It is amazing how many useful herbs can be found growing wild in our own backyards and in nearby fields and roadsides. I have a few young St. John's Wort plants in my garden, but was pleasantly surprised one day to find several plants blooming in a ditch at the edge of our property! Of course, this sparked my interest and I set out to learn more about the history and uses of this plant.
There are actually over 490 species in the genus Hypericum , all of which go by the common name of St. John's Wort! Several of them are familiar garden plants, but the particular St. John's Wort I'm writing about is Hypericum perforatum, (also called Common or Perforated St. John's Wort), which is the plant that is used medicinally. It can be easily identified by the tiny oil glands, or perforations, on the leaves, which are visible when they are held up the the light.
Another way to be sure of its identity is to squeeze the flower buds between your fingers. Hypericum perforatum contains hypericin, which has been shown to have antibiotic and antiviral properties, and it will also stain your fingers red!
There are many legends and superstitions about this plant. The botanical name Hypericum is derived from the Greek and translates to "over an image" or "over an apparition", referring to the belief that it would drive away evil spirits. It was traditionally used to decorate religious icons on St. John's day (June 24th). Perforatum of course refers to the perforations on the leaves. According to one German legend, the plant was so hurtful to the devil that witches pricked the leaves with needles over and over again out of spite!
No one seems to be absolutely certain how it came to be associated with St. John the Baptist. It does tend to come into bloom, and was traditionally harvested on June 24th, which is the feast of his birth. Another theory is that it was associated with his martyrdom, because of the way the flowers seem to bleed when handled. It is also said that bright red spots appear on the leaves on August 29th, the anniversary of his beheading (I have seen these red spots in July, however). Nicholas Culpeper (1616-1654) had only this to say about it: "It may be, if you meet a Papist, he will tell you, especially if he be a lawyer, that St. John made it over to him by a letter of attorney"!
It has also been associated with Christ's death. One legend claims that it was growing at the foot of the cross and caught the precious Blood as it fell, so that none of it would be lost. The oil of St. John's Wort (I'll get to that in a moment!) was also called the Blood of Christ.
Many people think of St. John's Wort as a natural anti-depressant, but it has actually been used topically for centuries. This is one case where the Doctrine of Signatures could be considered correct! William Coles (1626-1662) writes: "The little holes where of the leaves of Saint John's wort are full, doe resemble all the pores of the skin and therefore it is profitable for all hurts and wounds that can happen thereunto".
Gerard gives a recipe for oil of St. John's Wort in his Herball, which is quite similar to how it is made today:
"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 oile of the colour of bloud, which is a most pretious remedie for deep wounds and those that are thorow the body, for the sinues that are prickt, or any wound made with a venomed weapon".
Nowadays, only the flowering tops, which contain the highest amount of hypericin, are used, and the oil only needs to be infused once. I thoroughly enjoyed making this oil! It was fascinating to watch as the yellow flowers turned the olive oil a dark, blood-red!
First, I harvested the flowering tops. The more buds you use the better, but these plants had already been flowering for awhile before I found them, so I used quite a few fully opened flowers in mine. Let them wilt in a warm, dry place for several hours to get rid of excess moisture and allow any bugs hiding in the blossoms to escape.
Then put them into a glass jar and cover with olive oil. Put the lid on and set the jar in a sunny place, preferably outside. While most infused oils can be made using either the dark pantry or solar infusion method, St. John's Wort needs to be solar infused.
I made two small batches of the oil which I started a few days apart. The first batch was picked in the morning, so it was ready to start infusing by mid-afternoon. It was a hot, sunny day, and I set the jar in my herb garden. A few hours later, I could hardly believe what was already happening!
All the little black stripes on the flowers had turned bright red and the oil had already taken on a reddish tinge as well!
The second batch was picked in the afternoon and therefore didn't start infusing until evening. The next few days were cloudy too, and this oil didn't even start to turn red until the sun came out again!
Check the oil every day or two and wipe away any condensation that builds up at the top of the jar. The oil should be allowed to steep for at least 3 weeks. By the end of this time, you should have a beautiful, thick, blood-red oil!
Now it's time to strain it. I poured mine through about 4 layers of cheesecloth...
Be sure to squeeze out the flowers too--you'll be amazed at how much oil will come off of them!
Here's what the finished oil looks like. Isn't it beautiful?!
The oil should be stored in a cool place out of direct light. A dark glass container is ideal as well. I just happened to have a few dark bottles around from herbal extracts we've bought in the past, so that worked out perfectly!
You can use your oil as is for stiff, sore muscles, nerve pain, burns, cuts, and even as a mild sunscreen (if you want to learn more, I found this article to be helpful). Or you can make it into a salve. I had about 3/4 cup of oil left over after filling that bottle, so I decided to try it. I didn't follow a recipe, so it's hard for me to give exact measurements. I just put in what I thought would be enough beeswax for the amount of oil (and I would suggest that you cut the beeswax into smaller pieces than I did...it took forever to melt!). You can add a few drops of Vitamin E oil as well (it acts as a preservative). I didn't need to add any essential oils for this one because St. John's Wort smells much better than the Comfrey oil did! Heat the oil over very low heat until the beeswax is melted. You can then do the "spoon test". Put a small amount of the hot salve onto a spoon and place it in the freezer for a couple of minutes. If it hardens to the right consistency for a salve, it is done. If not, add more beeswax and try again!
Pour the hot oil into jars and allow to cool completely before putting the lid on.
Store your salve in a cool, dark place. Enjoy!
* Special thanks to Auggie, for waiting so patiently while "grandma" was busy writing this!
Here he is enjoying the fan while I was uploading the pictures for this post! :D
I am a passionate gardener and seed-saver, who also enjoys playing the violin and accordion, running, spending time with my 4 golden retrievers, keeping chickens, photography, and reading.