Herb to Know: St. John's Wort

A cheerful-looking, hardy herb, St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum) is famous for healing everything from depression to bruises and burns. Learn more.

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A cheerful-looking, hardy herb, St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum) is famous for healing everything from depression to bruises and burns. It is impervious to extreme heat and inconsistent watering, it roots readily, and it gives off a subtle fragrance of balsamic-scented greens. As a roadside plant with an adaptable root system, this herb springs up just about all over the world. St. John’s wort was so named because the herb begins to bloom around the birthday of St. John the Baptist, June 24. "Wort" is Middle English for "herb."

For centuries, this herb was used to treat bruises and burns. Ancient herbalists recommended mixing a standard infusion of flower extract with cornstarch to make a thin paste and spreading it on a clean linen bandage to be applied to inflamed or burned areas. Sixteenth-century herbalist Culpepper recommended an oil-based St. John’s wort ointment to rub on swellings and burns.

Historically the flowers and leaves were mashed in lard and applied as a salve to heal burns and bruises. Cherokee Indians used the mucilage from the leaves as an ointment to treat bruises and burns, and they introduced the plant to early Colonists. Europeans prepared a tincture of flowers and leaves to be taken in wine as an antibiotic and to relieve inflammations, bacterial, viral and depressive problems. Today, St. John’s wort is widely recognized as an effective treatment for depression.

To ease a burn or bruise, simply soak the plant seeds or fresh sap juice thinned with warm chamomile tea and apply topically as a compress to speed burn and bruise healing.

Hypericums form a large genus and belong to the Hypericaceae. St. John’s wort is a native European and North African plant hardy to Zone 3. It needs dry, alkaline soil, but will grow in moist soils. The plant prefers six hours of sun. It produces five-petaled bright, lemon-yellow flowers in branched clusters with yellow threads in the middle that yield a blood-red juice when bruised.

The herb spreads vigorously from short runners and produces as many as 30,000 seeds per plant in a single season. Plant it with care: Nine states in the West classify St. John’s wort as a noxious weed. Check with your local extension service to find out if it’s suitable for growing in your area. Plants will grow to 3 feet with a 1-foot spread, so place them where they have plenty of space. St. John’s wort can be propagated in spring or fall from seed and soft wood cuttings.

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