In This Section
In A Nutshell – St John’s Wort – Hypericum perforatum
by Jill Rosemary Davies
Saint John’s Wort is often known as the 'miracle herb' because it can tackle so many different problems. It has been used for 4,000 years in traditional Chinese medicine and for over 2,000 years in European medicine. It is often prescribed in Europe and the USA as a natural antidepressant, in Russia for its antiviral and antibiotic properties and recent research has shown that it is effective in combating alcoholism. The therapeutic benefits of St John’s Wort are now internationally recognised for anyone suffering from a variety of deep-seated, chronic, and life-threatening conditions.
A familiar hedgerow plant with dainty golden yellow flowers that appear with the longest days of summer, St John's Wort has re-emerged over the last two decades as a useful herbal antidepressant.
Exploring St John’s Wort
A history of healing
Anatomy of St John’s Wort
St John's Wort in Action
Energy and emotion
Growing, harvesting, and processing
Preparations for internal use
herbal tea (Infusion)
Capsules & Tablets
Preparations for external use
Ointment and cream
Natural medicine for everyone
How St John’s Wort works
St John's Wort can usually be found growing wild in woods, hedgerows and meadows, as well as on mountainsides and roadsides.
Flowering between mid-June and late September, its bright and cheery 'summer solstice' flowers are small, numerous and clustered together on branching pale green stems, which give an uneven, staggered, umbrella effect.
The herb's delicate flowers have five petals with tiny, almost imperceptible black dots along their margins. These flowers measure approximately 2.5 cm (1 in) across and the cluster of stamens that protrudes from their centres gives them an altogether 'fairy-like' effect.
Botanical family: Hypericaceae (although formerly classed in the Clusiaceae or Guttiferae family).
Species: Hypericum perforatum is the main species used commercially for medicinal purposes.
The genus Hypericum contains approximately 400 different species of annuals, perennials, shrubs and small trees, ranging from very small perennials to trees of 3 m (10 ft) and includes varieties of St John's Wort as well as Hypericum androsaemum, another interesting member of the Hypericum genus. A native of both sides of the Mediterranean Sea and western Asia, Hypericum androsaemum grows profusely in Australia and New Zealand where it is considered to be a weed. It is commonly known as tutsan, a corruption of tout-sain (meaning 'all health'), which refers to the medicinal uses of the plant.
During September and until early October, the flowers produce tiny blackish seeds. The plant dies down in early winter, after the first frosts, and reappears in the spring, shooting up stalk-less, short, pale green leaves (with a hint of blue) that grow in pairs opposite each other. Mature plants form branching erect stems when fully grown, reaching 0.3–1 m (1–3 ft) in uncultivated soils.
One of the unique features of Hypericum perforatum is its leaves which, when held to the light, show tiny translucent dots on their underside: these are the glands that contain the plant's essential oil. The other varieties have oil glands, but rather than being translucent they are the colour of rust and look like spots.
The buds and flowers contain the chief active healing ingredient of St John's Wort. If you rub the buds and flowers between your fingers, a deep, wine-red pigment will be released. It is this secretion that contains the active chemical constituent called hypericin.
Exploring St John's Wort
Found throughout the world in a wide range of habitats, St John's Wort appears to thrive in fertile, well-drained soil, with plentiful water in late spring and early summer.
Where to find St John's Wort
The plant is native to all parts of Britain and the majority of mainland Europe, western Asia and North Africa, growing prolifically in these areas. St John's Wort has been introduced to other countries over the last 200 years and now grows wild in parts of the United States, notably in the temperate western regions from the Pacific Northwest to Northern California, and in central Nevada. It is also to be found in Australia and Canada, the latter mainly in Quebec and Ontario.
Commercial growers and collection
The main areas where St John's Wort is cultivated commercially are the north-western states and especially the prairie states of the USA. It is also farmed in Canada, Australia and Germany. It is also collected from the wild in Eastern Europe under strict codes of certified wild collection. Most of this wild-collected St John’s Wort is bought up by German companies and then sold on.
St John's Wort is a hardy plant able to proliferate at speed in the right conditions. In the United States and Australia, where it is not native, it is now subject to statutory weed control and is considered an invasive species by those who don't use it medicinally. St John's Wort prefers well-drained to dry soil and is often found either where the soil has recently been disturbed or in chalky, sandy or very light soils. It performs best on neutral to acid soils, but doesn't do well on alkaline types. However, it can thrive in sun or partial shade.
Because it grows well on non-alkaline soils, St John's Wort is easy to cultivate commercially. This is mainly done in the dominant farming areas of the United States, where the wide-open, easily managed lands of the prairies (loam or gravel-based soils) need little or no fertilization, which makes organic status incredibly easy.
A Medieval saying:
St. John's Wort doth charm all witches away.
If gathered at midnight on the saint's holy day.
Any devil's and witches have no power to harm.
Those that gather the plant for a charm.
A History of Healing
St John's Wort has a 2,400-year history of recorded use, from ancient civilisations in Greece, through pagan Europe and the Middle Ages, to the modern day. After the 1930s it faded from popularity, but it is now recognised as one of the most effective of the healing herbs and is in the process of regaining its traditional status.
The name St John probably refers to St John the Baptist, whom tradition said was born on the summer solstice. It was claimed that the red spots visible on the underside of some of the herb's leaves symbolised the blood of St John, who was beheaded by Herod.
However, the blood-red colour also symbolised healing. Traditionally the flowers were put under the pillow on St John's Eve, in the belief that the saint would appear in a dream to give his blessing and ensure that the sleeper would not die during the following 12 months – a significant 'safeguard' during days when life was cheap and plague epidemics were rife.
The plant can be traced back still further. Because its first summer flowers appear near or even on the summer solstice, it was always an icon of sun worshippers, used in solstice rituals by the Druids, the Celts and the Saxons; and for centuries the Romans burned it in bonfires as part of their celebration of Midsummer's Day.
The renowned Greek herbalists of the first century AD – Pliny, Discorides and Hippocrates – all used this herb. The ancient Greek scholar, Galen, described it as 'the antidote to intestinal worms'.
Names & folklore
The Greek herbalists’ varied use for St John’s Wort must in part have given rise to the Greek roots that are apparent in its Latin name Hypericum. Hypereikon is Greek for 'above' (hyper) and 'picture' (eikon) which, some authorities suggest, explains the prominent role it was given in decorating people’s homes during celebrations.
