St John's Wort (Hypericum perforatum)

St Johns wort is a wild flower found in woods, meadows and hedges. Growing to around 2 feet tall, the plant has many branches forking from the pale brown stem and clusters of five petalled star-like yellow flowers. There are several members of the Hypericum family but I have chosen to write about perforatum with its lance shaped leaves and their apparent tiny pinprick holes. Inspite of its beauty the crushed plant has a strange smell which can best be described as an unpleasant mix of turpentine and wet dog. St Johns wort is a plant I knew something about long before my herbal studies. Like most people I was aware of its anti-depressant properties but I had yet to uncover its myriad uses.
I remember the first time I found some growing in a woodland clearing amongst a large patch of self heal.  I was astonished, as in my mind it had seemed a rare and unobtainable plant, not the sort of thing you might stumble across on an urban ramble. Although fairly unusual in my neck of the woods, in many counties it is very common and in some parts of the world even invasive.  I have read that the flowers and leaves are edible and can be tossed in a salad, but I associate this plant so strongly with medicine I can’t imagine eating it.

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St Johns wort is an ancient healing and magical plant, named after St John, and I have often wondered what it was called before Christianity claimed it. For many centuries it was believed to have infinite therapeutic powers. This was largely attributed to Saint John, who was annually celebrated at a feast on the 24th of June, also known as Midsummer. At this celebration bunches of the herb were collected at dawn because it was believed the plant was at its most potent whilst still dew laden. By nightfall fires were lit in an act of purification and herb bundles were laid on the edges of the fire to be ‘smoked’. This process was thought to amplify the herb’s magical powers and once ‘smoked’ bunches could be tied over doorways and windows to ensure protection against witches or evil spirits. It was said that the Devil so despised this protective plant he had tried to destroy it with a needle – hence the leaf perforations.  The apparent holes are actually oil glands which when crushed, along with the flower buds or seed pods, produce a red oil. 

The entire plant possesses medicinal value and has been used to heal a wide range of ailments. It is a natural sedative and under medical supervision can treat a range of nervous disorders from insomnia to melancholy (more commonly known as depression). Recent clinical trials have confirmed its effectiveness in the treatment of mild depression and anxiety; they have also discovered anti-viral properties which may, in the future, be able to treat HIV.

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The plant is a natural pain killer and has been long been used to ease the pain of conditions such as rheumatism, sciatica, polymyalgia and neuralgia. In folk medicine is was used to aid urinary problems and to cure bedwetting.  The oil extract is sometimes used to treat intestinal inflammations and gastric problems. St Johns wort oil is also a common cure for sores, scalds, blisters and burns.  
The herb was once considered a remarkable wound healer and many of the old herbalists set great store in its curative powers. John Gerrard writing in the 16th century explains how the herb was utilised…

‘The leaves, floures, and seeds stamped and put into a glasse with oile olive, and set in the hot sun for certain weeks together, and then strained from those herbs, and the like quantitie of new put in and sunned in like manner, doth make an oil the colour of bloud, which is a most pretious remedie for deep wounds and those that are thorow the body, for sinues that are prickt, or any wound made with a venomed weapon….because I know in the world there is no better…’

As an astringent and anti-inflammatory it would indeed heal wounds, the painkilling actions probably relieved the patient too. Even nowadays it is used to control post-operative pain and to support rapid healing and recuperation.

In rural medicine it was associated with coughs and colds; indeed a tincture made from the plant is an excellent expectorant helping with a range of coughs and bronchial conditions. In cottage industries the flowers were mixed with alum to dye wool for weaving. Depending on the amount of alum used the blooms were able to create various shades between grey green and vibrant yellow.

In addition to its dying capabilities it was used in traditional country cures. These included a flower tea said to remedy anaemia, uterine cramping and menstrual problems. Today herbalists employ the herb to relieve some symptoms of the menopause such as hot flushes and perspiration and in combination with sage, St Johns wort is also used to treat fibroids and endometriosis. 

It is obvious why St Johns wort has been medicinally respected for so long, as other old remedies have been forgotten this herb has only grown in reputation. It is worth noting that part of its longevity is due to its potency, a strength which can adulterate modern pharmaceuticals and if misused can cause serious side effects. I am the first to have a go at using herbs to make home remedies but St Johns wort is probably best left to the professionals.

Happy Reading
Claire Fleetneedle 

Cautions: 
St Johns wort can adversely interact or reduce the effectiveness of many pharmaceutical drugs, it  should therefore only be administered by a qualified herbalist or health professional
St Johns wort can create various side effects such as nausea and dizziness 
St Johns wort can also cause sunlight sensitivity while the patient is taking the treatment
St Johns wort should be avoided by pregnant or breastfeeding women
St Johns wort reduces the effectiveness of oral birth control
This is information I have researched over a number of years and is shared with the reader for interest only. I am not encouraging people to self-medicate, in the treatment of specific conditions it is always best to consult a herbalist or your GP. 

LIFE ON PIG ROW DISCLAIMER: We’d like to thank Claire for this wonderful piece, as she points out, this is her personal experience and common sense must prevail in homemade herbal remedies. Therefore, if you are out and about foraging and aren’t confident that what you are about to pick is edible or medicinal the best advice is to leave it where it is. In the event of an adverse reaction to any homemade herbal remedy or foraged edible food you are advised to seek out medical advice. While every care is taken in the production of these posts neither Claire Fleetneedle nor Life on Pig Row are responsible for adverse reactions. Please remember to check local by-laws before foraging and never forage on private land without permission. Please use common sense when foraging.

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