|Common St. Johnswort, Hypericum perforatum (right), is a useful medicinal herb that is easy to grow in the garden. Illustration from Field Book of American Wild Flowers by F. Schuyler Mathews, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, N.Y., 1902.
By Deb Soule
Common St. Johnswort (Hypericum perforatum) is native to Europe and has naturalized in fields and along roadsides throughout North America. Most likely the species perforatum was brought to North America by European settlers for medicinal use. The genus Hypericum contains around 300 species, 10 or which have been found growing in Maine. One of North America’s native Hypericum species, H. pyramidatum, is on Maine’s endangered plant list.
Culture and Characteristics
Hypericum perforatum is listed in the Josselyn Botanical Society’s Check List of the Vascular Plants of Maine as growing in all 16 counties. I have a few small patches of common St. Johnswort that appeared soon after I began creating my gardens 12 years ago.
Hypericum perforatum is a perennial that reproduces naturally from rhizomes at the base of the plant and from seed. I had success starting a few flats of Hypericum perforatum from seed last spring. Washing the seeds with water before planting will speed germination. So will exposing your planted seed to a brief 212 to 250° F temperature, says Steven Foster in his book Herbal Renaissance. Be sure to tap the seeds gently into your soil mixture; they need light to germinate.
St. Johnswort is not fussy about soil conditions. It needs full sun, good drainage and slightly acidic soil. It will grow in dry soil although the oil content in the flowers is higher with some moisture. I transplanted 3-inch-high seedlings into the garden, 1 foot apart, in mid-June.
A member of the Hypericaceae family, St. Johnswort is a many-branched herb, growing 1 to 3 feet high with star-shaped, golden flowers that begin blooming late June in midcoast Maine. The flowers are about an inch wide with tiny dark dots along the edges of the petals. When you crush the fresh buds and flowers with your fingers, a dark-red, almost purple color stains them. This is the healing oil that herbalists seek. The pale green leaves are an inch long, opposite, oblong shaped and without teeth (entire). They are covered with translucent dots that can be seen when a leaf is held up to the light – hence the species name perforatum.
Beats the Blues
Most of the scientific research on the medicinal uses of St. Johnswort is on the perforatum species. St. Johnswort is becoming quite popular because clinical research has shown that it relieves symptoms associated with mild to moderate depression. This herb has long been valued for its various healing properties, which I wish to discuss before discussing recently published double-blind studies. The ways herbs have been used over several centuries helps us understand their chemical constituents and their energetic make-up and must not be forgotten in this time when so much emphasis is placed on scientific data.
The beautiful, bright yellow flowers of common St. Johnswort have been carefully gathered and dried by European herbalists for centuries and used in teas for easing winter blues. Quality, dried St. Johnswort flowers will have a yellow and red color to them. I like to mix bright orange and yellow calendula flowers with St. Johnswort flowers, nettles, and red clover blossoms for a colorful, nourishing and uplifting winter tea. A strong tea of St. Johnswort can be added to the bath to help ease nerve and muscle pain, nervousness and over excitability. A few drops of lavender or lemon balm essential oil added to the bath with calm and relax nervousness and will uplift the spirit.
St. Johnswort tincture or tea taken orally helps repair nerve damage and reduce muscle, joint and tendon pain and inflammation and helps ease the pain of menstrual cramps, sciatica, shingles and arthritis. The tea or tincture is specific for women going through menopause to ease nervousness and mild depression and can be taken daily over several months. (See cautions at the end of this article.)
Other Medicinal Uses
St. Johnswort has an expectorant action, clearing excess mucous from the lungs and speeding recovery from coughs and chest infections. The buds, flowers and leaves have an antibacterial and antiviral action against TB and influenza A, the herpes simplex virus and possibly the AIDS virus (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 1988).
This herb is an important ingredient in formulas for people with any kind of systemic virus or retrovirus, such as the AIDS virus, and for those with nerve degeneration because of the many levels on which the herb works. Biochemists have found that one of the active compounds, hypericin, enables the body to increase its intake of oxygen on a cellular level (vesicular breathing), thus improving one’s overall energy level and health when taken consistently over several weeks or months. When the actual breathing of a cell is restored, the cell’s overall health greatly improves. Any person or animal challenged with a long-term illness or a transition, such as menopause or loss of a loved one, will benefit from nervine herbs, such as St. Johnswort, which help ease anxiety, nervousness and stress.
Oil made from the fresh flowers and buds of St. Johnswort is a very effective remedy for decreasing pain and inflammation in the muscles, joints and tendons and for soothing and healing bruises, burns, cuts, wounds, sprains and ear aches. (St. Johnswort oil mixed with fresh mullein flower oil, garlic oil and calendula oil is my favorite for ear aches – do not use these oils if the ear drum is perforated, however). Several applications daily of St. Johnswort oil effectively reduce pain associated with arthritis, carpal tunnel syndrome, bursitis, first and second degree burns, spinal cord injuries, shingles and damaged nerve endings, such as crushed finger tips. A few summers ago a friend had a garage door slam down on all her finger tips. You can imagine her excruciating pain. We immediately gave her the homeopathic pills of St. Johnswort alternating with homeopathic arnica pills every 15 minutes for 1 hour and gently applied the oil of St. Johnswort on her finger tips. She kept using the oil for another five days. She did not lose her fingernails and today is still active at woodworking and African drumming. Another specific use of St. Johnswort oil is as a massage oil on the perineum before, during and after labor. The anti-inflammatory properties heal and soothe the tissue – even tears – of the perineum quickly and effectively. Many lay midwives use this oil, and I hope someday St. Johnswort oil will make its way into the hands of women who choose to birth in hospitals and birthing centers.
