If you've looked into natural treatments for mild depression, you've probably heard about St. John's Wort. It's perhaps the most common herb used to elevate moods and decrease anxiety, and in most temperate regions, it's an easily-identified foraging plant...perfect for treating those lost-in-the-wilderness blues.
St. John's wort, also known as goatweed, chase-devil, Klamath weed, or by its botanical name, Hypericum perforatum, dresses up any herb garden with its pretty yellow flowers and green, ovate leaves. It performs well in sunny, low-water gardens, and looks great when planted among other shrubby perennial herbs, particularly those with contrasting blooms and foliage.
You won't be cooking any meals with St. John's wort, but it's a must-have for low-maintenance gardens, and for natural medicine practitioners wanting to grow a cornerstone herbal remedy plant.
Hypericum perforatum is native to Europe, western Asia (including the Himalayas) and northern Africa. Early settlers brought St. John's wort to the New World in the late 17th century, and it quickly took hold across the continent, where it's considered a noxious weed in some states.
Highly adaptable to various soil types, it thrives in pastures, prairies, woodlands, ditches, and in riparian margins. It's hard to keep a good plant down.
The Cultural History of St. John's Wort
"Wort" is a traditional designation for "medicinal herb", and can also refer to plants used for spiritual rites. Hypericum perforatum definitely lives up to both.
In less-than-educated times, mental illness was considered the work of the devil (or its cultural counterparts), and patients were treated with the herb. Since St. John's wort does raise serotonin levels, and "lifts spirits" in more ways than one, it became a tool in exorcisms in early Christian practices.
European Catholics celebrated John the Baptist's birthday by gathering sprigs of freshly-bloomed Hypericum perforatum, which were thought to ward off or overpower demons and evil spirits. In fact, the name Hypericum is a loose translation of "over" and "apparition." Perforatum refers to the tiny impressions on the plant's leaves and petals.
As with many Christian traditions, St. John's Day co-opted pagan rites as a means of aiding acceptance of the new religion. Hypericum perforatum had already been used by European and Mediterranean cultures for thousands of years for repelling bad luck and sinister spirits. St. John is associated with light, and given that the summer solstice is the longest day of the year, it isn't a mystery that June 24 became his designated feast day.
We'll get into other interesting connections between St. John's wort and its namesake further on when we get down-and-dirty with the plant's description.
St. John's Wort as a Medicinal Herb
Studies show that Hypericum perforatum increases dopamine levels in rats. This isn't necessarily great news; depressed rats don't get out as much, and tend to stay out of trouble. But we're happy that St. John's Wort it's widely used in European Western medicine because we really like their cooking.
As much as we try to find humor in anything, we do take mental health seriously—as should the rest of our society. St. John's wort is one effective tool in combating mood disorders, but it doesn't replace guidance and support from a mental health professional.
Having said that, let's take a look at all the reasons why herbalists worship St. John's wort. Its oils, leaves, and flowers are used to treat the following:
- Skin disorders (psoriasis, eczema)
- Minor burns
- Insect bites and stings
- Cuts and abrasions
- Nerve pain
St. John's wort is considered an astringent, an antibacterial, and an anti-inflammatory, and its active chemical is hypericin. Hypericin is undergoing studies to determine its antiviral properties as applied to HIV and Hepatitis C. For more about St. John's wort's medicinal properties, check out our 2017 blog post on the subject.
How to Use St. John's Wort
Air-drying sprigs in a warm, well-ventilated room allows you to preserve the leaves for use in teas.
You can make a tincture at home by steeping crushed leaves and flowers in high-proof vodka and letting them soak for several weeks. Strain out the leaves and store the fluid in a light-resistant dropper bottle.
Fill a jar with olive oil and crushed leaves and flowers, and let the mixture sit for two or three weeks. The hypericin will turn the oil a funky reddish color. Homemade St. John's wort oil is best used as a topical remedy, and it has a history of healing and disinfecting wounds and, when used in a dropper, easing earaches.
St. John's wort isn't recommended for patients taking mood-regulating prescription medication, and the plant's oils—present on the surfaces of its leaves and petals—may cause photodermatitis, a.k.a. light sensitivity and rashes, in livestock, pets, and people. (Get coats for your goats).
These are the two main red flags for St. John's wort users, but it's always a good idea to consult with your physician and natural medicine advisor prior to taking St. John's wort.
St. John's Wort in the Garden
USDA Hardiness Zones: St. John's wort is a hardy, herbaceous perennial in zones 3 to 10.
Soil Requirements: Hypericum perforatum isn't picky about where it sets down roots, as long as the soil is well-drained. Digging in a bit of aged compost will help retain moisture and drain excess water, and provide a nutrient boost for growing plants.
pH: St. John's wort prefers a slightly acidic soil. Your target range is between 5.5 and 7.
