This will probably show my age, but in the 90’s I was in High School and the new rage in herbal fads was St John’s Wort. It was the “new” thing to put in drinks and the like, sort of like açai berries, and goji now. Times change but the world always stays the same!
Even though it was a fad, it was with good reason it is more than just the “anti-depression” drug it has been advertised to be. St John’s Wort, or Hypericum, has many uses and many useful species, and is a really useful herb to have handy for all sorts of situations. It is a native to Europe but quickly has spread globally following trade and later colonialism until it was almost universally known.
It’s Latin name of the species we have the most interest in is Hypericum perforatum, comes from its believed ability to banish spirits, in Greek hyper means above, or over, and eikon means image, effigy, apparition. It was used as a charm against evil spirits as it’s first recorded use. Eikon is the root of the word icon, and has all of the spiritual meaning you would expect. It was thought that suspending the herb over an image of a saint, or icon, it would ward off everything from evil spirits, to lightening strikes. It’s scent was thought to be so vile smelling to evil spirits they simply couldn’t stand to be around it.
“Trefoil, vervain, John’s Wort, dill,
Hinders witches of their will.” ~ “The Nativity Chant”, Sir Walter Scott
It’s species name, perforatum, derives from the small window-like holes in the leaves of the plant. Some of the chemicals in St John’s Wort are toxic to cows and sheep, and can be considered a pest species in some ranching areas. It is a small plant that tends to inhabit meadows, and its bright sunny flowers were possibly associated with sun worship in the past in the places it grew.
It is colloquially known as Klamath weed in California and Oregon from its prevalence there, sometimes goatweed, chase-devil (again for warding off evil), Tipton’s weed and rosin rose. It was widely used in antiquity documented in classical medical texts, medical texts from the middle ages, and even some scant documentation on its use by Native Americans though the uses may be lost to time.
It’s present name, St John’s Wort comes from a lot of possible origins, possibly from the practice of hanging the herb above the picture of St John, or that the flower tends to bloom on the day of the feast of St John, June 24th (which is also said to be the birthday of the saint as well). There is also legend that St Columba carried a sprig of the herb, the red spots that appear on the plant were symbolically said to show the blood of St John on August 19th the date of the Saint’s beheading in some Christian traditions.
There is also folk magic that said if you step on a St. John’s Wort plant you will be stolen by a fairy horse, and by fairy I mean The Little People of folklore. And was a charm to ward off most evil intent as evidenced in the old English rhyme –
“St. John’s wort doth charm all the witches away.
If gathered at midnight on the saint’s holy day.
And devils and witches have no power to harm
Those that do gather the plant for a charm:
Rub the lintels and post with that red juicy flower
No thunder nor tempest will then have the power
To hurt or to hinder your houses: and bind
Round your neck a charm of a similar kind.”
It also kept you from being “fairy-led,” like following a will-o’-the-whisp, or being confused and unable to find your way home in an “enchanted” forest. Another folk magic use for St John’s Wort was divination, hanging a sprig over the bed, or just one sprig for each member of the house, and waiting over night would tell by how wilted the herb was how soon, or whom next, would die. Or a sprig under your pillow would bring a dream vision of St John who you could request a promise from him that you would live another year. If he doesn’t show, it would not be the time to make long term investments. Usually these rituals are tied to mid-year solstice festivals, that were then adopted into local Christian traditions as the areas converted, but retained their association with life and the sun since St John is often represented as or associated with light.
This plant was well valued and its usefulness is what drove its expansion and was often used to treat burn and skin issues like sunburns, small abrasions and burns. Dioscorides used many species of Hypericum to treat burns, chest complaints and when mixed with honey great for sciatica pain and neuralgia. It was name dropped by all the famous medical writers of classical history – Pliny, Hippocrates, Galen, and even Theophrastus. And they unanimously recommend this herb for mostly the same uses, healing wounds, burns, nerve pain and of course warding off demons.
Later, Middle Ages up to Renaissance herbalists frequently mentioned this herb, Gerard uses it in wound ointments saying St John’s Wort was a –
“most precious remedy for deepe wounds…there is not a better natural balsam…to cure any such wound.”
