St. John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum) is an erect….

… erect perennial member of the Guttiferae family, growing to 80cm in light, well-drained soil throughout the temperate zone. The stem displays pairs of balsamic scented leaves which are perforated and topped by clusters of bright yellow flowers. The plant contains Hypericins that cause photosensitivity in light skinned people and animals.

What does it do: Its Latin name is derived from the Greek meaning ‘over an apparition’, as it was believed that the plant would ward off evil spirits.

Dioscorides and the ancient Greek physicians used the plant to treat any number of disorders but principally to overcome ‘all down-heartedness’. The common name has its origins in folk traditions. It was believed that the plant sprang up from the site where St. John was beheaded, and that the red resin which oozes from the leaves and flowers when rubbed, was his blood. In medieaval times old people slept with the plant under their pillow in the hope that the saint would appear in a dream and guarantee that they would live throughout the following year. The chivalric order of the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem used it to treat the wounds of crusaders, believing the saint affected the cure.

St. John’s Wort has always been associated with black magic and superstition, the fact that it generally blooms at the mid-summer solstice adds to the mystery.

The plant is now mainly used in the treatment of depression and is known as ‘nature’s Prozac’; it is widely prescribed to combat mild forms of depression. It is also used as a tranquilliser and a treatment for insomnia. It is the activity of the main chemical constituent, hypericin, which inhibits certain enzymes in the brain and helps maintain normal mood patterns.

Researchers at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel have demonstrated the anti-retroviral properties of Hypericin and pseudohypericin which has led to breakthroughs in treatments for viral cancers and generated considerable interest from practitioners combating HIV.