Hypericum p e r f o r

St John's wort has become well known as an herb for treating depression and SAD, but it is far more than that. An antiseptic wound herb of ancient repute, it was the main plant of St John, the sun herb of midsummer and a protector against evil and unseen influences. In modern terms, it strengthens the nervous system and the digestion, protects the liver, is antiviral and reduces pain; it is a plant for support through life-cycle changes.

Clusiaceae (Hypericaceae) St John's wort family

Description: A midsized perennial with yellow flowers. Distinguished from other species of Hypericum by the "perfo rations" in the leaf, which are actually oil glands.

Habitat: Roadsides, hedge banks, rough grassland, meadows, and open woodland.

Distribution: Native to Europe, an introduced weed in North America and Australasia.

Related species: There are several other species of St

John's wort that look similar, but they are not as good medicinally, so check for the "perforations" in the leaf by holding one up to the sun.

Parts used: Flowering tops.

The protecting power of St John's wort derives from a powerful mix of observed herbal benefits and the plant's part in the Christian adaptation of older midsummer sun and fire "pagan" ceremonies.

Its Latin name Hypericum gives us clues about the takeover of one form of sun-magic by another. The hyper-ikon was an herb placed above St John's image, or painted icon; by extension, it meant power over ghosts or invisible bad spirits. It was particularly important to invoke the plant's help on St John's eve against witchcraft or diabolic influences (see panel on page 161).

St John's wort was a powerful sun herb to dispel darkness, and it had the "signatures" to prove it. The so-called "holes" in the leaves, the perforata of the Latin name, were emblematic of St John's holy wounds and martyrdom, along with the red "blood" of the plant's extract. Scientists now know the holes to be resinous glands of hypericin and other active compounds.

The cross formed by the leaves, seen from above, was also symbolic of the plant's power.

The sun is said to control the solar (sun) plexus in the body. In yogic systems this is a center of protective energy that is ruled by the yellow part of the spectrum. This affinity of St John's wort with the solar plexus extends to the plant's use in treating the digestive and nervous systems. It is also taken for life-cycle conditions, such as bedwetting in the young, menstrual problems, and menopause. The solar plexus governs "gut instinct" and life's unseen influences - again leading us to protection.

This may sound rather esoteric, but we have certainly found for ourselves that the actual time of picking St John's wort flowers does matter in a practical sense.

We once gathered it on impulse on a summer evening while driving to a party in north Norfolk. We knew we should harvest in the middle of the day, but thought we'd try anyway. We put our beautiful yellow flowers into olive oil on arriving home, and placed the jar on a south-facing windowsill to infuse. Nothing happened. That jar was in the sun for months, but never turned red.

On the other hand, some of the best St John's wort oil we've ever made was on a visit to Italy. In Ostia Antica, the ancient harbor town for Rome, there were many interesting plants, including St John's wort, which was growing only among the ruined temples.

It was actually St John's day, June 24th, and very hot. We picked enough flowers to make a small jar of oil and infused it on our friend's balcony in Rome. Within hours it was a wonderful deep red color.

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