The Latin word perforatum literally describes the tiny oil gland perforations on the back of the leaf. Medieval tales embellish this description by adding that the leaves were put into the undergarments of virgins to protect their chastity. The marks on the leaves were said to have been made by the Devil as he tried to 'enter' the virgins.
Another ancient name for St John’s Wort was Fuga Daemonum, meaning 'Scare Devil', another indication that it was thought to drive out demons. It was also believed that if you stepped on the plant at twilight, you might be carried off on a magic horse and not be returned until daybreak.
Other common names for St John's Wort include Amber (no doubt from the colour of the oil) and, in the United States, Klamath weed, because it naturalised around the Klamath River in California. European settlers introduced St John's Wort to America in the late 18th century and its cultivation soon became widespread. Its importance in the New World is attested to by its appearance in King's American Dispensatory, an important work first published in 1898. Written by H. Felter and J. Lloyd, this volume became a classic of herbal medicine and is still consulted today. It lists many uses for St John's Wort ranging from colds to insanity, with an emphasis on how the herb specialises in curing nervous and respiratory illnesses.
From the early 1900s, St John's Wort has been used to help in the treatment of degenerative nerve conditions such as multiple sclerosis, while recent research has also suggested that the herb can help to combat alcoholism.
King’s American Dispensatory listed the following applications for St John’s Wort. Many of them have been confirmed since by modern herbalists and some (notably depression) have been proven by scientific research.
Anaemia, bedwetting, blood purifier, burns, congestion, colds, diarrhoea, digestive stimulant, dysentery, headaches, insomnia, jaundice, mania, hysteria and madness, nerve conditions (including depression, stress reactions, neuralgia and shingles), rheumatic aches and pains, syphilis, phlebitis, urinary problems (increases output and eases general bladder ailments), uterine cramping, worms, and wound healing.
Bruises, burns, scalds and blisters, mastitis, neuralgia and shingles, sensitive skin problems, sores (all types), ulcers, and wounds.
Anatomy of St John's Wort
Only the aerial parts of St John's Wort are used – the buds, flowers and leaves, along with the stalks attached to these parts. Unlike many herbs, the root is not used because it doesn't contain any detectable healing constituents.
Buds and flowers
The buds form a small and neat oval shape, with delicate green sepals like a candle holder. The star-shaped, golden yellow flowers cluster together like blossom on branched stems. They are about 2.5 cm (1 in) across and have tiny faint black margins along the petals. When you crush the flowers and buds, they leave a magnificent deep magenta stain.
Chemical constituents of buds and flowers
The two important healing substances hypericin and pseudohypericin are found mainly in the buds and flowers of the herb. These belong to a class of naturally occurring plant chemicals called naphthodianthrones (sometimes known as dianthrones).
Shelf life of buds and flowers
Dried buds and flowers last 6–9 months; fresh buds and flowers last 3 days for maximum potency.
Leaves and stems
The stems are rigid (two-sided) but otherwise smooth. They hold themselves erect and are increasingly branched towards the top of the plant. Each branch grows in a different direction (alternately) for maximum exposure to light. The pale green leaves are small, only 2.5 cm (1 in) in length and are oblong and smooth (they have no 'teeth'). They have tiny translucent gland sacs (perforations) on the underside of the leaves.
Chemical constituents of leaves and stems
Many flavonoids are found in the leaves and stems. These include quercetin, hyperoside, isoquercitrin, rutin, lurolin and amentoflavone – with the last of these being primarily responsible for St John's Wort's key antidepressant action.
There are other important chemicals that can be found throughout the aerial parts of the plant: these include phloroglucinols and their derivatives hyperforin and adhyperforin, which have major antibiotic properties. Essential oils are also present in the leaves and stems and their constituents include monoterpenes and sesquiterpenes, which are known to have sedative properties.
Shelf life of leaves and stems
Whole dried leaves and stems last 6–12 months; fresh leaves and stems last 3 days for maximum potency.
St John's blood
The faint black marks on the leaves of this herb were said to be a symbol of the beheading of Saint John the Baptist at the cruel insistence of Herod's daughter, Salome. If the blossoms are put in oil and left to infuse in the sun, the oil gradually becomes a rich red. Traditionally, this was known as St John's blood.
St John's Wort in Action
St John's Wort is known to treat a wide and varied range of disorders, utilising only the aerial parts of the plant for both internal and external use.
How St John's Wort can help
- Eases post-surgery swelling, bruises, sprains, muscle aches, toothache (including removal and abscesses), cuts, trapped nerves, neuralgia, sciatica and fibrositis.
- Helps in the treatment of many skin disorders including psoriasis, eczema and warts.
- Useful for kidney and bladder complaints including incontinence.
- Can help to treat a wide range of viral, bacterial and microbial invasions and many other disorders that are usually treated by antibiotics, especially stomach and gastrointestinal complaints. Can also be helpful for diarrhoea.
- St John's Wort is also effective against viral infections like herpes simplex and influenza.
- Soothes and heals inflamed tissue and reduces pain, thus making the herb effective in cases of rheumatism and arthritis and many other similar conditions. St John's Wort can appropriately be used internally or externally in order to ease the severity of these complaints.
- Aids the relief of lung problems such as congestion and chronic catarrh.
- Helpful during the menopause and for post-menopausal women.
- Can help to treat dysentery and parasitic worm infestations.
- Helps the liver to recover from jaundice, hepatitis, inflammation of the liver and other similar conditions, as well as gallbladder complaints and related digestive disorders.
- Treats a range of nerve- and brain-related disorders, from anxiety to sleep disorders such as insomnia, early morning waking and over-sleeping. Also eases some psychological disturbances, including depression, nervous excitement, some tension headaches, premenstrual syndrome, menopausal symptoms, impaired memory and dyslexia.
- The generalised topical healing abilities of St John's Wort make it ideal for chapped skin, insect bites, sunburn and shingles.(It was said that the Christian crusaders used the flowers and leaves of St John's Wort crushed into lard as poultices to heal their sword wounds.)
How St John's Wort affects the body
- Antidepressant (helps to change mood).
- Antioxidant (prevents free radicals from causing damage to cells).
- Antiviral (effective against disease-carrying viruses).
- Anti-inflammatory (reduces inflammation).
- Antimicrobial (disarms microbes such as bacteria and parasites).
- Analgesic (pain relief).
