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Guide to Growing, Foraging, and Using St. John's Wort

You know that speechlessness that takes over your brain when someone asks you what your favorite herb is? That, "Umm, how could I possibly ever choose one? I have no idea how to answer that question!" So you scramble to think of one that you like more than the others and about a dozen different plants pop into your head and you're still standing there like, "Hmmmm...uh..." Yeah, I know the feeling.

But there are a couple of plants that are just so incredibly special to me that I could definitely call them my favorites. Lavender is one, as you know. Hawthorn. Calendula. Roses. Tulsi. (Okay, I guess my list is kind of long, but thank goodness you understand because that means you're probably not surprised.)

There is one plant, though, that I don't talk about nearly enough that is definitely in my top 10 favorites list and it's St. John's Wort (Hypericum perforatum).

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Those of you who live where St. John's Wort grows abundantly might not believe this, but when we lived in California, I never saw living St. John's Wort plants. We lived in such a densely populated, concrete-covered, manicured area that weedy species were actually hard to find and I never came across Hypericum, even when I was out in the wilderness areas!

St. John's Wort is also on the noxious weed list there, so I couldn't really grow it myself and seed companies wouldn't even ship seed to California. I would always order in freshly harvested St. John's Wort when it was in season and have it shipped overnight to me so I could still work with it in my apothecary.

When we moved to the PNW - a place where St. John's Wort grows abundantly alongside the roads - I was ecstatic.

I've spent a lot of time with this plant this year because it's one of my favorites and because it's one of the plants that we work with a lot in my Herbal Aromatherapy™ courses. (They'll be launching online later this year.)

I thought I'd share part of the St. John's Wort lesson from the Herbal Aromatherapy™ Level One course with you today because it's the perfect time for you to find and work with this plant! It's in full bloom here in the PNW and in other places around the country, so if it grows where you live, chances are that you'll be able to find it right now or very soon.

(If you live outside the US, I'm curious to know if it grows where you are and when it blooms. Let me know in the comments section below this post.)


Identifying St. John's Wort

St. John's Wort is an herbaceous perennial that likes to grow in poor soils that have been disturbed. Because of this, you'll often see it growing on the side of the road where the soil is rocky or packed down, on the side of a cliff, especially one that has been cut away to make room for a road, or in a field that's been sitting fallow. While it does grow in these poor conditions, it'll also do nicely in cultivation and it makes a beautiful garden plant. It likes sunny areas but can also grow in partial shade, especially when you see it up in the mountainous regions. I usually see it growing between 12" (younger plants) and 24-30" in the wild, but it can grow taller in better soil, and while I might see a plant on its own here and there, it tends to grow in clumps. It starts flowering in most areas in June, but you may be able to find flowers throughout the summer as well.

The flowers grow in clusters at the end of the upright stems. They have five bright yellow petals with many yellow stamens and the petals have little black dots near their edges. The photo below shows the flower and the "perforated" leaves, but please note that it doesn't well represent the upright stems, since the plant in this photo was leaning over a little bit. Normally when you find this plant, it'll be reaching up toward the sky, tall and cheery.

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St. John's Wort has branching stems with opposite, oblong leaves that feel smooth and have smooth, non-toothy edges. Usually the flowers are found on the top half of the plant and the bottom half has leaves and stems. It can be a little leggy looking, since it grows tall instead of being bushy or wide. When you find it in clumps, it'll look a lot fuller.

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There are different varieties of Hypericum. To tell if you have H. perforatum, hold a leaf up to the sunlight. If it's H. perforatum, you'll be able to see the little holes from which it gets part of its name - perforatum. You can see what they look like in the photo below.

Memory Tip: "Perforated" leaves = H. perforatum.

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You can find further photos and descriptors to use for identifying purposes here.

GROWING St. John's Wort

If you're able to grow St. John's Wort in your garden, it can be easily started from seed in late fall or early spring. Sow the seeds on the surface of the soil, water in, and then keep the soil moist and in a partially sunny area until the seeds sprout. They need light to germinate, so it's best not to keep them on a shelf below another shelf or hidden away in a dark space.

