Inspired by the extensive herb grounds of the Chelsea Physic Garden in London, herbalist Deni Bown has cataloged 150 essential herbs for modern living. Herbal (Pavilion Books Ltd., 2001) is an excellent source book for experts and novices alike. With Bown’s expertise and anecdotes, the story of each herb unfolds and is heavily illustrated with personal photographs and botanical name plates. The following excerpt looks closely at the medicinal benefits of St. John’s wort.
Herb Profile: St. John’s Wort
A hardy rhizomatous perennial, reaching 30cm–1m (1–3ft) high, with blunt, narrowly oval leaves and bright yellow, five-petalled, gland-dotted flowers, 2cm (1⁄2in) across, in summer. St. John’s wort grows wild in woods and hedgerows in Europe and temperate parts of Asia. It is naturalized in many other countries, notably in North America where by 1830 it had become a serious weed, and where eradication programmes are carried out to protect livestock from phototoxicity (sensitivity to sunlight) caused by eating the plant.
St. John’s wort has been known throughout history as a vulnerary (wound healer) and was in its heyday on the battlefields of the Crusaders. It was also credited with keeping evil away, for which purpose it was hung above doors on the Eve of St. John’s Day (24 June), when witches were thought to be most active. Its mystique was confirmed by the way the juice of the plant turns red on exposure to air — a phenomenon thought to symbolize the blood of St. John the Baptist.
Healing Benefits of St. John’s Wort
Though St. John’s wort is best known today as an anti-depressant and sedative — ‘nature’s Prozac’ — it is historically more important as a healing herb. Traditionally the plant was cut as it came into flower, chopped and packed into jars of vegetable oil which in due course it turned red. The oil was used as a dressing for burns, bruises, injuries, sprains, tennis elbow, sciatica and following surgery. It is particularly effective for deep wounds, injuries caused by crushing, or any other kind of trauma or condition associated with nerve damage. As an anti-depressant, St. John’s wort can be taken in the form of a tea, tablets or tincture to relieve anxiety, nervous tension, menopausal syndrome, bedwetting in children and shingles, as well as mild clinical depression. It is not given to patients suffering from severe depression, or to patients who are already taking certain kinds of medication. High doses of St. John’s wort may cause photosensitivity, especially in fair-skinned people.
Notes for Gardeners
St. John’s wort is easy to grow in well-drained to dry soil, including clay, in sun or partial shade. It is an obvious candidate for the woodland garden or hedgerow, and is equally at home in a perennial wildflower meadow. Start it from seed in autumn or spring, or propagate plants by division when dormant or as new growth begins in the spring. Where conditions suit it, St. John’s wort usually self-sows and forms handsome colonies.