St. John’s Wort: Ancient Herbal Protector
Among the many medicinal herbs used throughout the long history of Occidental culture, St. John’s wort, Hypericum perforatum L., has always been and still is of great interest. From the time of the ancient Greeks down through the Middle Ages, the plant was considered to be imbued with magical powers and was used to ward off evil and protect against disease. As a practical folk-remedy, it has been used widely to heal wounds, remedy kidney troubles, and alleviate nervous disorders, even insanity, and recent research makes a provocative statement about the ancient uses of St. John’s wort by showing that it is a modern protector against depression and virus infection–two modern demons in their own right.
St. John’s wort is a member of the genus Hypericum, of which there are 400 species worldwide, and a member of the St. John’s wort family, Hypericaceae.
St. John’s wort is native to Europe, West Asia, North Africa, Madeira and the Azores, and is naturalized in many parts of the world, notably North America and Australia. The plant spreads rapidly by means of runners or from the prodigious seed production and can invade pastures, disturbed sites, dirt roads, the sides of roads and highways, and sparse woods.
In the western United States, St. John’s wort is especially prevalent in northern California and southern Oregon, hence one of its common names, “Klamath Weed”. Because of the known photosensitizing properties of the plant, which can be toxic to cows and sheep, it has been considered a pest in some places. Prior to 1949, it was estimated to inhabit 2.34 million acres of rangeland in northern California. For years an attempt was made to control the plant with herbicides, but with little success.
The solution to the problem with St. John’s wort in northern California finally proved to be with biological methods of control, not pesticides. In 1946, the leaf-beetles Chrysolina quadrigemina Rossi, and to a lesser extent C. hyperici Forst, were introduced from Australia, where it had been observed that they had a voracious appetite for Hypericum. Their appetite proved to be so voracious, in fact, that by 1957 northern California’s stands of St. John’s wort were reduced to only 1% of their original number.
Folklore and History of Use
The name Hypericum is ancient and may have several derivations. Yperikon was first mentioned by Euryphon, a Greek doctor from 288 BC. Pliny called the ground pine Hyperikon, though also chamaepitys and corion. One common explanation for the name Hypericum is that it may derive from ereike (heather) and hyper (above). However, although one Greek species of Hypericum looked similar to heather (though it grew taller), it seems more likely that the name derives from eikon (a figure, possibly an unwanted apparition) and hyper (above), which relates to the ancient use of St. John’s wort to exorcise evil spirits or influences. since the plant may have been placed over religious icons as a symbol of protection. Linnaeus, who described the genus, thought that Hypericum came from yper (upper) and eikon (an image).
The common name, St. John’s wort, is obviously a reference to St. John. Its earliest use may date back to the 6th century AD when, according to Gaelic tradition, the missionary St. Columba always carried a piece of St. John’s wort because of his great regard for St. John. Some early Christian authors claimed that red spots, symbolic of the blood of St. John, appeared on leaves of Hypericum spp. on August 29, the anniversary of the saint’s beheading, while others considered that the best day to pick the plant was on June 24, the day of St. John’s feast. In the Christian tradition, St. John represents light, hence the flowers were taken as a reminder of the sun’s bounty.
Dioscorides, the foremost herbalist of the ancient Greeks, mentions four species of Hypericum—Uperikon, Askuron and Androsaimon, andkKoris–which he recommends for sciatica, “when drunk with 2 heim of hydromel (honey-water).” He also claims that it “expels many cholerick excrement, but it must be given continuously, until they be cured, and being smeared on it is good for ambusta (burns).” H. crispum and H. barbatum, he writes, have “a diuretical facility….and of moving ye menstrua. The seed being drunk for 40 days drives away tertians and quartans (fevers occurring every 3 or 4 days, possibly malaria).”
Theophrastus recommends H. lanuginosum, a Greek species, for external application, while Pliny says it should be taken in wine against poisonous reptiles. H. coris, another Greek species, was mentioned by Hippocrates and Pliny. Although many older authors attest that the ancients knew of Hypericum as Fuga daemonum and used it to drive away demons, none make reference to any specific writers. Dioscorides, Pliny, and Theophrastus do not mention either this name or this use of the plant, but herbalists from the 16th and 17th centuries commonly mention the name.
St. John’s wort was used in early pre-Christian religious practices in England, and it has many legends written about it. Because of its bright yellow color, it was often associated with the sun and was often used for purposes of divination–for every situation from longevity to test one’s chances for matrimony. To predict their chances for marital bliss, young girls were in the habit of plucking a sprig of flowers–if the flowers were fresh in the morning, their chances were good, if wilted, a dismal outcome was predicted. This poem is translated from the German, where this custom was also practiced:
The young maid stole through the cottage door,
And blushed as she sought the plant of power.