Once the plants are old enough, you can plant them out into the garden in well-draining soil with full sun. They will flower for you in the second year.

Because St. John's Wort does well in poor soils, it can be grown in almost any garden (add a bit of sand and organic matter to heavy clay soils to improve its texture) and doesn't need much fuss. It does seem to like a little bit of liquid seaweed concentrate now and again, but it would probably do just as well if allowed to do its own thing.

HARVESTING St. John's Wort

When harvesting St. John's Wort for medicinal purposes, there is a specific time frame during which the plant is at its prime. To see if your plants are ready to be harvested, roll one of the buds between your thumb and forefinger. If the bud leaves a reddish-purple stain on your finger (see the photo below), then the plant is ready to be harvested.

If the plant has buds, but they do not produce a stain, you're a bit too early to harvest. Check back daily and harvest when you see this stain on your fingers.

If the plant has open flowers or petal-less flowers and does not produce a stain, you're a little bit too late to harvest in that particular area. Check nearby plants to see if there are others that are ready or head to a higher elevation to find plants that are just coming into their prime harvesting stage.

Most people will tell you to harvest the top 4-6" of the plant when harvesting St. John's Wort. I tend to be a little bit more conservative because the bees love this plant so much and I want to make sure that there are plenty of flowers leftover for both the pollinators and for the plant to produce seed.

I'll harvest the top 4-6" from the main stem only, not the branching stems, being sure to leave the flowers on the branching stems behind.

I also like to harvest no more than 1 in 7 plants (it's usually more like 1 in 12+) so that when I leave, it doesn't look like I've harvested anything at all.

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DRYING St. John's Wort

If you're going to dry your freshly harvested St. John's Wort, spread it out in a single layer on a screen or drying rack and allow to dry out of the sunlight until the leaves, flowers and stems are crispy. You can leave the flowers and leaves on the stems or strip them from the stem and store in an airtight jar away from light and heat.

Making St. John's Wort Oil

My full guide to making herb-infused oils can be found here. When making St. John's Wort infused oil, it's traditional to use olive oil as the base, but you can use any fatty carrier oil that you like. I prefer Sunflower seed oil (organic, unrefined) because it has a lighter texture and because I think the energetic pairing of the sunny St. John's Wort with the sunflower is perfectly complementary.

After your freshly harvested St. John's Wort has wilted (out of the sunlight) for a couple of hours and all of the little hitchhiking critters have made their escape, strip the flowers and leaves from the stems. Fill your jar about 2/3 full with the flowers and leaves, then pour your carrier oil of choice over the plant material until it's completely covered. The plants will spread out a bit in the oil and make your jar look even more full.

Secure the jar's lid and leave the jar in a sunny windowsill or a sheltered spot in the garden to infuse for 4-6 weeks. Keep an eye on it and check it often to make sure no mold is forming and, if you do see mold, use a sterile spoon to scoop it out of the jar before recapping. Wilting your plant material beforehand helps prevent mold from forming.

Note: Do not wash your St. John's Wort prior to infusing it in the oil. This is a sure way to spoil the entire batch. Harvest from a clean area away from pollution and such so that rinsing it is unnecessary.

As the oil infuses, the hypericin in the St. John's Wort will be extracted into the oil and will turn the oil a deep red color. It's quite fascinating, really! Have you ever had a cup of St. John's Wort tea made from the fresh flowers? If so, you'll recognize the color.

Strain completely and store in airtight jars away from light and heat. Storage in the fridge will prolong the oil's shelf life.

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St. John's Wort infused oil makes a wonderful base oil for massage oils, aromatherapy oils, salves, balms, ointments, lotions and creams, and other oil-based applications. It has analgesic (pain-relieving) and anti-inflammatory effects, so lends itself well to formulas meant to help relieve pain and reduce swelling. It's also exceptional (and has been traditionally used) for soothing nerve-related pain.