- Antispasmodic (relaxes muscular contractions).
- Aromatic (digestive).
- Astringent (tones and heals).
- Expectorant (provokes the release of mucus).
- Nervine (feeds and calms the nervous system).
- Hepatic (favourably influences the liver and gallbladder).
The nervous system is affected by St John’s Wort in many ways. One of these is to increase 'theta waves' in the brain during waking hours.
Theta waves usually occur only during sleep, deep meditation, moments of serene pleasure, and heightened creative activity.
The herb may also help to sharpen perception and clarify the thinking process, improving the speed and ability with which the brain processes information and memory retains it.
St John’s Wort also helps to combat depression, including Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). It is believed that the herb does this by increasing the amount of three particular chemicals (neurotransmitters) in the brain, which serve to pass on certain messages – these chemicals are serotonin, noradrenaline and dopamine. Serotonin is mood-enhancing – low levels are directly responsible for feelings of depression; noradrenaline is responsible for energy and alertness; and dopamine is a general 'feel good' brain chemical.
It was originally thought that St John’s Wort increased these key chemicals by inhibiting an enzyme called monoamine oxidase that breaks them down, but this now appears to be incorrect. Today’s research speculates that its effectiveness is based on a synergy of interactions, not yet fully understood, that prevents the nerve cells from reabsorbing these neurotransmitters – thus maintaining them at a higher level in the gaps between the cells.
This positive effect on mood has a subsequent positive impact on the hypothalamus, the region of the brain that controls some important body functions such as thirst, appetite, and body temperature. The hypothalamus is affected by thoughts and feelings, whether they are happy or sad. Mood also affects our immune system, and this may therefore be one of the ways in which St John’s Wort helps to balance the activity of the immune system, preventing it from sending out destructive messages to the cells. The herb can also benefit immunity in a more direct way, as it has displayed a wide range of antimicrobial capabilities in fighting many bacteria such as Mycobacterium tuberculosis, Shigella, and E.coli, plus other strains of bacteria that are highly resistant to antibiotics, such as Staphylococcus aureus, Enteroccus and Pseudomonas aeruginosa. Antibiotic compounds in the herb – hyperforin and novoimanine – kill the bacteria, and stimulate the immune system. In effect it may well work as a systemic antibiotic, without many of the negative effects of pharmaceutical antibiotics. St John’s Wort can also have anti-inflammatory benefits, stemming from its ability to balance the activity of the immune system.
In Germany more than 50 per cent of cases of depression, anxiety and sleep disorders are now treated with St John’s Wort; in sharp comparison, Prozac is used to treat just 2 per cent of such cases in the country.
In August 1996, the British Medical Journal published the results of a trial by Klaus Linde and his associates of 23 controlled studies involving 1,757 depressed patients. In the analysis, researchers from both the US and Germany found that St John’s Wort worked nearly three times better than a placebo.
Currently St John’s Wort is undergoing trials in the US to explore whether it is effective as an antiviral agent.
Case study: depression
John had suffered from depression since childhood. It worsened during puberty but stabilised in adulthood. He was shy, introverted, and uncommunicative, even with his close family. John heard about St John’s Wort’s antidepressant qualities and, having long before given up on antidepressant drugs, he consulted a herbalist. He began with 1 tsp (5 ml) of tincture three times daily – and on the third day phoned the clinic to say he felt like a different person. For the first time he could remember, he was having warm and meaningful conversations with his family. He noticed other changes – like enthusiasm for work and a completely fresh awareness of colours. John remained in touch with his herbal practitioner over the next few months to monitor his progress with the herb.
When to avoid St John's Wort
St John's Wort's most well-known side effect is 'phototoxicity'. Light-skinned people in particular may develop sensitivity to the ultraviolet rays in sunlight, both in the eyes and on the skin: moderate to high levels of sun exposure while using the herb may cause loss of pigmentation or small welts on the skin, especially during the summer months. The reason is the interaction of the herb's chemical hypericin with sunlight and oxygen. This occurs because St John's Wort has the ability to reach the blood and skin without being intercepted and processed by the liver and kidneys. If you find you are susceptible, it's advisable to wear dark glasses and use plenty of sunscreen – and never use sunbeds, which often emit large amounts of ultraviolet light.
- Don't take St John's Wort if you are pregnant or breastfeeding.
- St John’s Wort is known to impact the effectiveness of many prescription drugs and some household medications like paracetamol. It increases the speed at which the liver breaks these medications down, resulting in the drugs becoming less effective as they pass too quickly through the body. Check with your doctor or pharmacist or a herbalist if you are taking medication.
- Do not take if certain mental conditions exist, e.g. bipolar schizophrenia.
- Some antidepressant drugs increase serotonin in the brain. If you take St John’s Wort as well, too much serotonin can accumulate. This excess can cause serious side effects. It is particularly important to check with your doctor or pharmacist or a herbalist if you are taking antidepressant medication.
- Don't take St John's Wort while using amino acid supplements.
- Don't take St John's Wort with the herb Yohimbe, which also contains monoamine oxidase.
- Don't take St John's Wort if you have chronic liver or kidney disease unless you are under direct medical supervision: if the herb behaves in a toxic fashion, these organs may be unable to detoxify accumulations.
- Don't take St John's Wort if you have an oestrogen-driven cancer of the reproductive system such as breast or ovarian cancer.
- Don't use the herb with drugs aimed at decreasing dopaminergic activity or which are treating any kind of mental disorder.
- Don't use if you have had brain surgery.
- Do not use alongside 5-hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP) supplements, as they can also increase serotonin levels.
Other possible side effects
St John's Wort can produce other, less common, side effects in some people. Stop using the herb at once if any of the following symptoms occur:
- Disorientation and speech difficulty
- Rigidity of neck muscles or contractions of other muscles
- Pupil dilation
- Sudden rise in blood pressure and/or palpitations
- Severe sweating and high fever
- Severe headache that worsens on lying down
Do not use St John’s Wort if you suffer from manic depression. Indeed, you should not treat serious depression at all yourself. Always seek help in such cases from a qualified professional.
Liver and kidney cleansing programs
As stated above, you should not use St John's Wort if you have liver or kidney disease. However, if you simply feel that your liver or kidneys need extra support (whether or not you are taking St John's Wort), the following cleanses may help and should lead to an improved sense of well-being. The liver and kidney cleanses should be carried out separately and not at the same time; and it is not necessary to do both if you feel you need one more than the other.
