Common St. John’s Wort – Millepertuis commun
The name Hypericum comes from the Greek word Hypericon, indicating that the smell of the flowers was so strong, strong enough to ward off evil spirits and at the same time cleanse the air. When you rub the flowers they give off a red pigment (Hypericin), which was associated with blood. St John was beheaded and in memory of him the plant was called ‘St. John’s’, the herb of St. John. In addition, it is in full bloom on St. John’s Day, 24 June.
The genus ‘Hypericum’ has about 370 species. It is found in the temperate zones of Europe and western Asia. Hypericum perforatum grows near forests or hedgerows and prefers calcareous soils. It is a perennial. The erect stem has two pronounced ridges, which are easy to feel when you slide your hands over the stem. If you look closely at the leaves, there are tiny holes in them, hence the name ‘perforatum’. The flowers are bright yellow in colour, with five petals and pronounced stamens. They are covered with small oil glands.
It has been used medicinally for a very long time. It was quite common to make your own St. John’s Wort oil. It is effective in healing burns and wounds, especially where nervous tissue has been damaged. When overdoing the work in the garden and you have a sore back, rub some St John’s Wort oil on the painful area, and you’ll find it really helps. The first time I ever used it was for sunburn. I applied it on the sunburned area before going to sleep and was quite surprised the next morning that the sunburn soreness was gone. You do need to wash the oil off before going into the sun: although it heals sunburn, going with the St John’s Wort oil rubbed into your skin into the sun, causes severe burning. This has to do with the light sensitive properties of the herb. Charolais or Frisian cows, with a lot of white patches, will suffer from sunburn after ingesting the herb from a meadow where a lot of St. John’s Wort is growing.
A few years ago I was visiting Fytosan, a company that makes herbal tinctures and essential oil in Die in the Drôme. It was interesting to see large vats filled with olive oil and Hypericum perforatum standing outside in the sun. The following is a recipe to make your own oil. I’ve already got one on the go. The only negative thing is that it is an oil, and it give off a red colour. After putting on the oil, you need to wear an old T shirt to protect your clothes.
Ingredients: olive or sunflower oil; a large bunch of Hypericum perforatum; a jam jar and a piece of cotton to cover the jar.
Take off the flowers and drop them into the oil. The oil needs to be saturated with the flowers. Cover the jam jar with a piece of cotton and place the jar directly in a sunny spot or on a window sill. Leave the flowers to soak for 3 weeks, you see the oil turning red. After 3 weeks, strain and press out the flowers. You should end up with a red oil, ready to be used. This keeps for one year.
In addition to the oil, the herb has been used to treat mild to moderate depression, anxiety and sleep disorders. In Germany, doctors prescribe Hypericum more often than the anti-depressant drug ‘Prosac’. It is not meant to be used for medium to severe depression. It does interact with other drugs and is not suitable for pregnant women or breast- feeding mothers.
At the University Hospital in Leuven, Belgium, they have been using the light-sensitive properties of ‘Hypericin’ to show up the presence of cancer cells. Bladder tumors that cannot be detected with an endoscopy can be detected with Hypericin. They call it PDT (Photo Dynamic Therapy, using ‘Hypericin’, a fluorescent photo sensitiser, extracted from St. John’s Wort). PDT works by injecting ‘Hypericin’ into the patient through an endoscope tube with a camera at the end. After injecting the ‘Hypericin’, the tumor lights up red in blue light as a result of the fluorescent effect of ‘Hypericin’. They think this method of injecting ‘Hypericin’ might eventually lead to a way to treat bladder cancer.
Bibliography: The Encyclopedia of Herbs and Herbalism – Malcolm Stuart; Handboek Heilzame Kruiden – Penelope Ody; Mediterranean Wild Flowers – Marjorie Blamey/Christopher Grey-Wilson; Blaaskanker beter opspoorbaar – Professor Marie-Ange D’Hallewin – Dienst Urologie; Hypericum perforatum – Ir. J. Lambrechts.