Michael Ellis: St John's Wort

2 min

A common plant with a long history is having its season, and Michael Ellis has its story.

This time of year, in the wilder parts of the Bay Area, grows an attractive, non-native plant with bright yellow flowers borne in large clusters on somewhat spindly, twiggy stems. The plants are only about 2 feet high but conspicuous along fire roads or growing at the edge of chaparral. The genus is Hypericum but most people know it by its common name St. John's Wort.

There are also common garden varieties of Hypericum that are widely used because of their perennial greenness and resistance to hungry deer.

Three weeks ago was the solstice our official beginning of summer. But in Europe the big holiday is celebrated on June 24 and is called St. John's Day. When Christian missionaries began spreading the gospel to Great Britain in the 7th century, Pope Gregory I carefully instructed them “if the local people worship a rock, then consecrate that rock to Christ.” Very clever. So, the ancient midsummer rites were subverted into a celebration of John the Baptist the most important figure after Jesus and Mary. John’s birthday was believed to be exactly six months after Jesus’s. Hmm the son of God at the winter solstice and the chief proselytizer at the summer solstice how very pagan!

According to the Druids, who were the priestly class of the Celts, St. John's Wort has very powerful, magical properties whose potency was strongest on the shortest night of the year.

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"St. John's Wort doth charm all witches away,

"If gathered at midnight on the saint's holy day.

"Any devil's and witches have no power to harm,

"Those that gather the plant for a charm."

The genus name, Hypericum, is Greek hyper (above) and eikon (picture). These plants were traditionally hung over religious icons to ward off evil.  In modern times herbalists have prescribed the plant to ward off depression. The National Institute of Health conducted a study on St. John's Wort and concluded there was no merit to these claims. They did not, however, investigate the witch repelling properties.

This is Michael Ellis with a Perspective.

Michael Ellis is a naturalist living in Santa Rosa.