Name: St John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum)
Otherwise known as: Hypericum, Natural Prozac
Habitat: An 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.
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 medieval 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 effected 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. However, in Cyprus, the plant will be found in bloom in late May, particularly in the area near Macharas monastery.
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 and is valued as a ‘mood enhancer’. It is also used as a tranquilliser and a treatment for insomnia. The activity of the main chemical constituent, hypericin, inhibits certain enzymes in the brain and helps maintain normal mood patterns. The British Medical Journal reviewed twenty-three clinical trials involving St John’s Wort, and concluded that it worked as well as many prescription anti-depressants but displayed none of the side effects.
Hypericin and its companion pseudohypericin have proven anti-viral activities. They are effective against herpes simplex types, influenza types, and have shown remarkable anti-viral activity against Epstein-Barr virus.
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.
In addition, the plant has been recognised as a wound healer, a treatment for cold sores and shingles. It is said to restore vitality following the menopause and is currently being used by therapy groups to help those addicted to certain drugs.
An infused massage oil made by steeping the flowers and leaves in a carrier oil for six weeks is said to give considerable relief to those suffering from lower back pain. The resulting red oil can also be applied to cuts and burns; it is also thought to reduce pain associated with inflamed joints.
Alexander McCowan is the author of The World’s most Dangerous Plants. Available from Lulu and Amazon