Liver cleanse (1–5 days)
Consume this drink for one morning on an empty stomach, or up to 3 or 5 consecutive days. While doing the liver cleanse you should eat plenty of fresh vegetables, fruit, wholegrain rice, and other wholefoods. Avoid alcohol, tea, coffee, and 'junk foods'. Drink copious amounts of spring water.
To Make a Fresh 'Liver Drink' For one person:
- 1 or 2 freshly squeezed lemons
- 225 ml (1 cup) apple juice, preferably freshly squeezed
- 225 ml (1 cup) spring water
- 1 clove fresh garlic (crush before putting into blender)
- 15 ml (1 tbsp) extra virgin olive oil
- 5 mm (¼ in) fresh ginger root (not be included if your liver feels hot or inflamed)
To make the drink, liquidise the ingredients until well blended. Drink slowly. After 15 minutes, drink a cup of hot peppermint tea, followed by some organic apple juice.
You may experience headaches, rashes, sadness, anger, and other unpleasant side effects associated with the shedding of toxins stored in the liver, but these will eventually be replaced by joy and enthusiasm once the cleanse has finished. (Avoid the cleanse if pregnant or breastfeeding.)
Kidney cleanse (1–5 days)
Choose a day when you can be relaxed and warm. Start the morning by drinking a mixture of the juice of a lemon or lime, 1 litre (2 pints) of spring water and a pinch of cayenne. 15 minutes later drink a cup of 'kidney tea' containing equal parts of loose, mixed dandelion leaves, parsley leaves, and corn silk (available from Herbs Hands Healing).
At lunchtime have a fresh raw salad made up of ingredients such as sprouted seeds, dandelion leaves, lettuce, grated beets, and grated carrot. For dressings, use olive oil, apple cider vinegar, and lemon juice, with a little cayenne and black pepper. Drink a cup of barley water (recipe below) 1 hour after your salad. In total drink 3 cups of kidney tea and 3 cups of barley water over the day. Also try to consume a total of 3–4 litres (6–8 pints) of spring water.
You may feel cold or experience feelings of weepiness or vulnerability, so keep warm and take care of yourself. These feelings should be replaced with calmness and positivity soon after the cleanse has finished. (Avoid the cleanse if pregnant or breastfeeding.)
To Make Barley Water (for one person)
- 100 g (½ cup) whole barley (not pearl barley)
- 1.5 litres (5 cups) water
- ¼ cinnamon stick
- Grated ginger root, to taste
Put all the ingredients into a pan and bring to the boil. Reduce the heat, and then simmer for about 20 minutes. Strain the mixture into a pitcher, and then add fresh lemon juice for extra flavour. Drink 3 times daily while carrying out the kidney cleanse.
Energy and Emotion
St John's Wort can have a profound effect on mood, enhancing feelings of well-being, reducing fears and calming the spirit.
The bitter taste of the fresh St John's Wort plant as well as its tinctures, infusions and powders provides a strong hint about its effect in relation to the liver and gallbladder. The taste will immediately activate bile and digestive juices and the whole effect will be to energise the liver. A stagnant liver can cause a range of emotional states – often depression, anger or sadness – but these can be coaxed to the surface and ultimately lessened as time goes by, resulting in a more positive, lively and excited feeling. It's not a coincidence that the words 'life' and 'liver' are very similar – they come from the same root.
St John's Wort also has an astringent taste, which gives clues to effects the herb has on different organs. For example, the kidneys, bladder and lungs all benefit as they gain from the healing and drying effect of this astringent quality and will work better as a result. The emotional effects will be as apparent as the physical ones: as the lungs relax and work better, apprehensions will be lessened; and when the bladder and kidneys work more efficiently, minor fears will fade.
With St John's Wort, digestion will be increasingly enlivened and will function more harmoniously, assimilating and processing more effectively. This will in turn settle the mind and the combined effect will be to give you a greater interest in life.
Energy and the mind
St John's Wort invites a deeper state of relaxation, serenity and contentment. Because it affects the physical and mental state so radically, it is able to flush out 'evils' and poisons from the mind, body and spirit, whenever they appear. The herb gives a sense of confidence and ability, enabling you to enjoy life from a position of calm, with a greater sense of enthusiasm and vitality.
St John's Wort banishes negativity and fears, helps you leap over everyday difficulties and invites lightness and positivity. The herb introduces laughter and relaxation into the life of anyone who uses it.
St John’s Wort is capable of introducing light and energy into your life on a psychic and emotional level as well as a physical one. It brightens and heals, helping you to glow and radiate. It may help support those who are overstretched in their activities, harnessing their available energy to achieve a more balanced existence. You can make a flower essence from St John's Wort to capitalise on these qualities.
Flower essences are said to contain the life force of the flower itself, and to balance the energies of mind and body. In the case of St John's Wort in particular, which has a significant number of contraindications for its use in tincture or capsule forms, a flower essence is a safe alternative and can be used by anyone.
To make a flower essence – standard quantity
- Approximately 350 ml (1½ cups) each of spring water and brandy, and 3–4 St John’s Wort flowers. Carefully select some buds and flower heads, pick them in the early morning and use straight away.
- Submerge the flowers into a shallow bowl containing the spring water (use a glass bowl if possible) and place in the sunshine for several hours. If you wish, place a protective covering over the top (freshly washed white muslin is ideal) or leave uncovered while the sun does its work. Choose a very sheltered spot and try to ensure they have at lease 3 hours of continuous sun. If the flowers wilt sooner than this, they can be removed earlier.
- Remove the flowers, using a twig to lift them out. Measure the remaining liquid and add an equal measure of brandy to preserve the liquid. Pour the mixture into dark glass bottles and label clearly.
Adults: 4 drops under the tongue 4 times daily, or every half an hour in times of crisis.
Children: Over 12, adult dose. 7–12 years, half adult dose. 1–7 years, quarter adult dose.
Plant spirit energies
The spirit of the plant is different to a flower essence, which is connected principally with its flowering aspect. The plant’s spirit enables every part of it to share its energy and properties with us. The ability of St John’s Wort to thrive and colonise almost anywhere, while giving light and serenity, gives us a clue to its spirit. Earthy yet illuminating, it can take us from some very primitive emotional states or mental processes to some extremely meditative and joyful ones.
