Herb Profile: St John’s Wort

P1000692Family: Hypericaceae 

Common Names: St. John’s Wort, Tipton’s weed, Rosin rose, Goatweed, Chase-Devil, Klamath Weed

Identification: A herbaceous perennial (i.e. lives for a number of years, but dies back over winter), which grows freely in uncultivated ground, woods, hedges, roadsides and meadows. Leaves are pale green, oblong, and have oil glands which can be seen by holding the leaf up the light – appear as dots or ‘perforations’, hence the latin name. Flowers are bright yellow, & appear from June to August.

Growing: St John’s Wort is a perennial, clump forming herb which is easy to grow. It prefers a moist soil, but can thrive on most soils. Seeds usually germinate in 1-3 months, and it can be planted out to its final position in summer. Divide clumps in the winter.

Parts Used: Herb tops & flowers

Medicinal Actions & Uses: Analgesic, Antidepressant, Antiseptic, Antispasmodic, Aromatic, Astringent, Cholagogue, Digestive, Nervine, Sedative, Vulnerary 

  • St John’s Wort is best known as an extremely useful remedy for nervous problems, including anxiety, depression, and for relieving pain which is particularly associated with the nervous system e.g. sharp, shooting pains, and spasms
  • Matthew Wood describes it as a ‘sweet, oily tonic’ which improves digestion and metabolism, and helps the liver process complex toxins (including pharmaceutical drugs) – see contraindications below for more information
  • It is a traditional remedy for calming menopausal symptoms and hot flushes, and relieving painful menstruation
  • It is also a fantastic wound healing herb, especially useful when there is an injury to body parts rich in nerves, or deep wounds.

History and Folklore: The therapeutic value of St John’s Wort has been documented in official medicine since the time of the Greek physician Hippocrates in the 5th Century.

It has always been associated with the power of “good,” and was used to celebrate midsummer and the solstice. In Aberdeenshire it was said that placing a sprig of St John’s Wort under your pillow on St John’s eve would ensure life for another year.

St John’s Wort and Wood Betony were known as the two most important plants for psychiatric problems in the Middle Ages, which were then called the ill effects of witchcraft and demons.

For its main reputation in folk medicine for lifting the spirits, it is referred to as the ‘sunshine herb’.

“So then about her brow

They bound Hypericum, whose potent leaves

Have sovereign power o’er all the sullen fits

And cheerless fancies that besiege the mind;
Banishing ever, to their native night,

Dark thoughts, and causing to spring up within

The heart distress’d a glow of gladdening hope,

And rainbow visions of kind destiny.”

Alfred Lear Huxford, from Wild Flowers, 1898

In official Physick medicine, its chief usage was as a wound-healer.

Active Constituents: Essential oils, tannins, flavonoids, Hypericin, Red diathrones, pseudohypericin, Resins, Pectin, Carotenoids, Xanthones

Modern scientific research:  St John’s Wort is frequently prescribed for depression in Germany, with approximately 130 million preparations containing it prescribed in 1999.

Trials done by the American National Institute of Health’s National Centre for Complementary and Alternative Medicine showed St John’s Wort to be as effective as selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors (SSRIS)

Contra-indications:

It is not advised to take this herb during pregnancy. St John’s Wort may either counteract, or exacerbate the effects of other drugs (due to its action on metabolising toxins in the liver), and so it is not advised to combine it with other prescribed medication, particularly anti-depressants, the contraceptive pill, Warfarin, Theophylline, epilepsy medication, HIV medication.

If in any doubt, check with your medical herbalist

References: 

Mrs Grieve’s Modern Herbal online www.botanical.com

Wood, Matthew (2008) The Earthwise Herbal: A complete guide to old world medicinal plants, Berkley, California: North Atlantic Books

Plants for a Future www.pfaf.org

Hatfield, Gabrielle (2007) Hatfield’s Herbal: The Secret History of British Plants, London: Allen Lane Publishers

American Botanical Council Monograph http://abc.herbalgram.org/site/DocServer/SJW.pdf?docID=168

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