Herbs for Health: Herbal Remedies for Depression and Anxiety

A supplement to The Herb Companion from the American Botanical Council and the Herb Research Foundation. The science and tradition behind herbal health solutions.

| February/March 1997

  • St john's wort
  • Kava-kava

St. John’s Wort: Past and Present

St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum) is a wildflower, a weed, and an herb with a long history. The first-century Greek physicians Galen and Dioscorides recommended it as a diuretic, wound healer, and treatment for menstrual disorders. In the sixteenth century, Paracelsus, who ushered in the era of mineral medicines, used St. John’s wort externally to treat wounds and ­contusions. Early Christians named the plant in honor of John the Baptist because they believed the flowers released their blood-red oil on August 29, the anniversary of the saint’s beheading.

During the Middle Ages, remarkable, even mystical properties were bestowed on the herb. It was used as a talisman to protect the bearer from demons. Harvesting often took place on a day with religious significance. (Whether a specific holy day was simply the best time to harvest or imbued the herb with greater power is open to speculation.) St. John’s wort was harvested on St. John’s day (June 24), its period of peak bloom. Superstition held that if a sprig of the herb were placed under the pillow on St. John’s Eve, St. John himself might appear in a dream, blessing the dreamer for another year.

Herb and weed

The genus Hypericum contains more than 400 species of trees, shrubs, and herbs, many of which are grown as ornamentals. H. perforatum is a much-branched perennial herb growing 1 to 3 feet tall. The leaves bear translucent dots that are easily seen by holding the leaves up to a light; these are the “perforations” that gave rise to the specific epithet perforatum.

St. John’s wort is native to Europe, occurring there except in the extreme north. It was introduced by early European settlers in North America, where it has naturalized in waste places and along roadsides. Now found in Asia, Africa, North and South America, and Australia, the herb has aggressively invaded rangelands, painting dry summer pastures with a blaze of yellow flowers. Beautiful it may be, but ranchers despise St. John’s wort because light-skinned livestock that eat the plants become sensitive to light, causing swelling and blindness and often death from starvation. Dark-skinned animals are unaffected. This photodermatitis results from the interaction of sunlight and oxygen with the red pigment hypericin (the condition has been called “hypericism”). External contact with the plant does not affect animals.

U.S. ranchers have lost sheep worth millions of dollars through poisoning by the plant they know as Klamath weed, so it’s not surprising that most North American scientific studies of St.-John’s-wort have focused on how to eradicate it. In Canada and the United States, a beetle (Chrysolina quadrigemina), whose sole food is St. John’s wort, has been used as a natural biological control.

Twentieth-century medicinal uses

Given the superstitions surrounding the herb, physicians had dismissed it as a folk medicine by the mid–nineteenth century. Interest in the medicinal uses of the plant was kept alive by Eclectic medical practitioners in the United States, who found it useful for healing wounds, especially lacerations involving nerve damage, as well as for its diuretic, astringent, and sedative properties. In 1938, a survey by a German physician found that St. John’s wort preparations were being utilized in Germany for neuroses, general restlessness, insomnia, and mental or emotional disorders caused by “excessive intellec­tual efforts”.

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