Growing, Harvesting, and Processing
St John’s Wort is not difficult to grow as long as you provide soil with adequate drainage. It looks beautiful in the garden and will provide an abundance of flowers and leaves for you to use.
Growing St John’s Wort
St John’s Wort will grow almost anywhere in temperate regions. It is a very versatile plant and thrives in poor soil, but it is also at home in good quality tilth. Although it prefers full sun, the herb will also grow in shaded areas. It does not like too much water and therefore soil with good drainage is preferable. The best time to plant St John’s Wort is late autumn or early spring. It can easily be grown from seed or runners and can be transplanted without difficulty.
The fact that this plant grows wild in so many places throughout the temperate world is an indication of how easy it is to cultivate at home. For planting, select an area of your garden that has poor to average soil and has been well dug. The bed should be about 1 m (3 ft) wide and 30 cm (1 ft) deep.
Scatter the seeds on the prepared ground, give them some water, and let nature do its work. The secret to the successful propagation of St John’s Wort is to ignore it as much as possible; it does not need fertilising, feeding or pruning. However, if there is a drought, keep it watered but not saturated; and cover it if there is likely to be an overnight frost.
The aerial parts of St John’s Wort are collected between mid June and late August in colder areas, but always when the plant is just beginning to bloom (20–50 per cent in flower), when the hypericin content is at its highest. From 75 per cent bloom to the post-flowering state the hypericin content drops off dramatically and drying becomes much more difficult. Analysis of plant chemistry levels using gas chromatography now provides a scientific approach to optimum harvesting time, but this is not necessary if the aforementioned 'bloom test' is applied.
Commercial growers cut off the top 15–25 cm (6–10 in) of the leafy stem, buds and flowers, using heavy machinery and collecting bins. On some herb farms they are harvested by hand, using machete knives. The roots are left intact so that new foliage will return the following spring.
Gathering the wild herb
When picking St John’s Wort in the wild, it is important never to take more than a third or so of any plant family or colony, in order to leave plenty of flowers to provide seed for next year. Exceptions to this rule are in areas of the United States and Australia because the herb is so invasive there.
Once the aerial parts of the plant are cut and collected, they are dried in the shade for some time; direct sunlight will rapidly strip the vital chemistries from the plant. With some commercial crops, however, full sun is allowed for between 3 and 5 hours (according to the sun’s intensity) to allow the herb to wilt. Drying then continues in the shade on slatted racks or in a commercial drier. The maximum moisture content should be no more than 5–8 per cent at the end of the drying process.
After being fully dried, the raw material of dried leaves, buds and flowers is stored in a dry, covered area with adequate airflow, and turned on a daily basis. The dried herbs are then chopped into 1–2.5 cm (½–1 in) segments. Checks are made to ensure that no moulds have developed before packing. The herb is stored in burlap bags with good air circulation, ready for sending to commercial processors by truck or plane. Some commercial farms process their herbs on site and make fresh products such as tinctures or cold-pressed oils.
As with the commercial process, you should give the aerial parts of the plant a few hours of direct sunlight, by which time they will have wilted – and any visiting bugs that were in them should have crawled away. Shake all the pieces of the gathered plant to make sure that any remaining bugs are dislodged. Place the wilted plants in brown paper bags and hang them in a very dry, temperate place. You can tell when the plants are dry because they will no longer be limp and will crumble easily when touched. When you feel they are dry enough, put the contents in a glass jar, cover with an airtight lid, then leave the jar in the sunshine. If water droplets appear on the insides of the jar, there is still some moisture in the plant material and therefore a risk of spoilage, so you should remove the contents from the jar and dry them for a while longer, before storing in a dry, dark place.
Preparations for Internal Use
St John’s Wort can be taken internally in the form of tincture, infusion or capsule. Cold-pressed oil and fresh juice can be used internally as well as externally, depending on the conditions being treated.
St John’s Wort tincture
In this form the herb is concentrated yet liquid. It’s normally sold in dark blue or brown glass bottles, but for larger amounts it can be stored in opaque plastic containers for a limited amount of time. Whether your tincture is bought or home-made, it is handy to keep some in smaller dropper bottles for your purse, briefcase or pocket to make dosing easier. Use fresh herbs if possible because some of the hypericin and other chemical components are lost during the drying process. If you cannot get the fresh herb, however, the dried herb will still be adequate.
St John’s Wort tincture is made by soaking the chopped or shredded aerial parts – leaves, stalks, buds and flowers – in alcohol and water. This combination of alcohol and water is ideal for retaining many of the wide range of chemical constituents that heal the body. It is particularly important to use alcohol when using fresh herbs, which are more likely to be infested with opportunistic fungi and bacteria – pouring alcohol onto your herbs kills any germs, and water can be added later when they have been destroyed.
Commercially, St John’s Wort tincture is made with good quality, high-percentage alcohol, with a total mix of 45 per cent alcohol to 55 per cent water. If you are making a tincture at home you can use vodka. The tincturing process takes a minimum of 14 days, but you can leave it for up to 4 weeks before straining.
Some herbalists like to time the production of tinctures to coincide with the gravitational waxing and waning of the moon. To do this, start the process when the moon is new, then strain and bottle at the full moon.
Note: Always use utensils that have been cleaned in boiling water – and for good results add one or two drops of lavender, thyme, or tea tree essential oil to the cleaning water.
To make a tincture – standard quantity
- As a rough guide, use 225–310 g (4–5½ cups) of fresh herb chopped into small pieces, or bought shredded or powdered, with a total of 1 litre (4 cups) of vodka and water mixture. For the vodka, standard 45 per cent proof is effective, but 70–80 per cent proof is better. Proportions of vodka and water used will depend on the strength of the vodka: if using 45 per cent proof, you will use 80 per cent vodka and 20 per cent water; if using 70–80 per cent proof, you will use 40–50 per cent vodka and 50–60 per cent water.
- Place the fresh or dried St John’s Wort leaves, buds and flowers in a liquidiser or food processor and cover with vodka (the correct proportion of 1 litre, as above). Liquidise the contents – they will mix fairly easily, because the flowers, leaves and buds are flexible and delicate in nature.
- When smooth, pour the mixture into a large dark glass jar with an airtight lid. Shake well, label the jar carefully, and store in a dark place.
- After 2 days, add the water to make up the rest of the litre of liquid. Shake well.
- Leave the mixture for at least 2 weeks, but preferably up to 4 weeks. Shake the jar daily to aid the extraction process.
