One of my dearest new friends recently asked me to name my favorite herbs and I had to think fast. It felt like choosing my favorite child because I love so many for their own unique gifts. St. John’s wort, or Hypericum perforatum, was one of the plants I named.
Sunday was summer solstice — a holiday celebrated by the first herbalists, who were often witches and druids. They historically harvested St. John’s wort on June 21 and hung the plants over their doorway as protection against evil spirits, thunder and the tempest throughout the year.
I’m not sure about the whole evil spirits business. But I do know enough to pay attention to the St. John’s wort on solstice and to harvest the delicate buds on that day, because it’s powerful medicine indeed.
Most people know St. John’s wort as a well-documented herb to elevate the spirit. But few people know that it’s also a triumphant topical troubleshooter that can help ease nerve pain, burns, wounds and bruises. St. John’s wort’s surprising bright red plant medicine is called hypericin, and is concentrated in the buds just before the little yellow flowers open. It’s best to harvest the buds each day, right before they bloom, because that’s where all the good stuff is, and once they bloom the hypericin is present in only very tiny amounts. Most St. John’s wort is commercially harvested by cutting off the entire aerial parts, or the top half, of the plant. I harvest my budding St. John’s wort every single day to get the best, most potent red stuff. It’s laborious, but well worth the effort. (If you use St. John’s wort, the tincture and oil infusions should be red but we’ll talk about tinctures another time.)
I don’t go telling this story a lot, but in the three years that I spent developing the Earth Mama product line, I had the opportunity to get up every morning and learn about plant medicine from the plants themselves. Yes, OK, it sounds wacky. But it’s true. I got up before dawn, went for a run in the dark, and asked for guidance. Came back, kissed my husband goodbye and spent the day in a kind of reverie in the garden, doing my best to listen to, and to learn from, the plants themselves. Again, wacky. But here’s an example.
One year Jemila, one of my closest friends, got permission to harvest St. John’s wort on the sacred land of an Indian reservation. Few non-tribal people are even allowed on this land so I was honored to be able to harvest herbs there. I flew to Washington State on June 20 to be there in time for solstice and the next morning we drove out to the reservation. Stretching before us were about 12 glorious acres abloom with St. John’s wort. My herb teacher taught me to bring a gift to plants before you harvest them, so we expressed our gratitude with a few sprinkles of cornmeal and went our separate ways to carefully and respectfully harvest the buds.
Feeling like Dorothy skipping through a field of beauty in Oz, I squatted down to pick a particularly beautiful cluster of buds and was stung by a bee that had found refuge on the back of my knee, right in the ol’ popliteal space. Of course, first reactionary instinct is to yelp and tear out of there. I was able to collect myself enough to realize that I was surrounded by an amazing sea of dancing yellow flowers, my fingers stained red with St John’s wort’s glorious medicine and knew that this must be the plant my stinging leg needed. I grabbed a large pinch of buds, squished them between my fingers until the juicy red herbally goodness was released and slapped it on the back of my knee. No kidding, the pain immediately went away. Just like that. And best of all, it never came back. No itching, no swelling, not even a mark.
THAT’s how plants teach us stuff.