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The yellow herbs of summer: St. John's wort.


The first in a series on yellow-flowering herbs.

I was out picking herbs in mid-July, and funny enough, found myself picking mostly yellow herbs on that day. A bit later on an editor called and asked for an article for their fall issue, and I though, hey, yellow-flowering herbs sounds nice. St. John's wort (SJW) is the first of that lot.


Cut the top 5-10 cm (2-4") of the flowering tops of St. John's wort in mid-July (it's at its best then, up here) on your favorite dry meadow. The flowerbuds are strongest for internal use (nerves, nervine, mood), the seedpods are strongest for external use (swelling from trauma). I don't really look at which stage the SJW under my fingers is, as long as it's at least partly yellow (= in flower).

On a sunny day the crushed flowerbuds of SJW will color your fingers red. On a rainy day they'll be mostly watery - and the red-coloring SJW is the best, so get it on a sunny day, or, better yet, during a sunny spell.

In Finland we have two common wild species: common St. John's wort (Hypericum perforatum) and imperforate St John's wort (Hypericum maculatum). Either works. If you have other species which color your fingers red on sunny days: pick away.

Flowering tops picked in fall aren't all that useful, as they won't color your fingers red anymore. At least up here ...


Oil: You get an absolutely stunning oil from the fresh flowering tops of sun-picked SJW: it'll turn deep red in sunshine. It's excellent for bruises, twisted ankles, for some joint troubles, and for some skin problems. It helps some psoriatics quite a lot, while leaving others rather unimpressed.

I haven't made oils with the jar-on-windowsill method for years, as too many things can go wrong with that setup: the herb can grow moldy, the oil can go rancid, the herb can rot, the oil can escape its jar, etc. Instead, I set up a waterbath: it's easy if you have two stainless steel pots (the handles, too, should be stainless steel). Just put one into the other. Pour water into the bottom pot, pour oil (I like cold-pressed organically-grown oils, and I'm particularly partial to safflower and sesame oils - but cold-pressed olive oil or similar contains rancidity-retarding vitamin E, too, so use that if you like it) into the top pot, and add a nice amount of your cut-up herb to the oil. The nice amount being, not so little that there's empty patches of oil, nor so much that there's dry heaps of herb on top. Put the setup onto your stove and bring the water in the bottom pot to a boil. The water doesn't need to touch the top pot: steam heats, too. Let boil on low heat for 1.5 - 3 hours. Strain through cheesecloth (diapercloth works nicely, provided that it's clean, of course) or through an old bedsheet, wring the last few drops into your bowl'o'oil, and throw the piece of cloth with its spent herb in the compost, or in the composter.

As this is made from fresh herb it includes water - and your oil will be cloudy. Let the oil sit until it clears (about 4-7 days) and the water and other impurities have sunk to the bottom of your jar. SJW oil needs to stand in the sun in order to turn red; other oils generally benefit from a more shady spot. Once your oil has cleared you can carefully pour the oil off the bottom muck into a clean bottle or jar - I use a 50 ml (2 fl.oz) syringe to pull the oil off the bottom muck. Label your bottle of oil ("SJW oil, July 2008, from safflower oil") and keep it in a dark cupboard at room temperature. SJW oil will keep for a few years before going rancid (none has, yet, for me, but eh), other oils generally keep for a year or two.

Use the oil as is or make it into a salve (salves are usually less messy and less wasteful than oils): melt 1 part (say, 100 g - or 1 ounce) of beeswax into 7.5 parts (say, 750 ml or 7.5 fluid ounces) of herbal oil. Pour the salve into jars while it's still hot: it'll set (= harden) as it cools.

Tea, powdered herb, tincture: Internally, SJW helps with SAD (seasonal affection disorder - a depression brought on by the lack of sunshine). It'll also bring sunshine to the generally listless and depressed, and it'll help both the nervous system and the nerves. The powdered herb is nice in severe gut upset, like IBS (irribable bowel syndrome) and similar.

For SAD I've started to think that it's better to supplement with 4000 IUs a day of vitamin D3. It'll help with the Finnish fall and winter, and with rainy summer weeks. 4000 IUs a day, corrected for weight, was given to a kindergarten full of kids, and none of them got the otherwise usual lung grunges that winter. (Correcting for weight: an adult is supposed to weigh 70 kg. If the kid is 35 kg he gets 2000 IUs a day.) So - if the sun isn't shining, or if it won't show above 45 degrees of skyline, you should supplement with vitamin D, every day. You'll feel better for it.