- At the end of the allotted time, strain the tincture through a jelly bag, preferably overnight, until you have the very last drop. For best results you can use a wine press.
- Pour the thick liquid into dark jars and label clearly. Store in a cool, dark place. For personal use, decant into a 50 ml (2 fl oz) tincture bottle.
Everyday use: Adults should take 2.5ml (½ tsp) of tincture 2–3 times a day, diluted in 25ml (5 tsp) of water or fruit juice. Double this dose can be taken where speed of treatment is an important factor. Children over 16 years of age can take the adult dose; children under 16 but over 12 can take St John’s Wort under the guidance of a suitably qualified herbalist or medical practitioner.
This herb can be taken safely for months or even years, especially if is being used to treat depression over extended periods of time. After 3–6 months of everyday use, you may wish to lower the dose to 40 drops, 2–3 times daily for longer-term use.
Some people like to take St John’s Wort for a few weeks and then have a break from it for a similar period. This routine can help to keep the brain chemicals balanced without the user having to take the herb daily. The dosages to be taken during the periods of use are the same as for long-term use.
St John’s Wort herbal tea (infusion)
Making St John’s Wort infusion is not usually recommended, because water alone fails to release all of the important chemical components, especially those used to treat depression. Nevertheless, infusions have their uses, and are easier and quicker to make than tinctures. They are generally employed to help a wide range of non-depressive disorders that include bedwetting, bladder infection and liver problems.
To make herbal tea (infusion)
- Use 1 tsp (2–3 g) of dried or 2 tsp (4–6 g) of fresh leaf per 250 ml (1 cup) of water.
- Put the herb in a tea sock and place in a cup or teapot. Pour on boiling water and leave to stand for 7–10 minutes. (You can also use a special teapot infuser or a coffee pot with a plunger.)
- Remove the tea sock and, if desired, add half a teaspoon of organic, cold-pressed honey (although it is best without added sweeteners).
Adults: 2 cups daily – total 500 ml per day.
Capsules and Tablets
There is a commercial process called 'alcoholic extraction LII60' which starts in a similar way to tincturing. Alcohol is used to dissolve the useful chemicals before being evaporated off. Each extract is then tested and adjusted so that the strength is uniform. The powdered extracts are then made into capsules or tablets. This is the best way for recovering alcoholics to take St John’s Wort because there is no alcohol content. Otherwise St John’s Wort capsules can be made simply by using the pure powdered herb but they won't work for use with drepression.
To make capsules – standard quantity
- Approximately 250–300 mg of powdered herb fits into a size 00 capsule.
- Put a little dried, finely powdered St John’s Wort in a saucer and open up the ends of a capsule.
- Using the ends as shovels, push them together until they are full (one end will have more herb than the other). Join the two ends carefully so that you do not lose any of the powder while you do so.
Adults: a 300 mg strength capsule 3 times daily.
Preparations for External Use
St John’s Wort is very effective when used externally on bites, cuts, wounds, bruises and various skin diseases and conditions. It also helps to relieve general pain, stiffness and impairment of nerves and muscles.
St John’s Wort’s powerful chemistry goes to work immediately at the site of the problem, in many instances providing rapid relief or cure.
St John’s Wort juice
You can express the juice from the fresh aerial parts of the herb using a vegetable or fruit juice extractor (not a liquidiser). Take 2.5 ml (½ tsp) 3 times daily internally. You can also apply it externally to affected areas with cotton wool. Let it dry freely and repeat when necessary.
St John’s Wort pressed oil
The oil of St John’s Wort is pressed from the leaves, buds and flowers. Dilute 5 drops approximately in a little jojoba oil to avoid skin irritation. Jojoba is a natural sunscreen with a factor of 16 and is absorbed efficiently into the skin without becoming rancid.
St John’s Wort poultice
This is an ideal treatment for nerve or muscle pain. Newly flowering St John’s Wort should be used, preferably with more closed buds than open flowers. The bunch will also have a few leaves and stalks if you pick 5–8 cm (2–3 in) above the ground; do not discard these but use them too.
To make a poultice – standard quantity
There is no specific requirement on herb quantity; it really depends on the size of the body area you wish to treat. Use enough chopped fresh herb to cover the body area affected and enough water to cover the herb in the pan.
- Place the chopped flowers and buds in a saucepan and cover with filtered or spring water. Bring to the boil, and then simmer for 2 minutes. Strain and squeeze out the excess liquid.
- Rub some olive oil (or any other suitable pure vegetable oil) onto the affected area – this prevents the hot herb from sticking to the skin.
- Squeeze the hot, damp mixture together onto a poultice (a large plaster or piece of thin gauze) and press onto the affected area. If possible, secure the poultice in place with plastic wrap; this will also help to retain the heat.
- Leave for 2–3 hours and reapply with hotter poultice if necessary. Repeat the process as often as required.
St John’s Wort ointment and cream
These are both effective for bites, cuts, wounds, dry eczema and psoriasis. Ointments are not appropriate for hot, wet, oozing conditions; in these cases a cream would be better, or you can simply sprinkle dry St John’s Wort powder directly onto the affected area, or mix it with a 'carrier' of aloe vera gel.
To make a cream – standard quantity
- Use 60 g (2¼ oz) jar of unscented cold cream and 5 ml (1 tsp) St John’s Wort essential oil.
- Scoop out 1 tablespoon of cream and discard; stir the oil into the remaining cream. Mix the oil into the cream until you have a smooth consistency.
To make an ointment – standard quantity
- Use 425 ml (1¾ cups) cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil, 350 g (6 cups) dried, powdered herbs and 50 g (2 oz) beeswax.
- Pour the olive oil onto the powdered herbs and mix together.
- Place in a closed container (ovenproof if you are using the oven method) – choose stainless steel, earthenware, un-chipped enamel, or ovenproof glass.
- Put the container into an oven preheated to about 38°C (100°F) for 2 hours, or stand in the sun or other warm spot for a week. During the allotted time, occasionally stir the mixture with a sterilised fork.
- If using the oven method, the mixture can be strained directly after the 2 hours if you need the ointment quickly, or you can also leave it to stand for a week to encourage a greater extraction of the active components.
- On completion of slow cooking or soaking, strain the mixture through a large plastic or stainless steel colander lined with muslin, or use a jelly bag and hang it up to drip overnight.
