Herbal Impressions: St. John's Wort

Have you noticed that not only do plants teach us a lot, but they do so with their own personality?

To me, St. John’s Wort has a warm, kind, but driving force that constantly invites (or sometimes pushes) me to dig deeper, especially when I think I know something about it.

St. John’s Wort is one of those plants that we hear a lot about and for that reason alone it teaches us this important lesson: when we think we know everything there is to know about something/someone, we probably have so much deeper to dig.

I’m sure many of us have heard that St. John’s Wort is good for depression, seasonally-related depression in particular. But to be honest, whenever I hear a sentence that starts with “This plant is good for X symptom,” I cringe.


Because that’s a purely allopathic (as opposed to holistic) model. So even though we think we’re using holistic medicine because we’re using plants, that way of thinking is rooted in a very different framework that, while offering life-saving interventions, also ignores the person as a whole (and does the same thing to plants).

Instead, I prefer to look at the whole person and the whole plant in terms of energetics, ecosystems, and patterns. This idea of whole plants for the whole person is at the heart of Wild Grace and is one of the things that makes us very different from other natural skincare brands. Rather than treat plants and skin with the “x plant is good for y symptom”, I spend time with the plants, getting to know their unique signature, their energies, their environments, how they grow, where they grow, and formulate based on particular tissue states that I see frequently come up for people. There is not an attempt to “fix” but rather to meet skin where it’s at and treat symptoms as messages rather than simply annoying things to get rid of.

Now, back to the those wonderful lessons of St. John’s Wort...

Each spring I wait patiently for the St. John’s Wort that volunteered in our yard to bloom and then wait patiently again as it infuses slowly, for many many weeks, into oils and alcohol for both internal and topical medicine. St. John’s Wort is good for that as well - teaching us about patience, the magic of the process, the slow unfolding, the beauty that comes from trusting and waiting for the right moment. St. John’s Wort can teach us how to cultivate that kind of trust in ourselves, in our bodies, and in our hearts.

This slowing down is what this season is all about, and it is perfectly embodied in this plant and in the very special seasonal body oil that we make. St. John’s Wort shows us that there are things (and people) that are ready when they’re ready and no amount of us trying to force or coerce them will make things happen faster.

I think this lesson is particularly vital in this time of Amazon, next-day delivery, instant e-book downloads, and, in general, instant gratification. St. John’s Wort reminds us to stop, slow down, come back to our center, and remember who we are and that we’re intimately connected, interwoven even, with Nature and Earth’s cycles. That often the best things take time to unfold and come to fruition. That it’s not only ok, but it’s healthy, to wait for things to be ready. That timing (including our own) is divine.

Devoted to the sun like no other, St. John’s Wort absorbs and becomes an embodiment of the sun's light. As one text says, "St. John's Wort radiates the summer sun into the darkest corners of the soul...lightens dark moods and chases off melancholy, fear, and depression." It's as if when we consume it, we take on that solar energy and light as well.

Named for St. John the Baptist, some folks refer to this plant instead as St. Joan's Wort after Joan of Arc. Why? Well, for one thing this bright yellow, cheery plant is associated with the element of Fire, so I suppose it seems appropriate to name it after Joan of Arc, who was burned at the stake after leading the French army to victory over the English.

But just as importantly, St. Joan’s Wort helps us cultivate our own inner strength, courage, heart, and light, qualities embodied by Joan of Arc.

Medicinally, St. Joan's Wort helps immensely when applied topically to heal burns and damaged skin as well as relieve nerve pain and muscle aches. I find it helpful for sciatica and that nervy sort of low back and sacral pain. Use it as a massage oil or a bath oil for days when you’ve been bent over tending to the garden, after a long hike, or a little too much stretchy yoga.

Some say it can protect from sunburn when used both internally and externally, and go so far as to use it as a natural sunscreen, although you would need to build up your sun tolerance before just going all out on that.


Internally, St. John’s Wort is actually helpful for resetting the neurological gut. What does that mean?

Our whole digestive system is governed by the nervous system on multiple levels. The parasympathetic nervous system is what many refer to as the “rest and digest” function of the nervous system. In order for us to properly break down, absorb, and assimilate our food as well as all the valves within our digestive system and the necessary secretions to happen, the nervous system has to have the ability to switch from the sympathetic response into parasympathetic. When we lose that ability because of deeply rooted stress in our systems as a whole, St. John’s Wort helps to reset that connection and remind our gut/brain how to work together again.

I didn’t know this until relatively recently! Which is why when we narrow our scope of herbal knowledge to “x plant is good for y symptom” we really lose out on so much of how plants actually work in harmony with our bodies.


Considered a holy herb, St. John's Wort was employed for a number of folkloric uses during the Middle Ages. It was once believed that the herb helped to protect people from curses, demons, and lightning. We see this same idea still in how we use it medicinally. Although it may not protect from "demons" (though you never know, right?) it does chase away the blues and acts as a powerful anti-viral, even for viral skin infections (i.e. Herpes, shingles, chicken pox, genital warts, and cold sores).

Oddly enough, in the Victorian Language of Flowers, St. John's Wort represents animosity and superstition. Which didn't make any sense to me at first. How could a plant with so much energetic and physical medicine represent these negative qualities? But then I realized that while there was definitely an underworld full of all sorts of magic, old world healing, and witchcraft in the Victorian era, it was not the norm anymore to consider the power of plants. The Industrial Revolution had introduced the world to a new science and medicine. It would have been advantageous for all the mainstream apothecaries and doctors to snub plants that had previously been praised for their medicine.

What better way to dismiss and scorn old world healers than refer to a plant's perceived magic and medicine as "superstitious"? What better way to immediately turn a powerful plant into a weed and allow folks to forget that, not long ago, that flower was used to protect their ancestors from demons (or at least sunburn)?

August, late summer, this span between when the sun is in Leo and Virgo feels like the perfect time to reclaim this powerful plant medicine. To sit with and listen to its whispered messages reminding us of our innate glow, our resilience (which is more essential than ever right now), and our potential to shine.

Bottom line...St. John's Wort invites us to think differently, to look at ourselves, the plants, and the way we show up in the world differently. It invites us to detach ourselves from what we think we know and to consider other perspectives, other possibilities, other ways of connecting, being, listening, and communicating.

So, how might St. John's Wort serve you? What might it be inviting you to consider as the season shifts? Might we shift along with it?

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