What we find interesting is that modern uses of the plant, as we will outline, differ so much from the more traditional uses. Look at Parkinson's list of its benefits (right): few herbalists will now use St John's wort to dissolve tumors. Mrs Grieve, writing in 1931, says it is good for pulmonary complaints, bladder problems, diarrhea, jaundice, and nervous depression, among others.
When the light shines through the leaves of perforate St John's wort, the oil glands look like holes (hence perforatum in the name). There are ten times more glands in the flowers than the leaves or stems.
S. lohns wort is as singular a wound herbe as any other whatsoever, eyther for inward wounds, hurts or bruises, to be boyled in wine and drunke, or prepared into oyle or oyntment, bathe or lotion outwardly... it hath power to open obstructions, to dissolve tumours, to consolidate or soder the lips of wounds, and to strengthen the parts that are weake and feeble.
- Parkinson (1640)
No mention there of a modern and effective use of St John's wort for what we now call seasonal affective disorder (SAD), where people feel low and depressed in the dark months of northern European winters. A spoonful of home-made St John's wort tincture will light you up inside with a warm glow.
Caution: Do not take St John's wort alongside antidepressant medication unless supervised by an herbal or medical practitioner. Seek professional advice before using the herb if you are on any medication, including the contraceptive pill, or are pregnant.
St John's wort's reputation for helping lift the darkness of depression has grown considerably. This use of the herb has been well researched in the last twenty years and has stimulated a surge in sales of St John's wort products. It is known that hypericin interferes with monoamine oxidase (MAO), which contributes to depression. Pharmaceutical products also act as MAO inhibitors, but St John's wort is a slow treatment, and, crucially, has few side effects.
St John's wort growing along a Norfolk lane, St John's day, June 24th
Taking the plant as a flower essence or tincture will help in improving sleep quality, an important issue in depression. We also give a sleep pillow recipe.
St John's wort treatment has been officially recognized in Germany since 1984 as effective for mild to moderate depression. When the protocol was publicized, St John's wort products soon outsold Prozac by a factor of seven to one.
A "modern" way of looking at depression has some interesting precursors. One example is an early nineteenth-century verse by Alfred Lear Huxford; this links a ceremonial use of St John's wort leaves bound to the forehead and the relief of "dark thoughts":
So thus about her brow/ They bound Hypericum, whose potent leaves/ Have sovereign powers o'er all the sullen fits/And cheerless fancies that besiege the mind;/ Banishing ever, to their native night/ Dark thoughts, and causing to spring up within/ The heart distress'd, a glowof gladdening hope,/And rainbowvisions of kind destiny.
If you change the world-view from religious to scientific, from old "superstition" to modern "rationalism," is it really so far from fear of possession by evil spirits to modern clinical depression? Perhaps, like great literature, our major herbs adapt to the neuroses and psychic needs of the time; St John's wort has done this beautifully.
However, it would not be true to say the herb has no side effects at all. One, which is sometimes experienced among the fair-skinned, is to make them more sensitive to the sun. Care is needed if you burn easily, and the herb should be avoided if you need to be out in the sun and in danger of burning.
This proneness to sunburn extends to cattle. They are liable to gorge on the plant and can die, which is why many state laws have proscribed as noxious H. perforatum, the introduced St John's wort, also known as Klamath weed.
It was also an unwelcome chance arrival in Australasia and South Africa in the nineteenth century. Spreading by wind-borne seeds and active vegetative roots, it quickly overtakes native vegetation and local forms of the plant.
In the doctrine of signatures yellow-colored herbs are frequently associated with the liver and an ability to treat jaundice. This can be unfounded, but St John's wort is a case in point, working as it does to relieve liver tension and harmonizing the action of the liver with other digestive organs.
Its action is gently decongesting, strengthening both liver and gallbladder. But because St John's wort helps the liver break down and get rid of toxins, it can lower levels of certain drugs in the body, reducing their effectiveness. The best advice here is: do not use St
John's wort alongside any pharmaceutical medication without first seeking the advice of your herbal practitioner or doctor.
Taking St John's wort improves your absorption of nutrients, and helps normalize stomach acid levels whether too high or too low. It is a well-
known treatment for ulcers, heartburn, and bloating.
It is also one of the best herbs for treating shingles, being antiviral as well as pain-relieving and also speeding up tissue repair. Use the infused oil externally over the painful area, and take the tincture internally at the same time.
As a proven antiviral, St John's wort may have future benefits for HIV and AIDS treatment, but more research is needed.
St John's wort is one of the main herbs of St John the Baptist, whose birthday was taken to be June 24th. It is no coincidence that John, the precursor of Christ, was given a birthdate in midsummer and Christ himself in midwinter. This was one way the year's solstices were appropriated from older pagan festivals by the Christian Church.
St John's wort, which blooms so brightly around midsummer, whether regarded as solstice or saint's day, is the name-plant for this time. Other herbs of St John were great plantain, mugwort, yarrow, and vervain (all in this book), and corn marigold, dwarf elder, ivy, and orpine (Sedum telephium).
The herbs of St John were gathered on the morning of June
23rd, before sunrise. That evening fires were lit, the smoke purifying both herbs and the people (and also cattle) who crossed the fires. The plants were now sanctified by the saint's power, and went into amulets, were placed above doorways and in cattle stalls, and stored for later use.
The overall protection afforded is well summarized in the French phrase avoir toutes les herbes de la St-Jean , meaning ready and safeguarded for everything.
The oil also works well as a rub for backache and sore muscles and gums, and being antiseptic will help heal wounds arising from injuries or surgery, as in older formulations.
From its former reputation as a "cure-all" is derived the name of the garden St John's wort, tutsan, a corruption of the French name La toute-sainte.
St John's wort tincture
• seasonal affective disorder (SAD)
• mild depression
• liver congestion
• nervous exhaustion
• menopausal moods
• viral infections
St John's wort infused oil
St John's wort pillow
Harvesting St John's wort
St John's wort really needs to be picked on a sunny day, when the sun is high in the sky. Pick the flowering tops of the plant, i.e., the flowers, buds and leaves. The stems are quite wiry, so use a pair of scissors.
St John's wort tincture
Put the flowering tops in a clear glass jar large enough to hold what you've picked, then pour on vodka until the herb is submerged. Put the lid on the jar, and shake to remove any air bubbles. Top up with a little more vodka if necessary.
Put the jar in a cupboard or other place away from the light for about a month, shaking occasionally. Your tincture is ready when the flowers have faded and the liquid is a reddish color. Strain, bottle, and label.
Dose: Half to one teaspoonful three times daily.
St John's wort infused oil
Put the flowering tops you have picked into a clear glass jar, then pour on extra virgin olive oil until the herb is completely covered. Put the lid on and shake the jar to remove any air bubbles, then place on a sunny window sill for a month.
Check every now and then to make the sure the herb is still submerged in the oil, and if necessary stir it back under. The oil should turn red.
Strain off the oil, bottle, and label.
Use externally as needed for backache, sore muscles, sciatica, neuralgia, arthritic joints, and to help heal wounds.
St John's wort pillow
Dry St John's wort flowering tops outside in the shade. Strip the leaves and flowers off the stalks and discard the stalks. Make a small cloth bag, leaving one end unstitched. Fill the bag loosely with the dried flowers and leaves, then stitch or tie the open end shut. Place the bag underneath your pillow.
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