Hypericin, one of at least 50 chemical constituents found in St. Johnswort, has been isolated in the laboratory, standardized to a specific percentage and manufactured into capsules called “standardized extracts.” The research being done on St. Johnswort and depression uses standardized extracts of St. Johnswort containing 0.3% hypericin. Researcher and naturopathic doctor Michael Murray wrote in the December 1996 issue of The American Journal of Natural Medicine, “Originally it was thought that hypericin acted as an inhibitor of the enzyme monoamine oxidase (MAO) – thereby resulting in the increase of central nervous system monoamines such as serotonin and dopamine. However, newer information indicates that St. Johnswort possesses no in vivo inhibition of MAO. It appears that the antidepressant activities are related more to modulating the relationship between the immune system and mood as well as by inhibiting serotonin reuptake . In addition, it appears that while hypericin is an important marker, other compounds such as flavonoids are thought to play a major role in the pharmacology of St. Johnswort.”
Even though the “exact” mechanisms of action of St. Johnswort are not completely understood by scientists, several double-blind clinical studies have shown the effectiveness of standardized extracts of St. Johnswort for people who are mildly to moderately depressed. In 1994, a randomized, placebo-controlled, double-blind study was done in Austria by a psychiatrist, an internist and a general practitioner with 105 outpatients diagnosed with mild to moderate depression or with temporary depressive moods. Sixty-seven percent of the people taking St. Johnswort and 28% taking the placebo improved. Those using St. Johnswort felt less sad, hopeless, helpless and useless, and slept better. In Germany, many clinical trials have been done on St. Johnswort and this herb, along with ginkgo, is widely prescribed by German physicians for mild to moderate depression.
Research states that one needs to take 300 mg of standardized St. Johnswort three times daily over four weeks to begin to feel its benefits. A friend of mine recently began taking 1 teaspoon of her own St. Johnswort tincture made from flowers growing in her backyard and 300 mg of the standardized extract of St. Johnswort every day for her depression. She was diagnosed by her doctor with chronic, long standing depression. She said that within two to three days she began to feel relief. She commented that she felt the different preparations had a synergistic effect in her body. She previously had tried three different anti-depressant drugs and experienced side effects from all of them.
Note that that plant in its whole form is different from a plant that is manipulated in a lab and made into a standardized extract. Standardized extracts of St. Johnswort and other herbs are botanical drugs and need to be used wisely, with the guidance of educated practitioners, just as allopathic drugs need to be used with guidance. I think standardized extracts have their place for serious illnesses, especially when few side effects have been reported by people using St. Johnswort versus the range of side effects resulting from antidepressant drugs. What concerns me about standardized extracts is that they are produced and bottled to look like allopathic drugs, distancing people once again from intimate involvement with their healing process and from knowing what the medicine looks and tastes like. I am also concerned that the trend towards standardized herbal remedies in Europe and now in the United States could mislead the general public into thinking that homemade herbal remedies and community herbalists are worthless. I know from studying and using herbs for over 20 years that this is just not true. The daily ways we nourish ourselves, such as drinking herb tea, watching the sun rise, and walking in the woods, are essential for our overall health.
Considerable evidence shows that St. Johnswort has caused a photosensitive reaction in sheep, cows and horses that grazed extensively on the fresh plant in the western United States. People taking the standardized extract of St. Johnswort need to be careful about the possibility of having a photosensitive reaction, and if they do they should cut back on dosage and avoid exposure to strong sunlight and other sources of ultraviolet light. I have not heard of a photosensitive reaction in anyone using the tincture or oil, but people should know to watch for this. No other side effects have been reported in clinical studies. Medical literature advises people who are on synthetic antidepressants not to use St. Johnswort.
A few other herbs traditionally used to help people with mild depression include lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) as a tea, tincture or glycerite, Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus) tincture to stabilize blood sugar levels and improve mental alertness and physical stamina, and fresh oat seed tincture or glycerite for deeply nourishing the nervous system. All three of these herbs can be taken together on a daily, long term basis with St. Johnswort. Walking in nature and sitting and/or working in a garden also benefits a person’s spirit. In this post-industrial time, when so many people live disconnected from themselves and from the natural world, it is not surprising that depression is on the rise. My friend Amanda McQuade Crawford wrote to me, “Sometimes when technological medicine has nothing more to offer a person, we may find the deepest healing in a simple green blossom.”
1 J. Geriatric Psychiatry Neurol., 7(Supp. 1):S60-2, 1994, and Arzneim Forsh 45:1145-8, 1995.
About the author: Deb owns Avena Botanicals in West Rockport, Maine, and is the author of The Roots of Healing – A Woman’s Book of Herbs.