Sunday, August 9, 2009

St. John's wort

This cheery yellow flower is found all over the world, in uncultivated area, woods, roadsides, meadows, hayfields - in fact, it is so abundant in some areas it is considered a weed. But herbalists and wildflower afficionados have a different view of St. John's Wort (Hypericum perforatum).

The bright terminal blossoms and leaves on these one- to three-foot tall plants are prized especially for one of the plant's active ingredients: hypericin. Blossom time runs from June to September in most climes. Prime harvest time for St. John's, or St J, traditionally fell on June 24 - St. John's Day, of course.

When harvesting for medicinal purposes, it's useful to check for hypricin strength. The simplest method is to pluck a flower or two, rub between your thumb and fingers, and see if your finger tips become stained with the signature blue-violet dye released from the hypericin-filled little black dots that border the flower petals. The darker the stain, the better the hyperion!

Oh yes - it does wash right off. No blackberry picking permanent-purple- fingers type stains.

Or, you can put the flowers in a small jar, cover with vodka, and see if the liquid turns bright red, or dark red, or maroon. Again, the darker the dye, the stronger the hypericin content. I prefer the cheaper finger squish method...

St. John's wort has been in common use for literally centuries - an herbalist's volume noted it in 1597. I can remember my parents using "red oil" while growing up. It was the farmer's "Red Turkey oil". Pharmacists also used to dispense "Hyperion liniment."

So what is it used for?

Among other actions, St. John's wort is antibacterial and anti-inflamatory. Steeping the flowers in olive oil results in the trade-mark red oil, which can be used as-is on bruises, spains, burns, sore muscles, all sorts of skin irritations. Or, with the addition of beeswax, the oil can be made into a salve. I like to combine it with other like-minded oils for a marvelous healing salve. (for salve how-to, see archive for Plantain salve...)

To make the oil, fill a jar with flowers (and top leaves if you want), mash a bit with a fork, then fill the jar with olive oil, stirring as you go to fully immerse all plant material. Add more flowers if needed. Set in a warm place, shake the jar daily for 2-3 weeks. Strain out the plant material, and bottle the oil in a dark container. Kept in a cool place, the oil will be good for a year.

St. John's wort may be dried, and used in teas and tinctures. Drying effectively disables the hypericin (which may not be a bad thing - no purple Chow tongues...) but brings into use other components. Cut the top third of the plant, and hang to dry.

St. John has long been used as a sleep aid and for depression. It is an herbal aid, not the "magic bullet" our society has come to expect for every problem. Herbs tend to work gently with our bodies, over a period of time. St. John in tea or tincture works as a mild nerve tonic. It may help relieve anxiety, insomnia, depression, and general unrest.

NOTE: if you want try St. John's for a depression issue, please consult with your physcian or naturopath. Here is a link to a monograph that explains it much better than I have room:

St. John's wort tea or infusion is reported to help with bedwetting. An ounce of dried flowers steeped in hot water, taken as a 1-2 Tablespoon dose, is said to be effective. It's been awhile since I wet the bed, so I can't really test this one....

To make a tincture, stuff a jar with the flowers, fill it with 100-proof vodka to cover the flowers, and lid. Shake daily for 2 weeks. Strain out the plant material, and store the red tincture in dark dropper bottles. Dosage is noted as 2 droppers 3 times a day.

I am always excited to see the first St. John's wort blossoms in the summer. The field that resulted in the "Mullein Mania!" post also had a good amount of St. John's wort. On another harvesting foray, my friend Laurie joined me for several hours of herby delight. When we had returned to our cars, the farmer and his wife had to come see what we had harvested, and had many questions. I had a tin of salve with me (as always), to show-and-tell; what a wonderful opportunity to provide a bit of herbal education!

St. John's wort is easy to harvest, easy to fill jars with the flowers and oil, and I know I can count on it for wonderful healing experiences.


  1. Candy - our home planted Juneberries have already ripened and been nipped up by wildlife. Do you have a patch that you're watching?

    Also, what to you think about preserving some raspberries in amaretto liquor? I've never done fruit in booze, but was thinking this might be a good combo and have some medicinal use as well.

    I've got half my St. John's in oil, half dried. Not much harvesting going on the last couple of days with all the rain.

  2. Here in Washington it is planted as a perennial. One note: when anticipating surgery St. John's Wort should be stopped as it interferes with anesthesia. I don't know the length of time required.