St. John’s Wort has long been one of those herbs that I have great respect for and love as medicine, but have used it minimally simply because it’s not plentiful in my bioregion. Native species of Hypericum don’t always seem to contain much in the way of the red purple juice that herbalists so value, and just as importantly, they tend to be too sparse to ethically gather. So instead, I usually buy or trade for a small amount of the tincture and infused oil each year from friends for personal use and otherwise do without. Until now…
I was recently on a hike high in the White Mountains of Arizona on the Little Colorado River in a sheltered subalpine canyon where the plants are lush and green, even this time of year when most things are dormant or dying back while waiting for our summer rains. There were so many gorgeous herbs in flower it was actually difficult to focus, I just kept turning in circles to gaze at the Elderflowers and Wild Roses and Aconite and Violets and Horsetail and Owl’s Claws (Hymenoxys hoopesii) and Checker Mallow (Sidalcea neomexicana) and False Solomon’s Seal and Fernleaf Betony (Pedicularis procera) until I was downright dizzy! But then, under a clump of Red Osier Dogwood, there was a huge patch of one of our native medicinal Saint John Worts, Hypericum scouleri, in wild golden bloom spreading back through the woods to the river.
Like the completely plant obsessed madwoman that I am, I nearly hyperventilated from joy over the unexpected gift of just seeing so much of this somewhat rare herb. Not only that, I could see from the size of the patch and the patches beyond that there was clearly enough to harvest a small amount for medicine. Elka and I immediately knelt down and began carefully picking the flowering tops, accompanied by quite a lot of excited chatter from me. But seriously, people, look at this plant! Is it possible to not be incredibly happy in its presence?
St John’s Wort is one of those exceedingly well known plants that is so popular that it becomes difficult to describe its properties without being redundant. It’s probably most famous for its use in treating mild to moderate “depression” and for its sometimes problematic interactions with pharmaceuticals because of its effect on liver metabolism. I personally find a depression a problematic terms that tends to be a catchall for anyone who is not currently happy and may or may not also be manic. In other words, another generic psych term that can result from a plethora of roots and requires some critical thinking to best understand what may help and by what mechanism. Anything the normal processes of grief to side effects of hormonal birth control to chronic pain to symptoms of a food intolerance can be diagnosed as depression, and yet, they all need to be addressed differently… so let’s just forget that whole “St John’s Wort is for depression” thing for a minute.
St John’s Wort is a fantastic relaxant nervine, and I think it best enhance mood when there’s a component of tension and/or anxiety. Henriette Kress says in her book, Practical Herbs, that it’s most indicated for depression stemming from frustration, and I find that to be very true. This is basically the only kind of depression I’m personally susceptible thus far in my life, so beyond treating clients, I have some experience of my own with St. John’s Wort. I find that the herb taken internally in such a situation is very helpful at not only getting a sense of humor about the situation, but also in helping to find the proper perspective for sorting out whatever is causing the frustration and changing it.
As is common with herbs that are relaxant nervines, Hypericum is also helpful in cases of insomnia, especially if anxiety, gloomy thoughts, or a busy head is preventing sleep in the first place. I also find it useful in preventing and treating night terrors and nightmares, especially in children. Once again, elements of anxiety and tension are the key here.
Externally, SJW liniment can be a lifesaver for crunched back muscles resulting in sciatica, especially when combine with Cottonwood (resinous Populus spp.) buds and Alder (Alnus spp.) bark or leaf. The oil, salve, poultice, or compress is wonderful for healing almost any skin inflammation, and for reducing the swelling, pain, and overall inflammation of many injuries, including pulled muscles, sprained ankles, and can be useful post ACL surgery when combined with Comfrey, Solomon’s Seal, and Mullein.
Hypericum is also very helpful in all sorts of back pain characterized by a burning pain, including nerve pain, especially pain that is worse with pressure. It is commonly present in a great many general wound salves, pain liniments, and oils for sore muscles. It can be helpful in all of these situations, being rather multipurpose when it comes to hot, burning inflammation. This also applies to topical use in the treatment of herpetic lesions and shingles, especially if used as a preventative (concurrent with internal use) at the first sign of an occurrence, but most effective in this situation if combined with other helpful antivirals and supportive herbs.
