St Johns Wort

(Hypericum perforatum) 'Perforatum ' means pierced with holes, but the holes are spurious in this instance. Hold a leaf up to the light and one sees dots that look exactly like holes. But they are oil sacs, and give the plant its aromatic smell when bruised (Salisbury. 1954). The "holes" were said to have been made by the devil, in anger at the power of the plant to thwart him (Browning). Another view is that they are drops of the saint's blood, appearing every year on St John's Day (Hole. 1976), or, with greater logic, on 29 August, the day of the beheading of the saint (Folkard). The sap is reddish, too, and that has been described as a representation of the saint's blood (Genders. 1971).

This is a plant with almost supernatural qualities, for in pagan mythology, the summer solstice was a day dedicated to the sun, and was believed to be the day upon which witches held their festivities. St John's Wort was their symbolical plant. In Scandinavian mythology, it was the property of Baldur, the sun-god (Browning). Christians dedicated this day to St John the Baptist, and the sacred plant was named after him, becoming a talisman against evil. In one ballad a young lady falls in love with a demon, who tells her:

Gin you wish to be leman mine

Lay aside the St John's Wort and the Vervain

In Ireland, it was one of the seven herbs that nothing natural or supernatural could injure; the others were vervain, speedwell, eyebright, mallow, yarrow and self-heal (Wilde. 1902). In the Derbyshire folk tale called Crooker, St John's Wort made up one of the three magic posies that protected the traveller from the evil Crooker. "Take the posy and show it to Crooker". The other two were primrose and daisy (Tongue. 1970).

It was often carried in Scotland as a charm against witches and fairies. When hung up on St John's Day, together with a cross over the doors of houses, it kept out evil spirits (Napier), a custom known in Wales, too (T G Jones), as well as in Ireland (O' Farrell). It was taken to America - the Pennsylvania Germans fasten a sprig of the plant to the door to keep out witches (and flies) (Fogel). In Essex, they said that if it was hung in the window it would prevent witches looking in (C C Mason), while in the Western Isles the emphasis was on preventing ordinary folk from seeing witches (or "grisly visions", as it was described); it had to be sewn into the neck of a coat (Bonser), and left there, for it it were interfered with in any way, it would lose its power (Spence. 1959). But to be effective as an amulet it had to be found accidentally (J A MacCulloch. 1905). It was given to Irish children on St John's Eve to avert sickness (O Suilleabhain. 1942), and Burton (Anatomy of Melancholy) mentions it as an amulet, worn as a remedy for "head-melancholy ... gathered on a Friday in the horn of Jupiter". A white witch's unwitching medicine consisted of, among other things and rituals, three leaves of sage and three of Herb John, steeped in ale, to be taken night and morning (Seth).

A 13th century writer tells of "the wort of holy John whose virtue is to put demons to flight" (see Summers. 1927), and Aubrey. 1696 mentions a case where St John's Wort under the pillow rid a home of a ghost that haunted it. Langham was another writer, some hundred years before Aubrey, who advised his readers to keep some in the house, for "it suffereth no wicked spirit to come there". Fuga daemonum is an old book name, anglicised as Devil's Flight (chasse-diable in French). In Aberdeenshire, it was quite common to gather the plant on St John's Day, and put it under the pillow. The saint would appear in a dream and give his blessing, which would act as insurance against death for the year (Banks. 1937-41); indeed, gathering it on Midsummer Day and keeping it in the house would give luck to the family in all their undertakings, especially those begun on that day (Napier). It was quite a common practice to gather the plant before sunrise on St John's Eve, with the dew still on it, and then smoke it later in the Midsummer fires (Grigson. 1955).

St John's Wort was much used, too, in Midsummer divinations. In Denmark, girls used to gather it and put it in between the beams under the roof, in order to see the future - usually one plant for themselves and one for their boyfriend. If they grew together, it foretold a wedding. Or the plant was set between the beams, and if it grew upwards towards the roof, it was a good sign, but if downwards, sickness and death was the forecast (Thorpe). Orkney girls used to gather the Johnsmas flowers, as they were known there, remove the florets, one long, one short, from each flower, wrap what remained in a docken leaf, and bury it overnight. If by morning the florets had re-appeared, it was taken as a happy omen (F M McNeill. Vl). Similarly, in parts of Germany, girls fasten sprigs to the walls of their rooms. If they are fresh next morning, a suitor may be expected, If it droops or withers, the girl is destined for an early grave. This custom was also known in Wales, where the plant had to be gathered at midnight, by the light of a glow-worm carried in the palm of the hand (J C Davies). The plant was also credited with fertility-inducing powers, and was used in love charms and in remedies for barrenness. If a childless wife walked naked and in silence in the garden at midnight (on St John's Eve) to gather the flowers, she would have a child before the next twelve months were past (Hole. 1976). But they could apparently be used for death divinations, too. There was a Welsh custom of naming each piece of the plant gathered for a member of the family, before being hung on a rafter. In the morning, the pieces were examined; those whose plant had withered the most were expected to die soonest (Vickery. 1981).

There are some really outlandish beliefs connected with this plant. Grimoires suggest that sex "will greatly improve if you do give a maiden to wear a girdle which has been anointed with the oil of the St John's wort plant" (Haining). Another is from Aubrey. 1696, who said that "against an evil tongue, take unguent" containing this plant "and a put a red-hot iron into it. You must anoint the backbone, or wear it on your breast". It does not seem clear who has the evil tongue that must be stopped. Is this self-service? And St John's Wort was used in the ritual to conjure back a suicide. Apparently, a consecrated torch was used, and that had to be bound with this plant (Summers. 1927).

Almost as wonderful are the medicinal virtues ascribed to it. Inevitably, there is a remedy that owes its origin to the doctrine of signatures. It is those "perforations" that constitute the signature; they look like holes, and that was enough to let the plant be taken as a wound herb (one of the Gaelic names for the plant translates as bloodwort (Beith)). Nevertheless, it is still prescribed in homeopathy for painful cuts and wounds, as well as for some insect bites and for piles (Homeopathic Development Foundation). One often comes across a "balm" made from the plant (note the name Balm of the Warrior's Wound (Macmillan) ). In Sicily, for example, it was gathered on St John's Eve and put in oil. The consequent balm was considered infallible for the cure of wounds (Gubernatis). Gerard also speaks of an oil made of the plant, "a most precious remedie for deep wounds". Another interpretation by Coles of the "perforations" was that they resembled the pores of the skin. So they could be used to treat skin problems (Vickery. 1981).

Gypsies use the St John's Wort as a hair dressing, to make it grow (Vesey-Fitzgerald), a usage that is known too in Somerset, where the leaf infusion was used not only to make the hair grow, but to heal cuts, and to make a poultice for sprains (Tongue. 1965), and that same ointment is also good for burns, and for throat and lung complaints (Wickham). In Scotland, the plant is used in a herb mixture for coughs (Simpkins). The infusion had further uses, one being for children's bed-wetting (Fernie); in Russian folk medicine, centaury and St John's Wort were mixed in equal amounts for this (Kourennoff). The juice is sometimes used for warts, and carbuncles were also treated by direct application of the plant (Physicians of Myddfai). It is still used for bed sores, too, in an ointment prepared from the flowers and leaves, and mixed with olive oil (Genders. 1971), and that same ointment is also good for burns (Tongue. 1965). There is even an ointment for fractures involving this plant, though it was only called into use after the splint had been removed.

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