I once sat down to work with a large batch of St. John's Wort and when I began, I was in quite a bit of pain. By the time I was finished, I had no pain to speak of and the pain didn't come back! Just being around St. John's Wort now feels therapeutic for me.

Here's a photo of a finished batch of infused oil from a couple of years ago. I'll update in a few weeks with a fresh pic from my current batch once it's finished.

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DISTILLING ST. JOHN'S WORT

St. John's Wort is one of my favorite plants to distill at home because it's so generous in its yields and the hydrosol and essential oil are both quite lovely. With my stovetop still (click here for a behind-the-scenes look into the process of using it), I can get about a quart of hydrosol and a little bit of essential oil in about 45 minutes - enough to make several batches of lotions and creams, facial toners, etc. that will last me for most of the year!

When distilling St. John's Wort with a smaller, at-home still, I like to distill via a combined hydro-distillation and steam distillation approach. I've found that this helps me to increase my yield a little bit. It's always a joy to be able to get that little bit of essential oil from even the smallest amount of plant material and, of course, the hydrosol is worth the distillation alone.

the hydrosol

The hydrosol smells lovely - a little bit buttery and green with a hint of pungent spice and the essential oil has a sweetness to it that is just wonderful. It contributes its antimicrobial, antispasmodic, and anti-inflammatory effects to products that include it as an ingredient.

St. John's Wort hydrosol contains a constituent called Terpinen-4-ol, which is also one of the main components found in Tea Tree and Marjoram essential oils. Terpinen-4-ol has demonstrated antibacterial and antitumoral effects in scientific research and is also found in smaller amounts in Lavender (angustifolia) essential oil and Juniper berry essential oil.

the essential oil

I find St. John's Wort essential oil to be both emotionally and physically centering. It helps to balance the pain response to both physical and emotional stimuli and bring us back into a state of existing harmoniously with different causes of pain.

It feels sunny and uplifting energetically, like an encouraging friend who says just the right thing in just the right moment to help us feel better about life. While it may not remove every ounce of pain from how we're feeling, physically or emotionally, it helps to soften the way we feel about the pain and thus, to relieve it in an interesting way. It doesn't deaden, but rather lifts the spirit away from it a little bit so we can handle the pain better, relax the tension we feel from holding on to it, and perhaps even let go of it.

That said, St. John's Wort essential oil does have a pronounced anti-inflammatory and analgesic effect on the physical body, so it's commonly employed for painful, swollen issues of the body, skin, and mind. 

I've also found it useful when working with people who are prone to feeling like they're at their wit's end; the type with frazzled nerves from being overworked and under-rested - if you add just one more thing to their plate, they're going to drop everything on the floor. It's also helpful for the kind of person who has so many things going on at once that they're starting to become a little bit numb to it all; one too many distractions; one too many painful experiences; one too many things that feel like little needles constantly jabbing holes into their mental and emotional health.

The herb itself is known for its ability to help repair our physical nerves, so it makes sense that the essential oil would have this kind of emotional effect.

St. John's Wort essential oil contains alpha-pinene which is helpful for both the skin and the respiratory and immune systems. Beta-caryophyllene is another of its main constituents. It's known for its ability to support the skin and our pain response, but especially for its unique ability to bind to our CB2 receptors, which help us to maintain normal immune and nervous system functions.

Balsam Copaiba (Copaifera officinalis) is one of the oft-studied essential oils that is also known for its rich beta-caryophyllene content.

The physical effects of St. John's Wort on our body help us to better understand the effects it has on our emotional being. Physically, it supports the skin, immune, respiratory and nervous systems, and our pain response. Emotionally, it strengthens our response to external stimuli, allowing us to breathe through different circumstances whilst building our resiliency and maintaining our center. It helps strengthen our protective barriers and fill in the cracks where the barrier has been compromised whilst still allowing light to shine through those cracks. It helps us to keep our head up, focused on the good things so we can better deal with the hard things. It's a great ally in the Herbal Aromatherapist's™ toolbox!