But it was also widely used for neurological complaints, sciatica pain was well documented in most historical medical texts, and one of the most common remedies was to use St. John’s Wort. Neurological pain and other disorders related to the brain and nervous system were often treated with this herb since it seemed to sooth the illnesses that were mysterious at the time. Culpeper, the infamous renegade doctor of Tudor England, used St. John’s Wort for all the normal uses of healing burns, wounds and other common injuries but also for
Then in the 19th and 20th century it mostly fell out of fashion, but even with it’s lack of attention in the later part of the 19th century, it is mentioned as being used to treat spinal irritation, shocks, concussions, wounds and hysteria. Then there was a huge return to popularity for fighting depression, naturally, in the 1990’s a great era of filling all ages full of psychological drugs that we still have no idea what those drugs really do (even though they are still prescribed). St John’s Wort has been shown to alleviate some symptoms of mild depression, which everybody gets a little down sometimes. But that does not mean it is a good option for self medicating for chronic depression. It can help lift the spirits if you are feeling a bit bummed out, but if you are having symptoms of depression frequently, you should consult a physician or trained professional and discuss the options available for you (I don’t think medication is always the answer for depression, cognitive therapy, diet, and other non-prescription therapies should be attempted first, I speak from experience not as a medical professional /rant).
Overwhelmingly though, in history, is the use of St John’s Wort for neurological pain, and that is really what it does best. Of course it is good for burns, and minor wounds since it has a mild antiseptic quality and is great for the skin, which means it is a great addition to skin creams and soaps. But it is also a mild sedative, analgesic and anti-inflammatory that make it a fantastic fighter of nerve pain, muscle pain and inflammation, and helps bring relaxing sleep. It can be taken daily, like with chamomile, ginger, turmeric, Holy Basil (Tulsi) and lavender, to help reduce inflammation and help with nerve pain. Or at night with Tulsi, chamomile and lavender to help bring on restful sleep, relax spasmed muscles, or just relax nerves raw with stress or anxiety. This is a very easy herb to grow, in fact it can quickly become a pest (like that wily lemon balm) so I highly suggest you plant this in a container, to contain its wanderings.
It contains chemically a lot of stuff we have mentioned before, the usual volatile oils for pain, mild sedation, and antibiotic properties – α & β pinene, myrcene, limonene, caryophyllene etc. Flavinoids are present the most important is rutin, like in rue. Then there is a new set of chemicals we haven’t discussed, anthraquinones, like hypericin. Hypericin is a possible antibiotic as well as antiviral (which is why it has also drawn the interest of researchers for the Herpes spectrum of viruses), and it is the chemical in St John’s Wort that may be causing the increase in dopamine, this is that “reward” or “feel good” chemical everyone seems to talk about these days, which can improve moods significantly. Dopamine may also be the key to reducing pain chemically, since some pain conditions cause reduced dopamine levels. St John’s Wort’s is packed with all sorts of other chemicals and vitamins, and as I said before is just an all round useful plant for more than I have gone over.
The oil in the flowers and leaves add to the plant’s mythos that it is related to the beheaded saint since it is dark red. It is that oil that is packed with the above chemicals, and what you would want to use from the plant so leaves and flowers (preferably just bloomed) are what you would want to collect if you grow this plant at home. If you are buying pre-made versions of dried St John’s it tends to be just leaves, but some pre-made preparations will include flowers and are not as effective since the dried version is less potent as the oils are lost in the drying process. All of the below recipes use fresh St John’s Wort, or the essential oils.
St John’s Wort Relax & De-Stress Tea
- 2-3 teaspoons St John’s Wort
- 8 ounces Boiling water
- Honey to sweeten
Pour boiling water over fresh herb (or over dried herb in tea bag if pre-made) and let steep for 4-8 minutes in a covered teacup (or teapot). Allow to cool and I advise adding honey to improve the taste as this can be bitter. This is a great daily drink if you suffer from Fibromyalgia, since it is something you can safely take almost every day for nerve pain.
ProTip: You can add turmeric and a pinch of pepper to help with inflammation and pain. Or you can add Tulsi or lemon balm, to reduce anxiety, you could add lavender or hops (with LOTS of honey) for relaxing spasms and sleep, or chamomile for sleep and relaxing painful muscles as well. For migraines combine it with passion flower, or skullcap for relief and reducing of the inevitable anxiety they cause. You could even add St John’s Wort to the prevention tea too.
