there are different types of depression and St Johns Wort has a far wider scope of healing and should be applied with discernment.
I find it to be particularly effective in the depression of Seasonal Affective Disorder, and the depression associated with hormonal changes such as peri/menopause. A depression that comes from, or is associated with anxiety, tension, frustration, of trauma, or being cut off. For S.A.D I like it combined with Calendula and Lemon Balm, as well as addressing vitamin D and magnesium status. For menopausal depression, it works well when combined in equal parts with Damiana, Rose, and Tulsi. Both of these combinations can be taken as infusions or blended tinctures made from the fresh plant, although I find that the act of brewing a pot of tea infuses a pro-active measure into the treatment, which is often lacking when feeling depressed.
Oftentimes the plant’s appearance gives us a clue as to what it may help us with. Here we can think of the radiant resemblance of the flower with the solar plexus. Herbalist, Sajah Popham, combines St Johns Wort with Wood Betony (Stachys betonica) in gut healing protocols to address the often allied psycho/spiritual notion of a lack of boundaries, intestinal fortitude, and/or lack of trust in gut instincts, which are most often present in people experiencing Leaky Gut syndrome. I have since used this combination on myself as well as clients, and have found it to be a nice, effective pair to base a formula around. By it’s action on the nerves of the solar plexus, and relieving tension in the liver, it also regulates digestion. The solar plexus is the seat of our willpower, and our ability to stand firm in our convictions. It is a central nexus for the nervous system – ingeniously placed within our core, and hence gives us the saying, ‘to have the nerve’ to do something.
In Herbal Medicine, we class it as a trophorestorative nervine and a thymoleptic. A trophorestorative is a herb that repairs, regenerates, and restores function to a particular organ. A nervine is a plant that has a particular affinity for the nervous system. A thymoleptic is a plant that uplifts the mood – as we have seen previously in our discussion on depression. As a trophorestorative, St Johns Wort will help the body to repair nerves. It was once thought that neurons were one, if not the only, cell in the body that could not regenerate. With St Johns Wort we know that this is not the case. The homeopathic exploration of this aspect of St Johns Wort has given us the key indication of it’s use in repairing nerves involved in spinal injury especially the coccyx, and injury to the head. I have seen this miracle occur in a young man involved in a serious motorcycle accident. Although he suffered a very serious head injury, he sustained no brain damage or damage to the spinal cord at all. He was given the homeopathic preparation of Hypericum (SJW), along with the infused oil in topical massage, and a homeopathic preparation of comfrey (Symphytum officinale) to help heal the broken bones he did sustain. His recovery was remarkable.
In this regard, St Johns Wort is a reliable vulnerary. A vulnerary simply means that it is wound-healing, for which it was traditionally used in Europe. Parkinson says;
“S. Iohns wort is as singular a wound herbe as any other whatsoever, eyther for inward wounds, hurts, or bruises, to be boiled in wine and drunke, or prepared in oyl or oyntment, bathe, or lotion outwardly, for being of an hot and drying quality, with subtill parts, it hath power to….consolidate or soder the lips of wounds, and to strengthen the parts that are weak and feeble.”
Once again, homeopathy gives us the key indication of it being especially helpful in healing puncture wounds, and preventing tetanus. We see this signature in the tiny perforations that are revealed in the illuminated leaves. It is used to heal cuts and bruises, and is often used topically to speed up the healing of surgical scars. In this regard of healing puncture wounds and surgical scars – where there is trauma to the nerves, it is an exceptional ally in alleviating nerve pain. Nerve pain is typically sharp and shooting, like lightning. It is used for post-operative pain and neuralgia, and inflammation of the nerves. I have also found it very useful in cases of sciatica, as a topical massage oil along with adjunct therapies. The nerve pain associated with shingles may also be relieved, both from the perspective of relieving inflammation and soothing the nerve itself, as well as exercising some specific anti-viral activity.
Other organ affinites include the bladder, as well as heliping the liver to detoxify – often through the relief of tension in these areas. For this affinity for the liver, it is noted that St Johns Wort doesn’t always play well with pharmaceutical drugs, and so caution should be exercised if you are (or the person you are recommending this plant to is) taking other medication. For the bladder, it is a welcome ally for bedwetting children (specifically, in my experience, where there is underlying stress).
The annual harvest of St Johns Wort is something that I look forward to with mounting joy. That first glimpse of the golden bouquet is a glimmer of hope. Here in Victoria, it signifies the end of the long, cold winter that bleeds into only a slightly warmer spring. The watercolour tones of that season finish in stark contrast to the sunbaked shards of dry grass and brown earth that now dominate the landscape. Summer is here, says the St Johns Wort. And I am thankful. Oh how thankful I am to harvest just enough to infuse in oil, just enough to tincture, and just enough to dry for the winter to come. Just enough to replenish my dispensary, and just enough for the people who need it. I take a little from each plant community I visit, in order that the community may continue and produce future generations. Nothing more, nothing less than what is needed. There is a mindfulness that accompanies each harvest. A dreaming that we drop into as we come into relationship with the plant. It must be this way, in order for our hearts to hear what the plant speaks. And this one speaks of warmth, and strength, and brilliant hope.