- When you have strained the mixture, melt 50 g (2 oz) of beeswax over a very low heat in a double boiler or heavy-bottomed pan, then add the herbal olive oil mixture and combine.
- Put a little of the mixture into a glass jar and put it in the refrigerator for 2 minutes to test the consistency when cool. At the right consistency, it should stick to your fingers without being too hard or too runny. If it is too runny, add a little more beeswax; if too hard, a little more oil.
- Pour the mixture into dark glass jars and label carefully.
St John’s Wort cold-pressed oil
Not to be confused with essential oil, this ancient method of extracting St John’s Wort’s vital plant chemistry allows the resultant rust-red oil to be used internally as well as externally. Sunlight encourages the herb to release its active ingredients and is less harmful than heating the herb. This takes time, so you should allow several weeks to complete the process.
Because cold-pressed oil can be used internally as well as on the skin, it is important to use a good quality organic extra virgin olive oil. This ensures no rancidity, no pesticides, no chemicals used for ripening the olives, and no preservatives.
To make cold-pressed oil – standard quantity
- Use chopped fresh herb and cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil. A good standard would be to put enough chopped herb into a clean glass jar so that it is three-quarters full, then top up with olive oil.
- Shake the plant well to remove any visiting insects.
- Place the freshly picked buds and flowers, along with a few leaves, in a preserving jar. Pack the herbs in as tightly as you can, because this will make a stronger, more concentrated oil.
- Add sufficient olive oil to cover the herbs, then put on the lid and shake well. Don’t let the herbs oxidise (turn brown) by letting them protrude above the level of the oil – add more oil if necessary. Eventually the herbs will subside well below the surface of the oil. Shaking as often as possible will help this process.
- Place the jar in a warm, sunny position such as on a window sill or in a greenhouse. Leave for a minimum of 2 weeks, although there’s no strict time limit on the 'warming phase' with cold-pressed oil. I’ve left the mixture for 3 months and found that the oil comes to no harm as long as it is shaken daily, especially at the beginning.
- After the alloted time, strain the herb and oil mixture through a jelly bag or, if possible, through a wine press. If using a jelly bag, leave it overnight, and then thoroughly squeeze any remaining oil from the bag.
Increasing the potency
If you still have some St John’s Wort in flower when you have made the oil, you can add new, fresh herbs to the strained oil, to make it stronger and more effective.
External use: Apply liberally and as often as you can until the symptoms ease.
Internal use: Adults, 1 teaspoonful 3 times a day; children over 16 years old, adult dose.
Natural Medicine for Everyone
Although in some ways St John's Wort is almost a 'wonder herb', it isn't applicable to every condition – and care must always be taken with certain groups of people, particularly when the herb is used internally.
Pregnancy and breastfeeding
The internal use of St John's Wort is not advised during pregnancy, nor is the use of the essential oils externally. Research has shown that the herb can cause uterine contractions – indeed Native Americans traditionally used it along with other herbs as an abortive. Current research is looking at whether it can also cause cell mutation and, as a result, foetal abnormalities.
The use of any antidepressant is questionable during pregnancy, especially in the last three months, due to their effect on the foetus's brain and nervous system. However, minute quantities of St John's Wort consumed inadvertently should cause no harm.
For the same reasons the use of St John's Wort is not advised while breastfeeding.
External use of St John's Wort cold-pressed oil (or the cream or fresh poultice) is quite safe for children and they usually love its soothing effect. Internal use for children under 16 but over 12 is possible but must be at the discretion of a herbal practitioner, who will employ the correct dosage for their age. We are not currently able to advise internal use of St John's Wort in children under 12.
St John's Wort is a very useful herb when administered internally for elderly people, who can easily become depressed by their lack of mobility, by physical disorders (including circulatory conditions) and by psychological problems such as loneliness. They are often given drugs to alleviate these and other problems, but the side effects can be unwelcome.
Elderly people should consult a qualified herbalist before using St John's Wort internally (especially if taking medication), but this is unnecessary for external use. Used externally, St John's Wort can be invaluable for treating bed sores, leg ulcers and slow-healing wounds or burns, all of which are prevalent among older people who become immobile.
Herbal combinations are used where the effect of a single herb needs to be helped in a particular way. However, if you are pregnant, breastfeeding, have a serious medical condition or are taking prescribed medication, you should consult your doctor or a qualified herbalist first.
Bladder and kidney weakness
This formula made as a tincture can be used for generalised maintenance. It can also be used for temporary and emotionally based incontinence, where there is infection or other causes.
Formula: 3 parts St John’s Wort flowers and buds, 1 part Corn Silk, 1 part Marshmallow root, 1 part Dandelion root.
Dosage: Adults: 5 ml (1 tsp) 3 times daily, plus a single night dose if woken.
These herbs gently help maintain the bladder and kidneys, partly through their tannin (astringent) qualities and partly by relaxing the individual. The overall effect is soothing and cleansing and relieves irritations in the bladder and kidneys.
Chronic viral problems
This formula made as a tincture is useful for easing deep, chronic and long-term viral or autoimmune problems.
Formula: Equal parts of St John’s Wort buds and flowers, Olive leaf and Echinacea root.
Dosage: Adults: 5 ml (1 tsp) 4 times daily.
St John’s Wort calms and balances an overactive and confused immune system and will work to prevent excessive inflammatory responses.
Echinacea root contains alkylamides and other biochemistry capable of calming down and moderating an over-active immune system. It also calms excessive inflammation.
Olive leaf will help address and deal with any immune incompetency and allows the immune system to reduce its over-vigilance.
During the menopause a combination of symptoms are often present. For this reason a combined formula made as a tincture or into capsules is generally more effective than a single herb, especially when the sufferer is experiencing depression, lethargy and an overall lack of energy.
This herbal formula should only be used with the support of a qualified herbalist.
Formula: 2 parts Agnus Castus berries 1:1 tincture, 1 part each of St John’s Wort leaves and flowers 1:1 tincture and Black Cohosh root 1:4 tincture.
Dosage: Adults: 5 ml (1 tsp) 3 or 4 times daily; night doses can also be taken if necessary.
St John’s Wort can ease menopausal depression; the Black Cohosh can alleviate hot flushes and other varied symptoms, e.g. anxiety and poor sleep. The combination of herbs collectively balances the hormones and will ensure that the state of mind also regains balance.