Sunlight Requirements: St. John's wort prefers full sun from morning to midday, and, in the hottest regions, locations with late afternoon shade.
Water Requirements: St. John's wort is a very forgiving plant. It's drought-tolerant (provided it's well-established and not over-heated in scorching afternoon sun), and withstands wet, soggy soils for a reasonable period. To keep your plants happy, keep them on the moist side.
Growth Habits: Young Hypericum perforatum plants, as they start to establish themselves, are ground-creepers before they begin to grow upright. At this point, multiple branches grow from woody, trunk-like stems. As a St. John's wort plant matures, its bark turns a rusty red with a peeling, "shreddy" texture. The plant usually forms an attractive rounded, shrubby shape when it reaches maturity.
St. John's wort's spreading, rhizomatous roots lurk at least three inches below the soil surface, reducing their vulnerability to drought.
Plant size: St. John's wort "bushes out" as it matures, so choose a spot that can accommodate a plant growing 1 to 5 feet tall, and 1 to 4 feet wide during its lifecycle.
Flowers: St. John's wort blooms June through August, typically prompted by the summer solstice...which is usually 2 to 4 days before St. John's reported June 24 birthday.
Tiny black dots on showy, 5-petaled yellow flowers help gardeners identify this herb. Each flower has a cluster of relatively long, protruding yellow stamens to give the 1 to 1.5-inch blooms a little extra visual interest. Crushed petals turn red; the juice was thought to be a representation of St. John's blood.
Foliage: Long, narrow, smooth-edged leaves in alternating pairs provide density to this herbaceous perennial, especially when the plant is given space to soak up the sun. The leaves lack shine, reflecting a soft, medium-green color. Hold a St. John's wort leaf up to the light, and you'll see how it's speckled with tiny, translucent, gland-like cells.
Aroma: Hypericum perforatum flowers and leaves have a sharp turpentine smell.
Maintenance: This is a low-maintenance plant, though spent flowers should be gathered to prevent re-seeding. Don't worry about fertilizing your plants unless your soil is particularly depleted. Too much fertilization can cause the plants to become spindly.
Pests and Diseases: Looking for a deer-resistant plant? You've found one. St. John's wort isn't particularly susceptible to plant pests or diseases.
Companion Plants: St. John's wort is one of the few plants that tolerate the presence of black walnut, and it grows well with other herbs with the same environmental requirements. Try planting it with members of the Rudbeckia genus (Black-eyed Susan and friends), with asters, wild bee balm, and echinacea.
Growing St. John's Wort from Seed
St. John's Wort seeds, which are roughly the shape of tiny, brown, bumpy Tic-Tacs (or hamster turds, if you prefer) have a tough outer coating, allowing them to remain dormant in the soil for up to ten years. The US Forest Service indicates that wildfire and intense heat trigger seed germination, and a deep root system helps protect burned plants so they can grow anew once the firestorm's passed.
Seed Preparation: Don't break out the butane torch to get your seeds to sprout; we recommend soaking your Hypericum perforatum seeds overnight using the paper towel method as described in our germination guide. From there on out, growing St. John's wort from seed is a cinch.
When to Plant: We recommend starting your seeds indoors, given that outdoor-sown seeds are easily buried beneath the soil. Sow indoors 6 to 8 weeks before the last spring frost, after which time you can transplant them outdoors.
Planting Depth: Surface-sow tiny St. John's Wort seeds, which require sunlight to germinate.
Spacing: Thin or plant seeds 18" to 24" apart. Crowded St. John's wort can become leggy, so giving it even more room as it matures provides the best results.
Germination: St. John's Wort seeds germinate in 10 to 20 days at soil temperatures around 70°F. Keep the seeds and seedlings consistently moist.
Harvesting: Plan to assault your plants early in the morning or late in the afternoon. Make sure the plants are free of dew and rainwater. Clip entire stems about an inch above the woody base, and dry the leaves and flowers using your preferred method.
Budding blooms are the most potent, so select flower clusters with the most unopened flowers. Suspending flowers upside down on their stems increases the chance of optimizing their potency.
Why Shop at Seed Needs?
Even if St. John's Wort seeds can survive a decade in the dirt, we're big believers in using seeds from frequently-rotated, fresh suppliers. We source our herb seeds from reputable producers of resilient, healthy parent stock to increase successful germination. You won't find genetically-modified seeds in our catalog, but you will find informative, relatable growing information on our website and blog.
No herbalist's garden is complete without Hypericum perforatum, and ornamental plant enthusiasts are catching on to the plant's charm. Whether your goal is to add color to your yard, soothe your frazzled nerves, or perform an exorcism, you're going to want to have this herb on hand...and we're here to help!
Your gardening success is important to our own as a small family business, and we look forward to the opportunity to add you to our growing group of loyal customers!