St. John’s wort gets its name from the time of year that it gets its flowers, which is around St. John’s day (June 24). Hippocrates and Dioscorides wrote about the medicinal benefits of the herb, as did Pliny.
While the Ancient Greeks and Romans saw St. John’s wort as a medicine, it was used for magical potions during the Middle Ages. The potions were supposed to prevent disease and keep witches away. Its imagined protective led to its nickname: scourge of the devil.
One of the superstitions surrounding the herb involved the idea that red spots appeared on its leaves every year on the date of John the Baptist’s beheading.
Swiss physician Paracelsus who practiced in the early 1500s was the first doctor to pay any attention to St. John’s Wort. In the latter part of that century, John Gerard agreed with Pliny that St. John’s wort was excellent for healing wounds. He added that it was also effective for the expulsion of kidney stones. Culpeper shared Dioscorides’ belief that the herb was useful for treating bites by venomous creatures.
Multiple studies in recent decades have found St. John’s wort to be an effective treatment for depression and anxiety. The research has shown it to work as well as antidepressants commonly prescribed for mild and moderate depression, but not necessarily for severe depression.
It has been theorized that St. John’s wort helped treat mental illnesses in vast numbers of Europe’s population during the Middle Ages when those conditions were poorly understood.
In North America, historians believe that Native tribes also used Hypericum varieties to treat various ailments. The Iroquois used it as a febrifuge while the Cherokee used it to treat snakebite and STDs.
The botanical name Hypericum perforatum. The Hypericum part of the name means over an apparition or picture. The idea is that when the herb was hung above religious pictures, the smell was able to drive away evil spirits. The perforatum specific epithet comes from the fact that leaves appear to have tiny holes when they are held up to bright light.
St. John’s wort flavor profile
St. John’s wort has a light citrus flavor somewhat similar to that of lemons.
Health benefits of St. John’s wort
The potency of St. John’s wort comes from compounds like:
- Hypericin: Long held to be the active principle in St. John’s wort, hypericin is a derivative of anthraquinone. It is believed to be responsible for many of St. John’s wort’s antimicrobial and antidepressant benefits.
- Hyperforin: In recent years, researchers have begun to believe that hyperforin is just as responsible for the herb’s effects as hypericin.
- Flavonols: Compounds like rutin and quercetin may contribute to St. John’s wort’s anti-inflammatory effects.
Because of these and other compounds, you can use St. John’s wort to treat or prevent conditions like:
- Depression: Many doctors consider St. John’s wort an adequate medication for mild to moderate depression.
- Gastrointestinal illness: St. John’s wort oil is often taken as a treatment for gastric ulcers and other issues involving inflammation in the colon.
Use fresh St. John’s wort fresh if possible since drying tends to degrade some of its properties. You can use the fresh herb to make a refreshing and flavorful tea. Another option is to macerate the tops of the plant in oil or make an alcoholic tincture.