A Midsummer Herb: Saint John’s Wort
COMMON NAME: Saint John’s Wort
SPECIES: H. calycinum, H. bookerianum, H. patulum
DESCRIPTION: Saint John’s wort is a low-growing, partly woody perennial that produces bright yellow flowers from early summer until frost. The flowers, which measure 1 1/2 to 2 inches across, occur in groups of five to seven. The plant reaches a height of 40 to 60 inches, though dwarf varieties that grow only 18 to 24 inches tall are available. Light green leaves have a silver lining.
CULTIVATION: A hardy plant, Saint Jon’s wort thrives in poor soil and full sun or light shade. The top of the plant might be killed back in severe winter weather but this does not seem to affect its performance since the blossoms appear on new spring growth.
Sun and light are images often associated with Saint John’s wort. The genus was thought to have been named for the Greek Titan Hyperion, father of Helios, god of the sun. According to Teutonic mythology, this plant was dedicated to the sun god, Baldur. It was called the herb of destiny and was thought to be marked by the sun. Small, translucent, sunlike circles appear on the leaves and flowers. The species name perforatum refers to these circles. H. perforatum is a European species widely naturalized in North America.
The history of this plant includes many mystical happenings. As part of certain pagan rituals, it was burned on Midsummer’s Eve to honor the sun and placate the good fairies. On the Isle of Wight it was believed that if you stepped on Saint John’s wort after dark, a phantom horse would sweep you up and carry you on a wild ride, lasting until dawn. Saint John’s wort was also called demon chaser.
Early Christians opposed heathen rituals and tried to put an end to many of these pagan celebrations. Because John the Baptist was born on Midsummer Day, they changed the name of this plant to Saint John’s wort and said that Saint John had blessed it with many healing powers. The ancient Feast of Fires was changed to the Feast of Saint John, celebrated on June 24.
This plant was grown in monastery gardens during medieval times because of its value in healing wounds and treating inflammation of the lungs and throat. In Brazil, this plant was used as an antidote for snakebites. In Russian, it was considered protection against hydrophobia. An early twentieth-century herbal suggests that a concoction made from this plant was good for coughs and colds. According to the doctrine of signatures, the translucent holes in the leaves indicated that the plant would be useful in healing holes or cuts in the body.
Saint John’s wort was brought to America by Rosicrucians, members of a mystical religious sect from Germany who arrived on American shores on Midsummer’s Eve day.
The Pennsylvania Dutch called it “blessed herb” and considered it protection for newborn children, saying that a sprig over the doorway would banish the evil eye.