St John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum)
Energetics: warming, resinous/oily, drying, ‘balsmic’ (Wood)
Tissue States: indicated in dry/atrophy, wind/tension, cold/depression (see previous post for a discussion on the tissue states).
Herbal Actions: Nervine trophorestorative, thymoleptic, vulnerary, nervine anti-inflammatory, has some anti-viral action (especiall useful in shingles), nervine digestive tonic, liver detoxifier.
Methods of preparation and administration:
Harvesting: First of all, make sure you’ve got the right plant and have identified it correctly. Then, take only what you need, and never more than 10% of a community. If there’s one community, but it’s small, hunt around in the same general area. There will likely be more. Be mindful of pollution and potential weed spraying, particularly on road sides and around built-up residential areas. Also consider the health of the plants. Do they look healthy to you? If more are damaged or blemished than not, it’s probably not a good community to harvest from.
When the SJW that wants to help you has found you, use your fingers (watch out for hidden bugs – spiders seem to like SJW), and pick the flowers and unopened buds and the uppermost leaves. I find using secateurs quicker, particularly if my children are joining me. Which they typically do, because that’s homeschooling. I generally clip off the flowering tops about 2-3 cms below the lowest flower or bud. I quickly inspect them and hold them upside down, and gently shake them to make sure any creepy crawlies can leave. This will also return any early seeds to the earth for new growth the following year.
After harvest, if tincturing or infusing in oil, I immediately do this in the boot (trunk) of my SUV. I have a bag that contains all of my foraging/wildcrafting and processing tools in it, so I’m ready to work at a moments notice. I also carry an old pillow slip to keep the plants in that I want to dry for later use. These plants, I generally clip off with a longer stem of about 10-15cm. When I get home I then lay them out on a large piece of butcher’s paper, garble them (sort them for blemishes, missed bugs, and whatnot), and then get them ready for drying.
Drying: This is an artform in itself, and to ensure the quality of the herb is maintained and minimal medicinal value is lost, its execution has to be meticulous. For St Johns Wort, I use a dehydrator set between 75 – 95 degrees Faranheit (around 40 Celsius). If you don’t have a dehydrator, you can hang your herbs in tied bunches from rafters or under a covered deck or verandah, out of the sun. Or you can dry them on a flat screen in the shade on a warm day. You need to bring them in at night so the dew doesn’t cause them to mould or rot. It can take one to several days to dry to crispy depending on the temperature and humidity. Once fully dry, cut the herb into small pieces and store in a dark coloured container in a cupboard or out of driect sunlight. (This process of cutting them up into smaller pieces is called comminution.)
Infusion: use the fresh, or dry flowering tops (fresh will be better, but only dry will be available in the cooler seasons). Steep 1 tsp in 1 cup of just boiled water for 5-10 minutes. Drink ½ to 1 cup 1-3 times/day.
Tincture: Best made as soon after harvest as possible, tincture in a menstruum (solvent) of 95% alcohol. In the US, this is branded Everclear. In Australia, I’ve used a 95% alc./vol. rectified spirit called Polmos Spirytus Rektyfikowany (it’s Polish). They keep it under lock and key at Dan Murphy’s, and they look at you funny if you say that you’re a herbalist and you need it to make tinctures. Ironically, it says that’s what it is used for on the label. When I’ve been a bit more flush, I’ve used cane sugar ethanol acquired from Wilmar Bioethanol, but you need to be a practitioner with a TGA exemption certifcate to obtain this liquid gold. It’s currently priced at AUD19.95/litre, and the minimum purchase is 20 litres. If you do choose to use a 95% alc./vol., you’ll end up with a 1:2 or 1:3 tincture. This means you’ll use 1 part of the herb to 2 or 3 parts of the menstruuum. So for example, if I harvest 100g of flowering tops, I’ll need 300ml of menstruum to make a 1:3 strength tincture. Because you’re using fresh plant material, the water content in the plant will dilute the alcohol and give a nicely balanced tincture that will draw out constiuents that are both soluble in water and alcohol. If you use dry material, then you would need to add water to the alcohol to make up the difference. There are calculations involved in that process, which I will, at some point, devote an entire blog post to. But for now, with fresh SJW, you don’t really need to worry about that. So having said all that however, if you simply can’t access a 95% alcohol, then you can use the folk method of stuffing a jar with the herb and then filling it to the top with a good quality brandy or vodka. This is a perfectly acceptable substitute and you can do this with the fresh or dry. Keep in mind however, that if using dry plant material, you’ll need to add more as it will soak up most of it. The alcohol percentage will be around 45%, and the rest will be raisin or potato skin water. This is okay. Some professional herbalists do actually prefer to use brandy-based tinctures and they still get optimum results. So whichever method you choose, fill a sterilised canning jar with your herb and your menstruum, cap tightly (use a rubber sealed glass flip-top canning jar, or if you have to use a glass mason-type jar, put some baking paper, or cloth between the glass and the metal lid, so the alcohol doesn’t corrode the metal. You don’t want rust in your tincture. Some people blend, or bruise the herb with the menstruum before putting it up in the jar. This may allow you to get more herb in – particularly if your using the folk method, but it’s really up to the individual. Matthew Wood says the plants like to be tinctured whole. Once you’ve got it in the jar and secured the lid on, place in a dark cool cupboard to macerate (infuse). It will be ready to use after 14 days, but again, some herbalists leave it for a whole lunar cycle, others for 6 weeks, and others (like me when I forget), just leave it to do it’s thing indefinitely, using only when needed.
