Today marks the anniversary of the nativity (as opposed to the death by beheading, or decollation) of one of the most important medieval saints, St. John the Baptist. The devout veneration of the Saint determined the observation of his feast day, which was “summer Christmas”, with fire in the fields (the pre-Christian holdover), three masses, and garlands and wreaths made of golden flowers, including those from the Saint’s own namesake herb, St. John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum), which seems to have survived, even flourished in this modern world. In the past it was first and foremost a protective herb, hung over doors, windows, and religious images (its Latin genus name–Hypericum–means “above a picture”) to keep evil away, but it was also used medicinally. I consulted my two favorite (post-medieval) herbalists, William Turner and Nicholas Culpepper for their take. Turner’s New Herball (1551) deems the great herb (as opposed to the more common St. John’s grass) good for sciatica, heartburn, and the purging of “choloric humors”, while Culpepper’s Complete Herbal (1653) is more forthcoming: it is a singular wound herb; boiled in wine and drank, it heals inward hurts or bruises; made into an ointment, it open obstructions, dissolves swellings, and closes up the lips of wounds. The decoction of the herb and flowers, especially of the seed, being drank in wine, with the juice of knot-grass, helps all manner of vomiting and spitting of blood, is good for those that are bitten or stung by any venomous creature, and for those that cannot make water. Two drams of the seed of St. John’s Wort made into powder, and drank in a little broth, doth gently expel choler or congealed blood in the stomach. The decoction of the leaves and seeds drank somewhat warm before the fits of agues, whether they be tertains or quartans, alters the fits, and, by often using, doth take them quite away. The seed is much commended, being drank for forty days together, to help the sciatica, the falling sickness, and the palsy. No mention of the anti-depressant virtues attributed to St. John’s Wort today–but also no mention of the magical protective qualities previously attributed to the plant.
The “great” St. John’s Wort, which I use as a groundcover in partial shade, and common (British Library MS Egerton 747) and Chinese varieties (painting, c. 1770-90,Victoria & Albert Museum, London).
This day is a charmed day, with hidden treasures hiding in plain sight, so keep your eyes open! As St. John’s Day coincided with the first day of summer, all of nature’s bounty was displayed in abundance. The days are not quite in synch now, but close enough, as is evident (at least here in the northeast US) by the bloom of other golden-flowered plants like Lady’s Mantle and another one of my favorites, Rue, which was also classified as one of Johanneskraut (St. John’s herbs). For best results in protection and healing, I should have plucked off some of these flowers last night, on St. John’s Eve; I think it’s too late this morning.
Rue in my garden, and common St. John’s Wort in Giorgio Bonelli’s Hortus Romanus, 1772, New York Public Library Digital Gallery.
My very favorite artistic depictions of St. John’s Wort (and other plants) are those of Mary Delany, who started making paper flower “mosaics” in her 70s, at the end of the eighteenth century. With precise, almost scientific, detail, Mrs. Delany pasted flower parts onto black backgrounds, creating a whole new genre of botanical art. You can see more of her collages at the British Museum, and in Mary Peacock’s book: The Paper Garden: An Artist Begins Her Life’s Work at 72 (2012).
Two of Mary Delany’s St. John’s Wort collages, 1777 & 1780, British Museum, London.