In almost six months’ time it will be the day of St John, the 24th June, Old Midsummer. Yes I know, it’s a long way away but in the dark, cold depths of winter, why not think ahead to those warm summer days, when one of my favourite herbs is at its best, St John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum). It’s also strangely apt, for the herb that symbolises Midsummer is, I think, of its most beneficial during the long dark months of Winter.
Growth and Cultivation
H. perforatum is the common form of St John’s Wort growing wild here in the UK pretty much all over the place, in woodland clearings, around field boundaries and scrub land. It seems to like Kent’s chalky, free draining soils; I haven’t seen it growing on the soggy Kent clay however. The plant is herbaceous, so dies back in winter yet also shrubby, growing more woody as the plant ages. Each plant can grow about 18” high and in the wild you usually find a few clumps of lank straggly stems here and there. I bought a St John’s Wort plant from Glastonbury market many years ago and it has moved house with me on two occasions, it grows bushier by the year and is probably one of the most striking plants in the summer border.
As mentioned above it seems to love more free draining soils and my plant is positioned in full sun in which it thrives. Its leaves are small, bottle green, oval shaped growing in an alternate pattern up the length of each of the stems which branch and divide towards the terminus. Each off shoot produces clusters of reddish buds which burst open around midsummer displaying the most vivid yellow flowers, each with hundreds of long stamen protruding from the centre giving them an almost shaggy, unkempt appearance. The flowers are pure joy and insects love them!
When the flowers go over the plant reveals rusty, reddish brown seed pods which are, in my opinion, just as attractive as the flowering heads. The plant however can be cut back to prolong the flowering period (what has become known as the ‘Chelsea Chop’ as this pruning is performed around the time of the annual Chelsea flower show). I cut back about 50% of the tall stems around this time which keeps the plant looking neat but also provides valuable herb to dry and use throughout the year, but more on that later.
St John’s Wort is easily propagated from seed, and seeds self-sow relatively freely around the garden, I have never tried cuttings but presumably green wood cuttings or semi ripe cuttings would strike ok, you could also try division and layering, but seed germination is easy enough. St John’s Wort is probably best treated like a wild flower, sow seeds when ripe in autumn and leave the tray outside for nature to take its course and you will probably have a pretty good germination rate come spring….at least that’s how they seem to behave in the garden!
The main use for St John’s Wort I am familiar with is its use as an alternative anti-depressant. No, no I’m not ‘depressed’ however I do make use of St John’s Wort during the dark winter months when sunlight is at a minimum which admittedly I struggle with. I find St John gently lifts the spirits…think of those glorious yellow flowers, pure joy…the energy of Midsummer captured in a dry herb and transferred to a tincture. About 1 ml in a glass of water every morning and evening is sufficient to keep my winter blues in check. Anyone taking prescription anti-depressants however should not even contemplate introducing a supplement like St Johns Wort before consulting with their GP! I am by no means recommending St John’s for you readers; I am not qualified to do so! However if you feel it may be of benefit based on my personal experiences then by all means seek advice from a professional!
St John’s Wort also creates a very useful (and very attractive looking) macerated oil. Fill a clean glass jar full with the fresh tips, buds and flowers from the plant and cover with sunflower oil, leave on a sunny windowsill for a couple of weeks, shaking occasionally. The oil will begin to turn a delectable shade of sanguine and after a fortnight, the oil can be strained. Add a little wheat germ oil to help preserve and apply to skin. The oil is fantastic for soothing burns, scrapes, bruises and areas of inflammation but for massage should be diluted 1:4 with another carrier oil such as sunflower or grape seed. The oil, however, will cause photosensitivity of the skin and should never be applied just before sunbathing or other UV exposure.
Lore and Magical Uses
St John’s Wort is so named because it flowers around the Feast day of St John (the Baptist) and is therefore associated with Midsummer (His feast day (birthday) is the 24th June). Mugwort is also known as St John’s herb or plant of St John so shouldn’t be confused. Unsurprisingly Culpepper assigns St John’s Wort to the Sun and the sign of Leo.
If we look at St John the Baptist we learn that he was the first ‘baptiser’ to wash away sins, and was the man who baptised Christ. We also know that the latin word ‘Hypericum’ literally translates as ‘over apparition’ meaning it has control over spirits which is certainly one of its uses along with other famous Midsummer herbs such as Mugwort and Vervain. Upon the eve of St John, take a sprig of the herb and with holy water asperge the house, asperge the self and immerse yourself in blessings and protection. The flowers, gathered with reverence of course, may also be hung in the home or burnt on the midsummer fires, in the hearth or as incense to procure its blessings and protection. Remember the midsummer fires were traditionally leapt and cattle were occasionally driven between the midsummer fires to fumigate and bless the herd.
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. (15th Century)
St John was also a prophet, said to be responsible for foretelling the coming of Christ, The King of Kings. In many ways the radiant golden yellow flowers of St John’s Wort at Midsummer also herald the arrival of a King, a King who some indeed call Christ, whom others simply call Lord or even ‘John Barleycorn’. Interestingly the red oil of St John’s is called ‘The Blood of Christ’ and the plant is supposed to ooze its red sap in August, the month when St John the Baptist was beheaded. Personally I’ve never observed that but it’s interesting nevertheless!
Being a midsummer herb, St John’s Wort is also Faerie Sacred and legend has it that if you step on St John’s Wort a faerie steed will come and whisk you away into the otherworld). An English translation of an old ‘Celtic’ charm also reveals much about the herb’s long veneration
St John’s Wort, St John’s Wort
My Envy whoever has thee
I will pluck thee with my right hand
I will preserve thee with my left hand
Whosoever find thee in the cattlefold
Shall never be without Kine (Cows)
This little charm suggests that St John’s Wort bestows wealth and prosperity upon the one who plucks and bares (‘preserves’) the herb. Perhaps drying and hanging in the cattle shed was the way to curie favour, maybe adding to a small cloth bag and worn as an amulet or, to put a modern spin on it, try adding dried flowers to one’s purse or wallet.
This is by no means the full extent of the lore surrounding St John’s Wort, I haven’t even touched upon its use as a divinatory tool but of all the herbs I have covered or am going to cover later in the Alp-herb-et, St John’s Wort is definitely in my top 5 herbs for the Witch to know and work with, a little ray of sunshine here on Earth which I for one couldn’t be without.