St John’s Wort Compress – for Nerve & Muscle Pain
- 1-2 tablespoons St John’s Wort (or 2 large pinches)
- 16 ounces Boiling water
- towel or rag
Throw the herbs in a bowl and cover with boiling water, cover with towel, plate or pot lid while steeping. Soak towel or rag in liquid once it is cool enough to have on the skin, wring until damp and apply to painful area. This is a great remedy for nerve pains, achy muscles, and spasms. It is a great compress for the head during a migraine as well, since it can help ease the pain and applies lovely soothing heat during an attack.
ProBathTip: You can also just chuck all of the liquid in your bath and have a nice soak, though the oil can stain so you may want avoid using white towels unless you want them to look like they were previously used to clean up a murder scene.
ProOilTip: If you don’t have fresh St John’s Wort, this can be made just as easily from essential oils, a drop or two in water that is warm but not scalding and applied to the painful area will work just as well.
St John’s Wort Bath
- 5 cups (40 oz) Epsom Salts
- 5-15 drops St John’s Wort Essential Oils
Mix well and store in a water proof container, add about a cup of mixture to a hot bath and soak in delicious muscle relaxing bliss. This is a great soak for nerve pain, muscle pains, and helps with migraines from muscle tension or spasms.
St John’s Wort Honey (or Oil)
- 1 part St John’s Wort, fresh rough chopped (flowers and leaves preferred, 2 parts if you use oil)
- 3 parts Honey (or a good quality oil)
- Large mason jar with lid
- Sunny windowsill (oil only)
Add 1 part of the well cleaned fresh St John’s Wort to the jar, cover with 3 parts honey (or oil), seal tightly and place in an undisturbed location for a week or two. If you are using oil, place on a sunny windowsill and wait two weeks, shaking every so often, then strain and add the second part of fresh, roughly chopped St John’s Wort. Re-seal and wait another two weeks. Strain again and store in a cool place, it should be a beautiful red color, almost scarlet, when done. This is a great oil to massage into aches and pains that you get from day to day life, muscle spasms, areas of nerve pain, sun burns, wound care, pretty much if it needs healing St John’s Wort will do the trick. It is even safe for pets and is a good addition to their wash or spray on treatments.
ProTip: You can make this into a tincture by just switching the honey or oil to alcohol (vodka, grain alcohol), and you need just enough to cover the herbs. The tincture dose would be a about 1/2 a teaspoon twice a day dissolved in honey, tea, water or under the tongue. You could go as high as 3/4 of a teaspoon 3 times a day
St John’s Wort Salve
- 1/3 c Oil (Sunflower, Almond, Apricot, any good quality oil)
- 1/3 oz Beeswax, granulated or grated
- 15-30 drops of St John’s Wort Oil
- optional: 2 ounces Raw honey
In a double boiler heat oil, add beeswax slowly stirring to combine fully. Remove from heat and stir in the St John’s Wort oil from the recipe I listed above, or St John’s Wort essential oils (if you do use less 10-15 drops) and the raw honey if you are using it. You can always cool a small piece and make sure it is the right consistency, and add more beeswax or honey/oil to thicken or loosen it respectively. Pour into small seal-able containers and allow to cool. This is a great on the go solution for nerve pain, or really any pains. Massage it right into the painful area, or if you have wounds or burns you can massage it into them as well. You can also combine other herbs we mentioned previously in this article for other properties as well.
You can buy all sorts of store bought preparations, if you do so make sure you follow the doses provided on the box/bottle. Also if you are taking St John’s Wort daily for mood elevation, you would want to “ween” off of it, as after regular use of any herbal (or otherwise) products can lead to physical addiction to the chemicals. Weening off any drug you use for an extended period of time is needed, that is why you can’t quit coffee cold turkey, caffeine is a drug. A delicious coffee flavored drug, mmmm coffee.
Remember to treat this herb with respect, it is “mostly harmless” but just like water becomes poison when you have had too much, too much of anything is bad. Make sure to check for any interactions with present medications, since St John’s Wort can affect a lot of medications so check it out and make sure. Places like WebMD are always a good place to start, but if you have any questions or have any doubt about anything in the slightest, ask a professional!