When St. John’s Wort is truly indicated, it tends to work notably in a rapid manner, whether internally or externally. It’s not one of those herbs you have to wait to six weeks to see results from. If it doesn’t show any results from the first few times of taking it, try something else.
I prefer infused oil made with the fresh flowers, and tincture or elixir from the fresh or freshly dried flowering tops. Tisanes and infusions can be made with the dried plant. It is sometimes said that the dried plant is ineffective but I have not found this to be the case as long as I am using high quality, recently dried herb.
Internal: Endless combinations come to mind, but for alleviating anxiety, tension, and general gloominess, particularly if accompanied by exhaustion, weakness, and gut inflammation, I’m especially fond of a formula made up of 5 parts Hypericum, 3 parts Evening Primrose (Oenothera spp.) flowering tops, 2 parts Monkeyflower (Mimulus spp.) flowering tops, and 1 part Rose (especially Wild Roses, but any aromatic species will do) in honey and alcohol to make an elixir. Take as needed, .5 ml 3x/day.
For general sadness and apathy, it combines well with a more moving herb, such as Lavender or Tulsi to lift the spirits and help clear stuck depression or grief. I especially like a formula of 3 parts Albizzia flower or bark, 2 parts Hypericum, and 1 part Tulsi as a tincture or elixir, .5 ml up to 3x/day or smaller doses as needed.
It also makes a wonderful infusion, in equal parts with the flowering tops of Evening Primrose, for chronic coughs, especially that lingering cough after a long struggle with bronchitis in those who are already worn down by the virus and then the secondary infection and having difficulty recovering on the respiratory front.
External: For healing damaged ligaments I like an oil or liniment of 4 parts Solomon’s Seal root, 3 parts Saint John’s Wort, 2 parts Comfrey leaf/root, 2 parts Cottonwood bud, and 1 part Mullein leaf and root. This can also work well for almost any damaged joint that is suffering slow healing, aching pain, and inflammation.
Please note that this article speaks only to preparations made from the whole plant, NOT hypericin or any other isolated component.
Hypericum effects liver metabolism and caution should be utilized when using large amounts of St. John’s Wort concurrently with other medications, including birth control pills, and especially anti-depressants and blood thinners. High doses of Hypericum can also cause photosensitivity in some sensitive individuals.
Also, some people seem to feel absolutely nothing from St. John’s Wort, and some people are practically knocked out by it, so proceed slowly when dosing. I once saw a very perky young woman take a couple dropperfuls of the tincture at the HerbFolk Gathering, and ten minutes later proceed to stagger out of the Healer’s Market to take an impromptu nap on the nearest patch of shady grass. Such a strong reaction seems uncommon, but seems more likely to happen to vata types, especially if they’re anxious or wound up.
While H. perforatum is an invasive weed in parts of the United States, here in NM and AZ our native species such as H. scouleri are far from weedy and tend to prefer relatively untouched forests high in the mountains, almost always by a water source. They are not necessarily abundant or flourishing, given the habitat degradation, drought, and severe fires of late. If you harvest here, PLEASE (as in do so or I will hunt you down and personally harm you) do so with due consideration for the plant and a great deal of common sense.
Dried Hypericum perforatum can be purchased from most herb suppliers, including Mountain Rose Herbs, fresh flowers can be purchased from select suppliers, including Pacific Botanicals and Zack Woods Herb Farm. Many suppliers also carry the infused oil or tincture, including Fawn Lily Botanicals.
Resources & References:
Practical Herbs by Henriette Kress
Medicinal Plants of the Mountain West by Michael Moore
Combining Western Herbs and Chinese Medicine: A Clinical Materia Medica, 120 Herbs in Western Use by Jeremy Ross
Hedgerow Medicine by Julie Bruton-Seal and Matthew Seal
The Gift of Healing Herbs by Robin Rose Bennett
Herbal Therapy & Supplements: A Scientific & Traditional Approach by Merrily A. Kuhn and David Winston
Warding Off Evil in the 21st Century: St John’s Wort As Xenosensory Activator? by Jonathan Treasure
Herbal Pharmacokinetics: A Pratitioner’s Update With Reference to St John’s Wort Herb Drug Interactions by Jonathan Treasure
All images ©2014 Kiva Rose