St. John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum)
The sunny yellow flowers of St. John’s wort (SJW) harbor a strange secret. Bruise the delicate petals and they seem to bleed. The blood-red liquid is an oil released from tiny, dark-colored glands scattered along the petal margins. In ancient times, a plant that “bled” was assumed to possess great powers.
During the rise of Christianity, the herb came to be associated with John the Baptist (wort is the Old English word for plant). It was said to bloom on the saint’s birthday, June 24, and to bleed on August 29, the anniversary of his beheading. The earliest use of the name may date to the sixth century, when the Irish missionary St. Columba carried the herb with him into northern Scotland. The genus name, Hypericum, is from the Greek, meaning “over a picture or icon”—a reference to the custom of draping the herb over religious images to strengthen their powers in banishing demons. For many centuries, St. John’s wort was a symbol of protection against evil, but also a prized medicinal herb, with the power to heal the body and ease the troubled mind.
Ancient Greek and Roman physicians used St. John’s wort to dress battle wounds, as well as treat burns, bruises, and inflammations. Hundreds of years later, as battles raged in the Holy Land, the crusaders treated their wounds with St. John’s wort in much the same way. Throughout the Middle Ages, heart conditions, jaundice, dysentery, bleeding, urinary troubles, and nervous depression were all treated with the herb. Also popular at this time, and for centuries afterward, was hypericum oil, a preparation made from the flowers and rubbed into the skin to heal bruises and wounds. By the late 17th century, St. John’s wort had been incorporated into American herbal medicine, prescribed externally for wounds and sores and internally for nervous anxiety and depression.
After falling into disuse early in the last century, St. John’s wort has seen a remarkable revival in the past few decades. It is currently the most widely used herb in modern herbal medicine for treating mild to moderate depression. St. John’s wort is also used to relieve anxiety, ner- vous exhaustion, seasonal affective disorder, premenstrual syndrome, and to help heal minor wounds and skin irritations.
Excerpted from National Geographic Guide to Medicinal Herbs by Tieraona Low Dog, Rebecca L. Johnson, Steven Foster, and David Kiefer, M.D., with a Foreword by Andrew Weil, M.D.. Copyright © 2012 by Tieraona Low Dog, Rebecca L. Johnson, Steven Foster, and David Kiefer, M.D., with a Foreword by Andrew Weil, M.D.. Excerpted by permission of National Geographic, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.