An example:

Imagine that you have so many things going on that you're starting to lose your focus and you can feel your energy seeping away from you. You're feeling less inspired and you don't have any time to focus on things that fuel your creativity because everything else is constantly demanding your attention.

You're feeling frazzled at home because you don't have time to take care of everything you need to. You're feeling like you're under-performing at work because you just don't have the mental energy to invest in it.

And then something awful happens. You get sick or you suffer a loss or something else occurs that just completely leaves you feeling like you can't deal with all of the things anymore.

You just want to sit on the couch in last night's pajamas with a warm blanket and some fuzzy socks so you can binge-watch your favorite show on Netflix whilst eating all of the chocolate ice cream you have in the freezer.

And in that moment, one of your best friends calls and talks to you about the situation and, after hearing about everything that's going on, she comes over to help you. She watches a movie with you, then tells you to go take a shower and get dressed. She works alongside you to get the house clean, takes you out for lunch and shopping for a new outfit, and then watches the kids for you so you and your spouse can go have a weekend away from everything to recharge.

You come home feeling like you've had a mental reset - like you know exactly what you can let go of in order to make sure that you don't reach this place again and you also feel better equipped to handle all of the other things you have going on in your life.

Your friend sticks by you, checking in on you and making sure you're staying in the right head-space, keeping a positive outlook on things, and constantly adjusting where you need to so that you don't end up feeling the same way again.

As a result, you're better able to keep a positive attitude yourself; you're able to invest in the things that are important to you again and let go of the things that no longer matter as much, all the while feeling like you've been able to find your center so you can take on the world each day as a strong, energetic, cheerful powerhouse.

This is how St. John's Wort works on the emotional plane. It's the cheery, encouraging best friend that meets you where you are and then helps you to focus on the important things, let go of the things that you don't need to be holding on to, and keep walking forward with a greater amount of fortitude and resilience than before you met up on the trail.

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USING St. John's Wort

St. John's Wort can be used therapeutically either fresh or dried. Some of the ways it is commonly prepared include:

  • teas
  • tincture
  • vinegar tincture
  • infused oil
  • glycerites
  • compresses and poultices
  • salves, balms and ointments
  • lotions and creams
  • massage oils
  • aromatherapy roll-on blends
  • smelling salts
  • bath tea blends
  • soaks
  • skin care recipes
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As far as using the herb goes, St. John's Wort definitely has a reputation for uplifting the spirits! Much of its publicity over the past 20 years or so has focused on its antidepressant effects. Whilst it can have a pronounced impact on people who are feeling like they need a little boost of emotional support, it's always a good idea to speak with your doctor if you suspect a deeper issue or if you already know that you suffer from chronic depression.

St. John's Wort is traditionally used to help repair damaged nerves and can be used externally via compress, soak, or infused oil to massage into areas where you're experiencing nerve pain. Since it has antispasmodic and analgesic effects as well, all of these applications can also be employed for muscle and joint aches and pains too.

Note: We'll go into more detail about the specific uses of this herb inside the course module.

safety considerations

St. John's Wort can interact with several different kinds of medications, so please consult your favorite botanical safety reference guides and speak to your doctor before taking St. John's Wort if you are currently on medication. Using the herb topically is considered safe, however.

have you ever worked with st. john's wort?

I'd love to hear about your experience with this special herb! Tell me what you think about it or how you like to use it in the comments section below.


If you'd like to be notified when our course opens for enrollment so you can learn even more about St. John's Wort (and other herbs) and how to use it effectively, click here.


I hope you've enjoyed this brief excerpt from the St. John's Wort lesson of the course! Whilst the course goes into a lot more detail about the specifics, I think this article gives a good, comprehensive overview of the ways you can expect to work with this amazing plant. It's truly one of my favorites! =)

Much love,
Erin

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