For nerve pains like shingles and Bell’s palsy, for anxiety, insomnia or tearfulness, or for extreme tiredness and associated depression through sheer nervous exhaustion, this is an ideal formula made as a tincture or capsules. It nourishes the nervous system and uplifts the spirits.
Formula: 2 parts St John’s Wort flowers and buds, 2 parts Oat Straw, 2 parts Skullcap herb, 1 part Passion Flower, 1 part Vervain leaf.
Dosage: Adults: 5 ml (1 tsp) 4 or 5 times daily. These herbs can help to repair nerve endings. They relax, uplift, and feed the whole system.
Overall digestive tonic
These herbs stimulate better working of the pancreas, liver and stomach. They work best as a tincture because the taste in the mouth immediately activates the digestive juices. The herbs also contain bitters and constituents that support the stomach.
Formula: Equal parts of St John’s Wort buds and flowers, Gentian root, Chamomile flowers, Fennel seed, Echinacea root, Artichoke leaves and Meadowsweet herb.
Dosage: Adults: 5 ml (1 tsp) before meals and again after meals if desired. Children: over 16 years old, adult dose; for children under 16 but over 12, seek professional advice.
This formula, made up either as a tincture or in capsules, can be effective for helping to give up smoking because the lobelia contains chemical components similar to those found in tobacco, in particular nicotine.
Lobelia is only available from a qualified herbal practitioner.
Formula: 5 parts St John’s Wort buds and flowers, 1 part Lobelia herb.
Dosage: Adults: 2.5–5 ml (½–1 tsp) 3 times daily.
One of the reasons that nicotine is enjoyed by so many people is that it raises serotonin levels in the brain. St John’s Wort’s main chemical component (hypericin) maintains serotonin levels by preventing the premature depletion that some people experience.
Lobelia inflata has different but equally useful effects; not least because it contains lobeline, similar to nicotine. It naturally calms the nervous system.
How St John's Wort Works
St John's Wort has many naturally occurring components, most notably naphthodianthrones and their derivatives hypericin and pseudohypericin. It also contains flavonoids, tannins and phytosterols, plus various amino acids and essential oils. Climate, soil species and other factors will determine the amounts and proportions in which these compounds are found.
Researchers and herbalists largely agree that the effects of the herb are due to an interaction between all of its chemical constituents and not just one or two key components.
By moderating the immune system's production of lymphocytes and T-cells, St John's Wort's chemistry produces an anti-inflammatory effect. This can be helpful where the immune system's response has become excessive or out of control, as in the case of some chronic diseases.
The combination of compounds contained in St John's Wort seem to increase deep sleep and slightly increase REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. Deep sleep provides our night-time rest, while in REM sleep we dream. Scans have been carried out into the effects of St John’s Wort on the sleeping brain.
The compounds in St John’s Wort also work against viruses by attacking the cellular membrane of infected viruses and inhibiting the receptor activity that is involved in abnormal spread of virus-infected cells.
The flavonoids are believed to aid the sedative effects of the herb, while others help produce some of its antidepressant effects.
The tannins may well help St John's Wort to be effective for burns and rapid healing by providing extra oxygen. They may also support its anti-inflammatory activity.
Phytosterols are plant steroids that can be translated into human steroids by bacteria in the gut. They can be used for pain relief and as an anti-inflammatory where 'human' steroid hormones are lacking, such as in the adrenal glands.
The herb's amino acids are the building blocks for neurotransmitters. They help to produce better connections and subsequently calm and balance the activity of the brain.
St John's Wort's essential oils contribute vital healing and sedative qualities.
Many studies suggest that hyperforin in St John's Wort has specific antibacterial activity.
In 1997 a randomised double-blind study of 209 patients at Essen University Hospital, Germany, demonstrated that Hypericum may support cardiac function.
Case study – pain relief
David’s left shoulder had been stiff and sore for some time. To make matters worse, he had to drive for up to three hours a day, and the pain in his shoulder made it very difficult for him to drive his car. The ibuprofen (muscular relaxant drug) he was taking did not help despite the fact that it was the maximum dose permissible. His daughter suggested rubbing St John’s Wort into the shoulder daily.
After four days of using the red oil he felt some real changes and a week later he was able to tell his daughter that it was making a significant difference and that he would willingly continue to use it. He also decided to phase out the use of his pain management pills.
These are the parts of the plant that grow above the ground – stem, leaves and flowers.
Herb that limits, corrects, and prevents excessive involuntary muscular contractions.
Substances found particularly in high-chlorophyll foods that protect the cells from free radicals (damaging molecules) and reduce the risk of some serious diseases.
A condition characterised by paralysis of the facial nerve.
Inflammation of the bursae, small sacs of fibrous tissue that reduce friction over ligaments and tendons.
Method of preserving and preparing herbs in water that involves simmering the herbs in the water.
Action of the hormone dopamine.
Female reproductive hormone, the production of which decreases during the menopause.
Inflammation of fibrous connective tissue that causes muscular pain and stiffness.
Compounds in plants that are responsible for a wide range of actions that include reducing inflammation, antioxidant activity and fighting fungus.
Highly reactive particles that damage cell membranes, DNA, and other cell structures.
Person suffering from hypoglycaemia (low blood sugar).
Thermoregulatory mechanism of the brain that also controls the pituitary gland.
Capacity and function of the body to fend off foreign bodies, and/or to disarm and eject them.
Bacterial infection of the outer layers of the skin.
Method of releasing a herb’s flavour and chemicals through immersion in boiling water (a herbal tea).
Type of white blood cell.
Inflammation of the breast.
Molecules released into the synapse (the gap between a nerve cell and another cell) in response to a nerve impulse and that carry messages between cells.
Female hormone of the second stage of the menstrual cycle that prepares for and supports pregnancy.
A chronic skin disease in which scaly pink patches form primarily on the scalp, knees and elbows, but also on other parts of the body.
Pain felt down the back, and outer side of the thigh, leg and foot. It is usually caused by degeneration of an intervertebral disc.
Disturbance of voluntary movement affecting mobility and speech.
Degenerative process of the vertebrae and joints between them.
Inflammation of the mucous membrane of the mouth.
Immune system cells that play several roles in the body’s defences.
Plant medicine prepared by soaking herbs in alcohol and water.
Application of herbs to the surface of the body as opposed to being taken internally.
Also known as nettle rash or hives; the manifestation of an allergic reaction.