‘Thou silver glow-worm, oh! lend me thy light,
I must gather the mystic St. John’s Wort to-night;
The wonderful herb whose leaf will decide
If the coming year shall see me a bride.”
The tops of Hypericum were also considered effective for keeping away undesirable influences and bringing luck. For instance, one belief was that bringing the flowers of St. John’s wort into the house on a midsummer eve would protect one from the evil eye, banish witches, promote good fortune and protect the house from fire. In one case in 1696, Aubrey tells the story of a poltergeist bothering the occupants of a house in London. A well-placed bunch of St. John’s wort under the householder’s pillow proved to exorcise the apparition.
Until as recent as the 1850s, St. John’s wort was used as a method to determine how long members of a family would live. Sprigs of the fresh plant would be hung from the rafters and in the morning, examined to see which ones were most wilted–which foretold which member would die soonest. Another belief was that if one slept with a piece of the plant under one’s pillow on St. John’s Eve, “the Saint would appear in a dream, give his blessing, and prevent one from dying during the following year”. The favor St. John’s wort enjoyed is well expressed in the following old English poem:
St. John’s wort doth charm all the witches away.
If gathered at midnight on the saint’s holy day.
And devils and witches have no power to harm
Those that do gather the plant for a charm:
Rub the lintels and post with that red juicy flower
No thunder nor tempest will then have the power
To hurt or to hinder your houses: and bind
Round your neck a charm of a similar kind.
Several noted English herbalists, reflecting the general beliefs of their time, wrote very favorably of the virtues of St. John’s wort. For instance, Gerard (ca. 1600) tells of the ointment he made of the plant as being a “most precious remedy for deepe wounds”, and adds that “there is not a better natural balsam….to cure any such wound”.
Culpeper (ca. 1650), who was fond of ascribing astrological signs to medicinal herbs, says that Hypericum “is under the celestial sign Leo, and the dominion of the Sun.” He goes on to say that “it is a singular wound herb, healing inward hurts or bruises,” and that as an ointment “it opens obstructions, dissolves swelling and closes up the lips of wounds.” Also, he claims it is good for those who “are bitten or stung by any venomous creature, and for those that cannot make water”–which use modern science confirms–and adds that the plant helps with “sciatica, the falling sickness and the palsy.”
Other early uses of Hypericum include as an oil (made by macerating the flowering tops of the plant in oil and then placing them in the sun for two or three weeks), which was “esteemed as one of the most popular and curative applications in Europe for excoriations, wounds, and bruises.” This preparation was even used by the surgeons to clean foul wounds, and was official in the first London Pharmacopeia as Oleum Hyperici.
Other popular folk-uses for St. John’s wort have included: as a decoction for gravel and ulcerations of the ureter; for ulcerations of the kidneys, febrifuge, vermifuge, jaundice, gout, and rheumatism; as an infusion (1 ounce of herb to 1 pint water) for chronic catarrhs of the lungs, bowels, or urinary passages; and as a warm lotion on injuries to the spinal cord, for lacerated or injured nerves, bed sores, and lock-jaw.
In the New World, the native American Indians used several indigenous species of Hypericum as an abortifacient, antidiarrheal, dermatological aid, febrifuge, hemostat, snake bite remedy, and general strengthener. After St. John’s wort was introduced by European settlers, they used it as well for similar conditions.
Despite the Native Indian uses of St. John’s wort, the plant was not well-known and was rarely mentioned by prominent writers on the subject of medicinal plants. One of the first references to the plant is from Griffith (1847), who says it can be used as an oil or ointment for ulcers, tumors, and as a diuretic. Even the Eclectics, medical doctors from the late 1800’s and early 1900’s who favored herbs in their practice, did not use St. John’s wort much.
Nonetheless, King, in his Dispensatory (1876), mentions its use in urinary affections, diarrhea, worms, jaundice, menorrhagia, hysteria, nervous imbalances with depression, and its usual external applications, including the use of the saturated tincture as a substitute for arnica, in bruises. In the later Felter-Lloyd revision of King’s Dispensatory, tincture of St. John’s wort, in a dose of 10-30 drops mixed with 4 ounces of water, taken in teaspoonful doses every 1-2 hours, is prescribed for spinal irritation, shocks, concussions, puncture wounds, and hysteria.
Today, modern American herbalists still use St. John’s wort for many of the same conditions for which it has been recommended throughout the ages and many commercial preparations are available either as an oil or a standardized liquid or powdered extract. In Europe, these preparations are commonly prescribed by medical doctors for burns, ulcers and nervous disorders, especially mild depression. Scientific studies have been performed in the laboratory and clinic to support these uses, some of which follow the ancient applications detailed above. With a documented history of continuous use for over 2,000, St. John’s wort may find new applications and wider acceptance into the 21st century.
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Formerly published in Pharmacy in History