Back to the SJW: dry your flowering tops for tea or powder, or make a fresh or dried herb tincture from them. Drying SJW takes longer than other herbs - powder it up if you don't believe me. Those seedpods are dense stuff, and won't dry out all that easily.

Tea: 1-2 teasp. dried or fresh SJW, 200 ml (½ pint) boiling water, let sit for 5-10 minutes, strain, drink 2-3 cups a day.

Powdered herb: take ½ - 1 teasp. powdered SJW a day.

Tincture: If you use fresh herb it's 1:2 95 % (100 g (or 1 oz) fresh herb to 200 ml (or 2 fl.oz) of 95 % (or 190 proof) alcohol). Get the highest alcohol you can lay your hands on if you want to make this tincture; a 40 % fresh herb tincture will give you mostly alcohol - and very little zing from the herb. If you use dried herb it's 1:5 60-70 % (100 g (or 1 oz) dried herb to 500 ml (or 5 fl. oz) 60-70 % (120-140 proof) alcohol.) There's lots of oils'n'resins in SJW, and you want them. Don't mess about with 40 %, go for 70 % for your dried SJW tincture, if you can.

Take 5-15 drops 2-3 times a day of this tincture (which up here, if the herb was picked during a sunny summer week, is so dark red that you can't see through the dropper, let alone the bottle). Or, if you made weaker stuff (you can see through the dropper but not the bottle) take 10-30 drops. And if you can see through the bottle, go for 30-60 drops. Remember, kids, strength affects dosage. Said tincture will help when the sky is falling down, when things are way too bleak, when even you think you're too irritated at world + dog, or when you feel like you're crying far too often.


Don't use SJW if you've had an organ transplant. (If you've had an organ transplant it's too late to be playing with herbs anyway.)

Don't believe the propaganda of pharmaceutical companies: yes, SJW affects the CYP450 enzymes in the liver, but it's not strong enough to affect the liver metabolism of various drugs. SJW won't affect the efficacy of The Pill. SJW won't cause sun sensitivity (= you burn more easily), except in a very few extremely sensitive people, or people who are on antidepressant drugs. SJW can make the adverse effects of antidepressant drugs worse ...

Let's have a closer look at those antidep meds, shall we? Anything we don't use will atrophy (= grow weaker). Put a cast around your leg for 6 weeks and you'll need to learn to walk all over again, once you take it off. Take antidepressant drugs for 6 weeks, and your brain will have to learn to make the antidepressant compound that was in said antidep drug, all over again, once you stop taking the drug. Which is why the most common side effect of antidepressant drugs is - depression. You go off your med, you're depressed, you think you still need the med, you start taking it again. Go off your med slowly, and slowly raise the dose of SJW, and you'll be free of the med in a few months. Then slowly go off the SJW, and hey, presto, no more depression! It helps to also take milky oats tincture during this process (and B6 + the other Bs, and fish oil, and magnesium, chromium, and zinc, and D-vitamin ...).

Related entries: Troubleshooting herbal oils - Rose salve - SJW oil - St. John's wort oil - St. John's wort and the pill - Herbs for sorrow - Yellow herbs: Dandelion - Goldenrod - Yellow bedstraw - Elecampane - Mullein - Calendula - California poppy


I'm experimenting with a simple tincture extract of dried flowers and stems. I'm using 95% grain alcohol and initially a simple percolation extraction.
The result has been a bright green (chlorophyll?) ,flowery fragrant extract. I was expecting a red extract similiar to one obtained with fresh flowers and olive oil. What colour are your alcohol extracts?

... provided you picked an active species of Hypericum in flower (or flowerbud), in high summer, or, if later in the year, in a very sunny week.

For dried SJW, the ratio of water to alcohol is 1:5 70 %, NOT 95 %. You have to supply water to the tincture, cos there's none in the plant.

If you bought your SJW you might wish to try another supplier.

My dried SJW still makes deep deep red (almost purplish dark brown) tinctures a couple years down the line - picked during a sunny summer week, dried carefully, stored in airtight glass jars in a dark cupboard. The colour of the dried herb is yellow and green, also years down the line.