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St John's Wort

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Background and History

St John's Wort is a very common name for those whose interests veer towards homeopathic and traditional medicine. Regarded today as an excellent alternative to synthetic anti-depressants, St John's Wort has a long medical history spanning at least a millennium of usage among diverse cultures. While it is commonly credited nowadays as a mild anti-depressant, during earlier times it was used for far more than simply treating depression and anxiety. This perennial herb known for its vibrant yellow flowers that bloom on St John's Day (approx. 24th of June, hence the name of the herb) is uncanny for the fact that its leaves possess tiny perforations that can be seen when held against the light (again, resulting in its nomenclature 'perforatum'), that contain essential oils and resins which are used in the development of its extract alongside its flowers. The plant is also notable for its five-petaled flowers – for the ancients, a very auspicious number. St John's Wort has had a long history of use as both a medical and magickal herb; and while its origins (and even oftentimes its usage in general) are usually relegated largely to select European continents, it too has been a known and revered herb even in the East where it is usually drunk as medicinal tea.



General and Esoteric Uses

The use of St John's Wort began with the Early Greeks who employed it as a type of incense used to drive away evil spirits, as well as to appease their gods. The Grecian name for the plant - hyperikon, literally meaning 'over icons', (also understood as 'over / above apparitions') reveals its original nature as a type of offering before idols and altars to drive away malignant spirits that may surround the altar or effigy of a deity. Because of its association with idols, it may also have been used, much like thyme was, as a type of incense for the purposes of consecration and cleansing. [1]

In Rome, the herb was also attributed special powers, whereby it was used to again ward off evil spirits, as well as to allay curses or sickness brought about by invisible forces. An infusion of the leaves of the plant in olive oil was also used to treat burns and cuts, as well as to alleviate the symptoms of muscular and menstrual cramping when applied topically to the affected area. The infused oil which was a rich red in colouration (thanks mainly to the flower buds and leaves) was also used as a consecration and anointing oil, usually rubbed on pregnant women and infants (but also used to anoint household effigies of deities), as it was believed that the aroma of St John's Wort would drive off any evil sprits and protect the person from their snares as well as imbue the person or object with a sense of well-being associated with a holy presence [1] (nothing more, really, than the calming effects of St John's Wort that has made it so effective in treating depression nowadays). Pounded St John's Wort leaves were also applied to deep cuts, and snakebites to facilitate healing and detoxification, [2] although its efficiency, in the light of modern medicine, is nevertheless questionable.

St John's Wort was also used, prior to its becoming a purely medicinal herb, for divinatory purposes. It was said that the herb could foretell the lifespan of a person if one simply hung it to dry and examine how shriveled or fresh it looked after some time dictating (or more likely symbolising) the vitality of the person who first touched the herb and hung it to dry. [3]

Despite the reverence that many Europeans have over the mystical and medicinal powers of this herb, it was considered a weed in other parts of the world, more notably in the American West. Because it was proliferate in those areas, its use as a medicinal herb was only relegated to either natives or settlers who were in the know. The superstitions surrounding Saint John's Wort did not fade with the introduction and eventual rise of Christianity, but was rather adopted and integrated into the folkloric belief of European Christians.



Its original uses, such as the curative oil macerated with its leaves was later 're-Christened' into 'sangre Christus' or 'blood of Christ' for its curative properties and distinctive colour. The leaves and flowers themselves were attributed to St John the Baptist when it was originally a flower of the Summer Solstice deities, and the five-petaled blooms originally symbolising the pagan representation of the five constituent elements that made up the world as well as the Undying Sun, was later revamped to symbolise no more than the celebrated saint's halo.

