One of the remarkable things about studying herbs is how your vision changes. Years ago, I could take a walk and not have much to report except the weather conditions. Now, when I head out for my daily walk, especially in the spring and summer, I return home with a long list in my head of the plants that are blooming, forming a plan for some wildcrafting.
Wildcrafting is the activity of gathering herbs, plants, or fungi. For me, it means I carry a basket and clippers on my daily walks. Most of the medicinal plants I gather are considered weeds that made their way over from Europe. They carry a legacy of healing for hundreds of generations of people.
As the summer solstice approaches, there is a delicate and flashy bright yellow, five-petaled, star-shaped flower that begins blooming. Like a proper wild weed, it is a lover of poor soils and can be found in large swathes along roadways, near ditches, and in fields. There are several native North American species in the Hypericum genus but it is the European native St. John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum) that contains the potent herbal medicine.
By the late 1800s, St. Johns Wort (SJW) was well established throughout the globe and eventually put on noxious and invasive plant lists by seven states in the US and twenty countries. A noxious listing is a commercial action designed to protect agriculture and SJW is listed because the plant can be toxic to horses, cattle, and sheep if eaten in large quantities. In some animals, including humans, it causes photosensitivity, resulting in severe sunburn. The invasive listing indicates that given its preferred environment of poor and disturbed soils, the plant has the potential to outproduce native vegetation, eventually replacing the local flora. I don’t find SJW to be invasive in my area but if it is a concern, one way to eliminate it is to harvest all the flowers in one season…not that I have any experience in this elementary botany lesson – removing the flowers interrupts the plant’s reproductive process. (In my enthusiasm for SJW, I did, in fact, eliminate all of the SJW behind my house the first year by harvesting every bud and flower I could find.)
This 1-3 foot tall erect plant generally blooms around the Feast Day of St. John the Baptist thus its name (wort is a medieval word for plant) and can bloom for several weeks. The species name, perforatum, makes identification of this medicinally beneficial plant easy; when held up to sunlight or under a microscope the leaves have translucent little holes or perforations that contain oil glands.
Freshly harvested opened flowers and unopened buds imbue a gorgeous dark red color when infused in water, oil, or alcohol. Used medicinally for hundreds of years, St. John’s Wort is now best known clinically for the treatment of depression. But most herbalists will tell you there are more effective herbs for helping with depression so consult with a knowledgeable health practitioner before using any herbs for depression.
If you have ever wondered if herbs are effective, SJW offers evidence: if regularly taken as a tea or a tincture, SJW will increase the metabolism of your liver and this can affect the efficacy of pharmaceutical drugs that are metabolized in the liver. If you are using SJW internally check with your pharmacist to see if there is a possible herb-drug interaction.
SJW offers a number of medicinal properties including anti-viral, astringent, wound healing, relaxing nervine, and inflammation modulation.
- Nerve pain
- Herpes & cold sores
- Bruises & sprains
Each year, I wildcraft SJW and immediately infuse it in olive oil. I use that oil, sometimes adding infused cayenne or arnica oil, to make several big jars of salve. I use the salve to help with the achy nerve pain of occasional sciatica and apply it to bruises and sore muscles. For several years, I made large batches of SJW salve for my mom who suffered from diabetic nerve pain in her feet. I keep a small container in my hiking and camping first aid kit.
To infuse fresh SJW flowers in oil: I use freshly harvested buds and some opened flowers – timing is important as buds open quickly. I add them to a canning jar and pour olive oil to thoroughly cover. I use a chopstick to push down plant matter until it is all coated. I cover the jar with a paper coffee filter (cheesecloth is an option) and secure it with a rubber band. (The fresh plants will release water so do not cover with a cap; the water will dissipate through the porous filter or cheesecloth. The jar is placed outside in the sun – this is necessary because the sun interacts with the plant material to create the magical red oil. After a week or so, strain the oil of all plant debris and make a salve.
Don’t you love plant medicine?
Disclaimer: I am not a medical professional and provide information on medicinal herbs strictly for educational purposes. Herbal medicine can be an effective tool for a home apothecary but education is necessary. I offer a list of Herbal Learning Resources that includes books and online resources.
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