The Many Wonders of St. John’s Wort

Saint John’s Wort is in full bloom in direct sunlight on the roadsides in Portland right now. It grows in clusters about two or three feet tall, with little oval opposite leaves. This plant, Hypericum perforatum, may be best known as a popular anti-depressant in its tea and tincture forms, especially in Europe, the land to which it is native, but it has many other uses, too. When infused into an oil and applied to the skin, Saint John’s Wort is antibacterial, anti-inflammatory and mildly analgesic (painkilling), good for burns and abrasions, nerve pain, sciatica, and back spasms. It can also be ingested to soothe stomach ulcers.

When you pinch a leaf or flower of Saint John’s Wort, dark purple-red dye comes off on your finger. That stuff is hypericin, which is being studied as possibly effective against HIV.

Another way you can identify Saint John’s Wort is that the leaves have tiny holes in them. When you hold them to the sky and look up at them, you can see sunlight streaming through.

I clipped the flowers and some leaves to make an infused oil that I’m going to try using as a natural sunscreen. I hear it works, though what’s interesting is that Saint John’s Wort is also widely rumored to cause hypersensitivity to the sun when ingested in tincture form. Many herbalists say it’s not true, but animal studies say it is. So I guess for us Portlanders, the safest bet is to use the oil topically during the less than two months we see the sun and ingest the tea or tincture the other ten. (Seriously, it’s July and I’m wearing a sweatshirt and the sky is gray!)

To make an infused oil, you just clip the flowers and new leaves and put them in a jar and pour oil over them. Then you let it sit in a sunny windowsill for two to three weeks, shaking the jar ever so often. I’m using almond oil.

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6 thoughts on “The Many Wonders of St. John’s Wort

  1. Penny’s comment is interesting. Is there anything we should know about St. John’s related cousins? How wide spread are they, do they live in different habitats, do they ever grow along side one another, and if a mistake is made could it be really bad news? I truly never thought about this plant prior to reading your blog so now you got me curious. That’s a good thing by the way. I love this blog.

  2. best that flowers are picked in the sunshine on a dry day… there are other hypericums this can be mistaken for, Rebeccas right, the little black dots of pigment on the backs of the petals and leaves and the tiny perforations in the leaves are indeed the best way to positively identify this plant. you may need to strain and re infuse your oil with fresh material after a while. it should become a deep red colour eventually. this herb has long been held to be powerfully magical and the infused oil highly esteemed as a topical treatment by european traditional folk healers.

  3. I just found some growing on the water here in Seattle this morning. Of course, I had to pick some. That the leaves have tiny holes is very useful to know. Thanks for sharing!

  4. I never thought of it that way. Never noticed the leaves have holes either. My mom used to grow it but I have never given it much thought. I’ve heard “rumors” that it can be toxic. I haven’t seen it since I was a child. It seemed to like shade if I remember correctly.

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