The eventual discovery that St John's Wort was useful for treating depression (or melancholia as it was then known) and anxiety had come about by accident. The primary purpose of the herb prior to its use as an anti-depressant in today's modern alternative medicines was as a remedy to treat burns, arthritis, rheumatism, muscular spasms, and to facilitate in the hastening of wound healing. This was either done through the use of liniments made from a maceration of its leaves along with a base oil, or through the application of a poultice made from pounded fresh leaves mixed with some oil. Another commonplace use of the herb was as a fumigator, as well as an inhalant to help drive away evil spirits and promote relaxation. The long standing belief that a 'heaviness of one's being' was caused by the presence of malign spirits would later hold the key to the herb's eventual use as an anti-depressant, when logic and reason overcame the darkness of superstition.

What people once thought to be the signs of demonic possession – prolonged silence, sullenness, introverted attitude, weakness, fatigue, and sleeplessness later became ascribed to a specific humour known as 'melancholia', and, as the general understanding of human psychology grew, it came to be called clinical depression. The herbalists of ancient cultures who once prescribed St John's Wort as a cure for what was then referred to as 'possession' or 'demonic influence' later continued to use it to alleviate what is now known as depression, banking on the herb's capacity to promote calmness and mental clarity. The pharmaceutical market caught on, releasing a wide array of extracts, pills, and tablets lauding its efficiency and safety – even going so far as to make it the alternative to the synthetic anti-depressant Prozac. [4]

Nowadays, St John's Wort is usually prescribed for individuals suffering from mild depression, usually as an over-the-counter drug. Available in tablet and pill form, it can be made of the pure extracts of St John's Wort leaves and flowers (containing the active compounds, hypericin and hyperforin[5]) or either whole pulverized parts of the leaves and flowers encased in vegetable capsules or otherwise pressed into small to medium-sized tablet forms. Given to children and young adults, it is useful for treating more than just depression, as standard dosage of 300mg of St John's Wort thrice daily has been shown to alleviate the symptoms of obsessive compulsive disorder, anxiety, and even alcoholism. For the latter cases, as much as 1, 800mg of St John's Wort may be taken daily.

While there have been no known or documented cases of drug overdose when taking St John's Wort to treat depression or anxiety, it is known to have an adverse interaction with a number of different drugs, among those are medicines that regulate blood pressure, as well as contraceptives among many other types of drugs. [6] St John's Wort may also cause some degree of photosensitivity (sensitivity to the light) so care should be taken in its use. It is prudent to always check with a health care expert prior to supplementing one's diet with an intake of St John's Wort to ensure no adverse interactions may occur.

Today, St John's Wort is sold as either a prescription drug or an over-the-counter drug (as is the case in most European countries), and come in pill, tablet, or tincture form in various extract-concentrations. Whole leaves are also available and is drunk as a tea to help alleviate PMS and other feminine problems, or otherwise burnt as incense by practitioners of magick. St John's Wort oil (in both its macerated and extracted forms) are also available and is used both medicinally and magickally.

Names of St John's Wort, past and present

Greek: hyperikon (lit. 'before an icon' / 'over apparitions')
French: barbe de Saint-Jean / chasse-diable (lit. 'demon chaser') / herbe du charpentier (among others)
Chinese: qian ceng lou
English: St John's wort / amber / amber touch-and-heal / demon chaser / kalamath weed / tipton weed / SJW (abbreviation)
Spanish: hierba de San Juan
Italian: hyperici herba
Dutch: Saynt Johannes wort
German: Johanniskraut (lit. 'John's plant')
Latin (occultic): fuga daemonum (lit. 'devil's scourge')
Latin (scientific nomenclature): hypericum perforatum

References & Further Reading

[1] http://www.herballegacy.com/Nelson_History.html
[2] http://nccam.nih.gov/health/stjohnswort/ataglance.htm
[3] http://www.herballegacy.com/Nelson_History.html
[4] http://www.rxlist.com/st_johns_wort/supplements.htm
[5] http://www.holisticonline.com/herbal-med/_Herbs/h20.htm
[6] http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/st-johns-wort/NS_patient-stjohnswort

Main article researched and created by Alexander Leonhardt, © herbs-info.com 2013

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