Sunday 5 July 2015

What to do with St John’s Wort?

St John’ Wort is my ultimate summer herb. The date when my first yellow starflower opens tells me how the season fares. This year is was 21st June, Midsummer’s Day, so although the winter was long and spring cold and late, the plants are progressing as normal. When the last seed forms in late September I know summer is over and world is turning once more.

St John’s wort was once of the first herbs I grew. Everyone talked and wrote about it, embodying it with an air of mystery. It was deemed to be very powerful, copying the pharmaceutical drugs which tackled mild to moderate depression. There was also talk of it being used to treat burns arising from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. How could a herb have such widespread action?

I knew the active part of the plant was the flower and the tiny, perforated leaves which gave it its name “perforatum”. If you couldn’t see light coming through the tiny holes, then the plant would not be particularly active (much to the dismay of those with ornamental hypericums growing in their gardens!).

My first products were the flowers infused in sunflower oil on my kitchen windowsill. Christopher Hedley taught me to use a light oil since the plant was delicate, but I know others prefer olive oil if they are looking for something which penetrates the skin more easily and has medicinal effects of its own. I leave it alone all summer, adding to the jars every day or so and topping them up as needed until I have enough oil for the coming year.

One year I put a lid on the jar, thinking to deter insects but was taught a salutary lesson when I discovered mould growing on the top. Fresh plant material contains water and if you don’t allow it to evaporate you are likely to grow something you don’t want. Now, if I were to bother with a cover, I’d fashion something out of paper or cotton.

The development of St John’s Wort oil is an amazing spectacle. After only two days the oil begins to change colour and by the end of one or two weeks, the familiar crimson oil emerges. It must have sunlight to effect the change. If you stick your jar of oil in a dark cupboard for several weeks, it will remain yellow. (Ask me how I know!)

The oil can be used in so many different ways.
  • As a sunscreen
  • For general burn healing
  • With honey and calendula as a poultice for burns
  • For massage involving any kind of nerve pain
  • In a salve with calendula and chickweed for hot, infected eczema
  • With meadowsweet for anti-inflammatory pain such as arthritis
  • With agrimony for pain involving constriction
  • As a cream with marshmallow, calendula and aloe vera to prevent diabetic foot problems

The second product I made was a tincture but macerating the flowers in vodka for three weeks in a dark place. The red colouration begins to leach out after several hours.

The tincture had me in a quandary. I don’t like to give herbs to anyone with a serious mental health problem, especially if they are under the care of professionals and may be taking other psychotropic drugs. St John’s Wort has a tendency to exacerbate the side effects of any other medication, which is not something to be recommended.

St John’s Wort is also one of the few drugs to have been extensively “researched”, although the trials are rarely with the whole plant, only with those aspects which have been extracted and standardised. Hence the long list of contra-indications and warnings which the press are so pleased to report. If you do want to educate yourself about these reports, there are lots of references in medical journals.

Like the SSRI drugs, St John’s Wort doesn’t act immediately. You need to build up a concentration in the body before you start to notice changes. Henriette Kress described it, “You won’t notice any difference when you take it but the people around you will notice you are different.”

It was Henriette who gave me the confidence to start adding St John’s Wort to my bereavement tonics. All the herbs are nerviness and help to support the adrenal gland during times of stress. I use SJW with lemon balm, vervain and nettles in the early stages of bereavement and may continue to add it to the mix or leave it out in favour of oats and/or motherwort, depending on the person. I also give people skullcap or rose elixir in separate bottles to take as and when the screaming habdabs descend.

David Winston also reported success with a mixture of SJW and lemon balm for seasonal affective disorder (SAD). This could be easily combined using tinctures but I have also made a syrup with extra lemons which proved far too delicious to be a medicine!

After several years of making oils and tinctures, I began to dry the herb for teas. A former apprentice reported great success in removing the pain of diabetic foot neuropathy in Asian elders by administering the tea as a footbath. This could also be used with any hand problems.   

My next experiment was with honey. SJW flowers in honey produces a pink honey with the characteristic SJW smell. You could use this in any drink as an added medicine to a herbal infusion. I’m now waiting for the evening primrose and bergamot to flower to make a “burns honey” together with apothecary’s rose petals. Having just treated a nasty burn on my leg, I want to be sure I’ve got a specific honey available just in case.

Every year I give away dozens of self seeded SJW plants. I believe every herb lover needs an SJW patch in their garden. I know I would be lost without mine.

I'll finish with a meditation I undertook recently with St John's Wort. This is what he said.

I am the sun and stars
I am strong
I travel along unseen pathways
I hide my scent
You will only know it if you work with me.
The more you work with me the less you will understand me
I comfort the vulnerable
Do not think to offer me on my own
I am not here to work your miracles
You will not notice how I change you until the change is past
Offer me humbly to your elders
On your knees let them bathe their feet in my waters
I will take away their pain, soothe the burning
I am strong
Trust me