Once you’ve decided it’s ready (have a taste every so often to see), strain it through a nutmylk bag or muslin cloth, or a doubled coffee filter over a large glass bowl or jug. Squeeze and press as much of the tincture as you can out of the remaining herb (also known as the marc). If you happen to have a spare kitchen table wine press lying around, you can use this to good affect in getting those last few drops out. Then compost your marc, or incinerate it to make a spagyric (another post will be forthcoming on that process as well. Promises, promises). Bottle your newly strained and filtered tincture, and please remember to label it with the name of the herb, date, alcohol percentage, and whether you used dry or fresh material. I usually also add where it was harvested from and when. (I also put a label on the macerating herb before I strain it)
A standard dose would be between 5-30 drops 3x/day depending on who and what it is for. (Children use ½ to ¼ of the adult dose).
Infused oil: This is used for topical application, and I typically infuse my oils the way you make a tincture via the folk method. That is, stuff a sterilized jar with your herb and then pour organic extra virgin cold pressed olive oil over it until the jar is full and no plant bits are exposed. If you’re using fresh plant material, keep in mind that water and oil don’t mix and fresh plants often contain a fair bit of water. You might like to let the plant wilt a little before infusing in the oil. This isn’t the same as allowing it to dry, but it does release a little bit of the water and can prevent spoilage from mould. Some plants do better dried first and then infused in oil. Like Calendula for example. But for our purposes with capturing the healing benefits of SJW, we need to use the fresh flowering tops. Again, like cooking, there is an art in working with the ways in which the plants can express their medicine. Some folks like to warm the herb/oil in a crockpot/slowcooker or over a bain marie to start the infusion process, or let it infuse like that for a week. Like making a tea or water-based infusion, the heat draws out the constituents. I tried this method once with SJW. I felt like I was cooking the herb and the oil, and that didn’t feel right, so I went back to doing it the way that I was taught and which I knew well, that of allowing the securely lidded (again, same as the tincture) jar of infusing goodness to sit on a sunny windowsill to allow the sun to warm the oil and draw out those blood-red constituents. It is, after all, a herb of the Sun. SJW is pretty much the only herb I would do this with though. Most herbs are happy to sit somewhere warm and dark (or covered in a brown paper bag) to do their thing with the oil. Let the oil infuse for a couple of weeks. I like to do it for a month, and I did have one jar which I forgot to strain and filter for about 3 years, but it was stored well (I took it off the windowsill after a month), and it was still good. Once it has infused to your liking, strain and filter as per the tincture. Fresh SJW infused oil, once strained will still be cloudy. You’ll need to put it back on the windowsill to let it settle, and once it has, decant the clear red oil into a bottle. Cap tightly and label, label, label with the name, date, and type of oil used.
Dosage: well, this is for topical use, so you can either make it into a salve, balm, or ointment with other plants specific to what the salve, balm, or ointment may be for, or you can use it as is when needed. It’s great for cuts, bruises, muscle aches, spasms, neuraligia, sciatica, shingles, around puncture wounds (while also taking the tincture internally), on hard deposits under the skin, scars, for paralysed limbs, diabetic neuropathies, after spinal or head injury if possible (and/or take the tincture or homeopathic Hypericum internally), and may be useful, if not just a nice massage oil for people with Multiple Sclerosis.
Other prepartaions of St Johns Wort include the flower essence and the homoeopathic, and the spagyric tincture. While these are traditionally thought of as having more of an affect on the subtle body or psycho/spiritual aspects, they can be used just as well for the physical indications. If that is all you have access to, or if you or that someone you know is more sensitive to material doses, then this will be how SJW will work with you.
So with that I will bid you the blessings of the Solstice, and I hope your life is graced with the joy of St Johns Wort as well.
Resources & References:
Wood, Matthew. The Book of Herbal Wisdom. North Atlantic Books; 1st Ed. 1997.
______________. The Earthwise Herbal, Volume I: A Complete Guide to Old World Medicinal Plants. North Atlantic Books. 2008.
Bruton-Seal, Julie. & Seal, Matthew. The Herbalist’s Bible. John Parkinsons Lost Classic Rediscovered. Merlin Unwin Books. UK 2014.
Buhner, Stephen. Herbal Anti-Virals: Natural Remedies for Emerging & Resistant Viral Infections. Storey Publishing. North Adams, MA. USA. 2013.
Cech, Richo. Making Plant Medicine. Horizon Herbs. Oregon USA. 2000
Easley, Thomas & Horne, Steven. The Modern Herbal Dispensatory: A Medicine-Making Guide. North Atlantic Books. USA. 2016.