From Greek and Roman mythology to German Rosicrucians, St. John's Wort (Hypericum perforatum) was believed to be a sacred herb of the sun. Its botanical name, Hypericum, comes from the Greek god Hyperion, father of the sun god Helios. In Rome, Hypericumwas burned at the Festival of Fires, the summer solstice ritual. On Midsummer Eve, Romans danced and sang around bonfires, offering St. John's Wort garlands to the flames and bidding Helios to continue blessing the earth with sunlight. In colonial America, Rosicrucians fleeing persecution continued this ceremony. The Pennsylvania Dutch also believed in the herb's power to "discipline the Devil on Midsummer's Eve" (Haughton, 351).
As the Christian Church became interested in controlling pagan rituals, summer solstice was deemed St. John the Baptist's birthday. Thus, the Feast of Fires became St. John's Feast, and Hypericum adopted St. John's name as well.
It is no wonder that St. John's Wort has been associated with the sun. Its bright yellow flowers bloom in early summer, and the plant prefers full sun exposure. When Hypericumleaves and flowers are held up to the light, one can see small translucent circles that look like small suns. When one has found the Hypericum species most commonly used for medicine-- Hypericum perforatum-- some of these tiny circles are filled with a dark red medicinal oil. (Observe the tiny dots on the petals above). When a leaf or flower is crushed and rolled between the fingers, red or purple oil streaks are left on the skin. Check out this site for more info about identifying St. John's Wort.
Hypericum perforatum is a common wild plant in New York State. As an abundant non-native species, my conscience feels at ease about harvesting-- especially since removing leaves and flowers does not kill the plant.
While St. John's Wort's uses are numerous, the herb is most popularly used internally as an antidepressant. In Germany, St. John's Wort is prescribed twenty times more frequently than pharmaceuticals for depression. This is due to its effectiveness and relatively fewer side effects (Duke and Foster). It is a gentle sedative and antispasmodic, helping some to ease insomnia and anxiety.
St. John's Wort has notable pain-relieving and healing properties, particularly for the nervous system. It is used to support neuralgia, sciatica, and healing after nerve damage. Externally, the leaves and flowers are infused into oil for healing wounds, bruises, and burns-- even sunburn. Interestingly, St. John's Wort may also cause sun sensitivity in some. This photosensitizing property has been used in cancer treatment: cancer cells are exposed to hypericin oil, and then exposed to sunlight to induce cancer cell death.
Finally, St. John's Wort has been studied extensively for its antiviral properties. In vitro, St. John's Wort's constituents have shown antiviral activity against strains of the flu, Herpes simplex 1 and 2, and many more. It is used internally and topically during Herpes outbreaks, including cold sores.
Though some companies extract and sell one St. John's Wort constituent-- hypericin oil-- studies indicate that other chemicals in the herb are also medicinal. This is one of many examples of what we lose when we isolate one plant constituent for simplicity and ease, rather than working with plants in their whole form.
St. John's Wort may be herbal medicine's biggest culprit for herb-drug and herb-herb interactions. Its effect on the liver may change the rate of drug metabolism, among other effects. Medscape is one online source offering a list of drug interactions. I recommend consulting a practitioner before combining St. John's Wort with pharmaceuticals or other herbs. Most US doctors do not learn about medicinal plants in their training. An herbalist can provide more detailed information to share with your doctor about St. John's Wort.
Bone, Kerry and Simon Mills. Principles and Practice of Phytotherapy. 2nd edition. 2013.
Duke, James and Steven Foster. Peterson's Field Guide to Medicinal Plants. 2014.
Haughton, Claire Shaver. Green Immigrants. 1978.
Hoffman, David. Medical Herbalism. 2003.
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