Friday, August 6, 2010

First Friday Focus: St. John’s Wort (Hypericum Perforatum)

Herbal Musings with Jenn the Greenmom

I love this plant. It’s not one of the big obvious herbs, like basil or oregano or the other ones we cook with all the time, but it’s very cool.

It’s mostly been hailed in popular culture as sort of an “herbal Prozac” kind of thing—test trials have given better-than-placebo results in treating mild-to-moderate depression, and there is interest in studying its use with kids and teens for whom lots of the standard antidepressants are just plain dangerous. (Honestly, I’m not even going to speak to whether or not St. John's Wort is something anyone should try for this purpose; I leave that to the reader, hopefully in dialogue with that reader's health care provider. Depression is a serious business, with no single “magic bullet” to resolve it; each person needs to seek their own path. So I can only say what I always do: be informed, study and research on your own, and pay attention!)

But it has some other good uses too…

First of all, identification: it looks, in all honesty, like a big sprawly bushy relative of the buttercup, and blooms in late June. Around St. John’s Day. Hence the name. But it’s not a buttercup. For one thing, if you hold up the leaves to the light, you can see a bunch of little dots or “perforations” (hence the Latin name). If you squish one of the leaves between your fingers, you’ll find a little dark read smear on your fingers. Squish a flower bud or seed pod, you’ll get a bigger smear. The red stuff is the medicinal part of the plant (hypericin), and there’s lots more in the flower than in the leaves.

It spreads through underground rhizomes, and in a number of places is referred to as a “noxious weed.” It does spread pretty opportunistically. However, we should remember that a “weed” is in the eye of the beholder. One of these months I’ll tackle the humble dandelion, a powerhouse of medicinal goodness…

As with almost any herbal “treatment,” much of the information regarding the effectiveness of St. John’s Wort is all over the board and largely apocryphal. However, given the high incidence of side effects in a lot of pharmacological anti-depressants, its possibilities as an aid for those suffering mild to moderate depression are being studied with some diligence. The few side effects it is reported to have are involved with light-sensitivity and headaches, some gastrointestinal upset, over-sedation, and so forth—you can find more info here. One also needs to watch out for interactions with other herbs and/or drugs…a happy cure-all like chamomile this is not; it’s a powerful plant.

What to do with it?

Well, as with many herbs, you have two real choices: tincture or oil. (Some recommend tea or capsules, but the thing is, you lose most of the hypericin when you dry the plant, so it’s nowhere near as potent.) For tincture, you do flowering tops (as in, flowers with the stems and a couple of leaves around them) in alcohol. For oil, you macerate the flowers only in a neutral oil. I’ve put instructions in other posts, so check them out…the cool thing about this herb, though, is that the results are usually a really pretty red, from the hypericin.

And how to use the oil and tincture? Susun Weed has this to say:

“St. Joan's/John's wort (Hypericum perforatum) This beautiful perennial wildflower may be hated by sheep farmers, but herbalists adore it. The flowering tops are harvested after they begin to bloom (traditionally on Solstice, June 21) and prepared with alcohol, and with oil, to make two of the most useful remedies in my first aid kit. Tincture of St. Joan's wort not only lends one a sunny disposition, it reliably relieves muscle aches, is a powerful anti-viral, and is my first-choice treatment for those with shingles, sciatica, backpain, neuralgia, and headaches including migraines. The usual dose is 1 dropperful (1 ml) as frequently as needed. In extreme pain from a muscle spasm in my thigh, I used a dropperful every twenty minutes for two hours, or until the pain totally subsided. St. Joan's wort oil stops cold sores in their tracks and can even relieve genital herpes symptoms. I use it as a sunscreen. Contrary to popular belief, St. Joan's wort does not cause sun sensitivity - it prevents it. It even prevents burn from radiation therapy. Eases sore muscles, too.

Susun’s site is full of really interesting info…anyone interested in herbalism, I highly recommend poking around there a bit! There is also a page on Natures Gift with good information on the infused oil. (N.B.—“infused oils”, where the herb is soaked in a neutral oil, are a completely different animal from the “essential oil,” which is distilled from the plant and is much more concentrated. Essential oils are the subject of aromatherapy, which is sort of a different avenue from herbalism, or a sub-avenue, or what-have-you.) Marge at Nature's Gift sells an oil blend called, aptly enough, "Marge's Miracle Blend," a mix of helichrysum, black pepper, and lavandin essential oils diluted in St. John's Wort infused oil, and she has something like a whole page of testimonies from on its fabulousness for almost any body ache and pain you can think of. I haven't used her exact blend, but I've made something pretty close when I had problems with tendonitis, and it did seem to ease things, though I never used it faithfully enough.

Anyone have any experience with St. John’s Wort in any of its forms or incarnations? What have your impressions been?

--Jenn the Greenmom


fullfreezer said...

I was delighted to find this little gem growing wild in the barnyard of our new acreage. We haven't tried anything with it yet- thanks for the inspiration.
My daughter is exploring it's usefulness as a natural dye- that pretty red color from the leaves and flowers also makes dye.

Daisy said...

I haven't had any experiences with St. John's Wort, but it sounds lovely. If I plant it, I'll be cautious and put it in a bucket or planter. I learned my lesson with mint!


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