Foraging – St. John’s Wort

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You’ve probably heard of St. John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum) as it is one of the more famous medicinal herbs. It is wholly deserving of its fame as it has been used medicinally for thousands of years all over the world. Bartram’s Encyclopedia of Herbal Medicine lists the names of herbal plants in other languages to assist with identification and few others in the book are known in so many different languages; German: Tupfelharthen. French: Mille pertuis. Spanish: Hierba de San Juan. Italian: Perforata. Iranian: Dadi. Arabian: Hynfarikun. Chinese: Chin-ssú-t’sao.

St. John’s Day is June 24th which is when the plants are in full bloom, but they usually continue until late July.

What does St. John’s Wort do?

It can have a profound effect on our nervous system, healing damaged nerves, speeding healing and reducing inflammation when applied externally, and healing our overall nervous system (easing physical pain, neuralgia, emotional pain, anxiety and mild depression). Its primary volatile oils are hypericins and their action on our nervous system and our brains is not fully understood.

In England it cured mania, in Russia it gave protection against hydrophobia and Brazilians knew it as an antidote to snake bite. ~ Jekka McVicar

Where does St. John’s Wort grow?

St. John’s Wort grows all over our fair city of Vancouver BC and can be found popping up in all sorts of random places. It can be found all along False Creek and in large quantity at the north-east corner along the water. It will turn up along sunny streets and in patches of disturbed ground that is left to its own devices. Some of the best medicinal plants pop up in patches that are ignored and can create wildly beautiful and useful gardens. I adore those patches!

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How do I identify St. John’s Wort?

They have a pretty unique look, although maybe it seems that way to me since I’m familiar with it. A few tricks for identifying it are to hold a leaf up to the sun and you’ll see the tiny pin pricks in the leaves. This explains the “perforatum” part of its Latin name! This is a unique feature and if you look at other plants you won’t find it. Another identification trick is to pick a flower bud and squeeze it between your fingers: the red hypericin oil will come out!

What can I do with St. John’s Wort?

My favourite thing to do with St. John’s Wort is to pop the flower buds in a jar and cover them with some vodka. I actually use a 75.5% alcohol version of Everclear just to really suck out all of the good stuff, but it’s not necessary to use such a powerful solvent. Regular 40% ABV vodka is just fine, which is good since you can’t buy Everclear in BC, only in WA and AB.

Leave the buds in the alcohol for 2 – 3 weeks and shake the jar once a day to make sure any exposed plant material stays soaked in alcohol. Store in a dark glass tincture bottle and use a dropper to administer.

This homemade tincture can be used internally in small doses. It will not be as concentrated as a professionally made tincture, but it is still best to use caution – not everyone likes its effect. As per herbalist David  Hoffmann, the standard dosage for St. John’s Wort tincture is 1-4ml three times a day. Add to hot water and allow to sit for 5 minutes if you want some of the alcohol to dissipate.

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St. John’s Wort in vodka

St. John’s Wort can be steeped into oils for a skin healing salve which can ease neuralgia and the pain of sciatica wounds, varicose veins, ulcers and sunburn when applied externally.

It can also simply be dried to use as tea or as a form of preservation. You can always use dried plants to make a tincture or a salve, so it’s a good way to preserve a plant when you can’t decide how you want to use it.

How should I harvest St. John’s Wort?

The entire plant can be used medicinally, but I just pick the buds and leave the plants to finish their life-cycle. The buds are highest in the desirable constituents, evidenced by the amount of red oil that comes out when you squeeze one between your fingers.

Is St. John’s Wort safe?

St. John’s Wort can interact with some prescription medications, so check with your doctor or pharmacist before adding it to the mix.

It is generally recommended that you talk to an herbalist before taking St. John’s Wort internally. However, I personally feel that if you gather your own flower buds and make a homemade tincture you should try it out, but follow the dosage guidelines and pay attention to your body’s response. Some people actually find it makes them feel more anxious which is interesting since Valerian, another sedating herb, has that same odd effect on some people.

It is not recommended in cases of marked depression. Many calming or sedating herbs can further dampen the energy of such an individual and yet be very effective for those with mild depression and nervous tension or anxiety.

I have read in several places online that St. John’s Wort can make people more sensitive to sunlight. The only study I could find to back this up appears to be the original source of the warning from 2003. It reports that hypericin can make our eyes vulnerable to UV damage, if the hypericin somehow gets into our eyes, but how that sometimes happens and why is not clear. What I’ve taken away from this is that if you are taking St. John’s Wort regularly, you should avoid exposing your eyes to direct sunlight, light therapy lamps or tanning beds without proper sunglasses, but that’s prudent advice anyway.

It lifts the spirits and puts a little sunshine into the day. ~ Rosemary Gladstar

However you get your sunshine, enjoy it and be well!