Blood of Man – Hypericum perforatum – St John’s wort

Hypericum perforatum, also known as perforate St John’s wort, is in many countries classified as a noxious weed. It surprises me! A noxious weed, now that sounds unpleasant and prickly, perhaps even painful. It certainly doesn’t sound like a beautiful flowering herb with well known medicinal properties! But that is just what it is.

In Swedish we know the herb as Johannesört, or as I recently learned, mannablod – an old name meaning ‘blood of man’. It grows in my garden on a sunny south-facing slope, not planted and by design but as a part of the wild and natural flora. In fact, it is not until recently that I have been entirely certain of it being the genuine Johannesört, as there are other varieties which look very, very similar. One in particular is common around here, called ‘square’ Johannesört. And with recently, I actually mean yesterday, as it wasn’t until then that I was entirely certain.

How do I know then?

The first clue is in the latin name – perforatum. If you pick a leaf of the genuine kind and hold it up against the light, you will see what looks like tiny pin prick holes through it. The other one doesn’t have this. The second clue is in the Swedish name of the variety – the ‘square’. It refers to the shape of the stem; the genuine Johannesört has two ridges, while the other one has four – giving a cross-section that looks (and feels) square.

Yesterday as I and the husband took a long walk around the area I took the time to properly look at the herbs we encountered, and interestingly it seems as though the genuine kind, the perforate St John’s herb, is rather rare while the square variety grows in abundance in the area. Which makes me properly motivated to care for the ones growing on our little plot of land!

Now why is this herb interesting in the first place? Oh, there are several reasons.

For starters it is, as I already mentioned, a well known medicinal plant with proven effect on treating depression. Helping a person to relax, it’s also used as a sleeping aid. It has also – in Sweden at least – traditionally been used to give flavour to brännvin, ‘schnaps’ (giving the very alcoholic drink a neat little anti-depressant side effect, yes!).

Now, before I go on, I need to mention that this is not a medicinal plant that you should ingest without proper research. Most importantly it may have a direct adverse effect in combination with other medicines, to the degree where it’s completely un-advisable if you are already on other medication. And that includes birth control pills, which the St John’s wort may screw up. Oh, and if you are bipolar you should also avoid it, as it may give an increased risk of mania. So, be careful. It is medicine, not to be taken lightly.

What else?

Magic. Oh yes. There is a long, long tradition of using this herb for things unacceptable for modern science. For one thing it’s been considered to have powerful protective abilities, and has been long used to ward off evil spirits.

There is much more to learn, but I am going to stop here for now. If you are curious I urge you to google ‘perforate St John’s wort’ or ‘Hypericum perforatum’, and see what you can find. And again, be careful with how you use this herb. It is useful and powerful, but not inherently safe.