St. Johnswort

Make your own bottled sunshine

by Corinna Wood & Lee Warren

first published in the Mountain Xpress, May 2010

st johnswort oilThere is no other medicinal herb that bespeaks more of sunshine than St. Johnswort, or St. J’s, as we fondly call it. It loves sunny open places, blooms at the height of summer solstice, soothes the skin after sunburn, and even brings sunshine into our lives through its mood elevating properties. Establish some of this sunny plant in your garden this spring!

The most well known, most widely used species of St. Johnswort is Hypericum perforatum, studied for its uses against depression—especially helpful for the kind of dark moods that come from seasonal affective disorder (SAD). In fact, it is often said that plants grow where they are needed—and St J’s is a prolific “weed” in the Pacific Northwest, where dark and rainy winters contribute to a high number of SAD cases.

Additionally, St. J’s has constituents known to support the nerves and help the body against viruses—both when taken internally, and when extracted into an oil for use externally. In diseases where viruses affect the nervous system—such as cold sores, herpes, shingles, or chicken pox—St. J’s has brought relief for hundreds of years.

We have our own wild varieties in Western NC, including Hypericum punctatum, but it is not found in great abundance as it is in some other parts of the country. It’s best to plant this herb in your home garden—it’s easy to grow, strong in establishment, and will bloom year after year. You’ll appreciate the beauty it adds to your garden, as it’s truly lovely, with 5-petaled yellow flowers, small seed pods, and delicate yellow-green leaves.

St.J'sAt Red Moon Herbs, we have about 50 St. J’s plants that we started over the last two years. We saved the seed from our original garden plant, started them in a tray, watered them for several weeks until they germinated, and planted them out in the spring. We established them along a fence line, which helped stabilize a sloped bank—and they also provide food for our bees, beauty, and medicine.

This year we plan to put in another 120 St. J’s plants in order to meet our demand for 15 gallons of St. J’s extract per year. For the home garden, 10 plants will create a big, healthy patch, which provides plenty of medicine for a family year after year.

Once established and thriving, harvest the top third of the plant, including the flowering tops, at peak potency. Peak time for St. J’s is when the flowers are 1/3 in blossom and 2/3 in bud. If you take a yellow flower bud and squeeze it, you’ll notice it exudes a red juice. This is the hypericin, a constituent in St. J’s which contains medicinal properties.

Once harvested, you can pack your flowers, stalks, and leaves in a dry jar and cover in olive oil to make medicinal oil; or fill with 100 proof vodka for some tincture. Let them steep for 6 weeks, and then strain out the plant material. One word of caution: sometimes folks who are taking St. J’s regularly become more sensitive to the sun (there’s that sun association again), so pay attention if you’re noticing your eyes or skin being more sensitive, and back off of internal use of St J’s if needed.

If you don’t want to start your own seed, it’s easy to plant St. J’s from a “start.”  Coming up on May 1st, visit Herb Days, an annual event at the WNC Farmer’s Market where you’ll be able to get St. J’s plant starts for your garden. Expand your spring herb purchases from basil and parsley to include St. J’s and other medicinal herbs, and you’ll be taking another step toward bringing more of your health care into your own hands!

St. J’s genus name (Hypericum) is derived from the word hyper, meaning above and eikon, meaning picture. This referred to the traditional style of hanging the plants around the house to ward off “bad spirits” (maybe an old fashioned word for depression).

Even if you don’t make extracts from your St. J’s, the plant will bring a sunshine into your life. And after the winter we’ve had in WNC, who can’t use a little sunshine around here?

 

SEWWnewsletterSidebarAd200 plus shadow e booksidebaradv3 200 plus shadow