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Medicinal Herbal Prose

(St.John's Wort Tincture Recipe can be found below)

By Burl Wood


Walking with goats on the same path every day for nearly two years, I would quickly notice changes in the landscape where I lived in the oak woodlands of Mendocino County, Northern Pomo Territory. Seasons would change slowly, and then quicken as the light would diminish or return. Sometimes it would feel like forever I was feeding the woodstove for warmth in winter, and then again in the summer, I felt the endless heat awaken me in my sleep at night and would have to douse my face in cool water. This noticing of the subtleties of change (the budding of the cottonwoods, the shift between catkin to acorn) would all become apparent in these long goat walks, where my focus became not so much on path and direction, but constant reorientation to what was in season and which new areas were opened up by the falling of leaves or the dying back of old brush. The goats would follow me through windy deer-trails, traversing slick rocks through gushing streams and waterfalls, parading excitedly as they nibbled on douglas fir, vetch, french broom, and tugged on long strands of poison oak and wild grape. I had a pack basket I would take to harvest herbs and dye plants including coyote brush, yerba buena, fallen usnea and St. John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum). I have to say, of all of these plants St. Johns Wort was my favorite to sit with in the vast meadows and harvest. I would compete with the goats, who liked it a bit, and felt good about harvesting its abundance because I knew it was an “invasive” non-native plant that might stifle the growth of native perennial grasses, or delicate annual wildflowers. It made sense to me in those moments that the goats and I might be part of the annual cycle of this place, which so much of had changed in such a relatively short amount of time… that perhaps our eating of and harvesting of particular plants could contribute in some small way to the resilience of the land.


About a year into these acts of noticing, I began to observe that the Hypericum attracted a metallic green beetle by the name of Chrysolina quadrigemina. The beetles covered the bright yellow flowers and green stalks at the peak stage of flowering, around the summer solstice. Whereas the year previous they had not been so abundant, it was now a race with these insects to harvest this plant before they could find it. I wondered where they came from and what their story was. Little did I know that their own introduction from Europe into this landscape was intentional on an institutional level…they were authorized U.S. government to be released beginning in the 1940’s to control of infestation of Hypericum perforatum on Pacific Northwest landscapes. Allegedly the St. John’s Wort threatened the cattle and sheep that ate its generous quantities by photosensitizing the animals and leading to their subsequent weightless, and a sharp demise of livestock industry which fueled the California economy. After failed attempts of its eradication with widespread chemical use in California (the wax on its leaves can inhibit herbicide uptake), the introduction of this beetle led to the acreage of Hypericum perforatum to go from 2.34 million in 1949 to less than 1% of that by 1957.[1]


St. John’s Wort has largely naturalized in North America, South America and Australia, meaning that it has inhabited areas that it has been exposed to and can reproduce and spread without active cultivation. According to the U.S. Forest Service, it was intentionally introduced on multiple occasions by European settlers interested in the plant’s medicinal properties.[2]  The herb has long been used in traditional healing practices dating back thousands of years in places where it is native to including Europe, West Asia, North Africa, and the Iberian Peninsula. Hypericum thrives in hot, dry conditions with nutrient-deficient soil, often flourishing in “wastelands” and acting as an opportunistic species after habitat degradation from development, mining, overgrazing, logging, and soil exposure to toxicity. Each plant can produce 15,000 to 30,000 seeds per year and they can remain viable in the soil for 6 to 10 years, while also spreading quickly by sending out “runners” or fast-spreading rhizomes.[3]


One of the most distinctive qualities of Hypericum is how the small yellow blossoming flowers and green leaves have an incredible ability to transform water, oil, or alcohol a bright blood red, particularly when combined with heat. This pigmentation comes from tiny red dots on the flowers and perforations on the leaves (hence the species name “perforatum”, meaning “pierced with holes”). Paracelus, a Swiss alchemist and physician wrote in the 16th century, “The veins upon its leaves are a signatum, and being perforated they signify that this plant drives away all phantasmata existing in the sphere of man”, as suggesting that the holes in the leaves depict protection against phantasms that might penetrate the human body and psyche. The herb was associated with protection from evil spirits, being hung over doors as an offering to “the good faeries”, and thrown in bonfires during solstice rites of Celtic druids.[4]


Hypericum can be described as having a cooling and moistening effect on the body and has a floral, balsamic and tart taste. In modern practice, it is used to treat neuralgia, anxiety, tension, irritability, and other related symptoms, particularly during menopausal changes.[5] It can also have a sedating and analgesic effect on neurologic pain, and can be used for fibrosis, sciatica, rheumatic pain, and any inflamed nerve tissue. The infused oil applied topically is indicated for treating burns (from fire, heat, or sun), and can speed up the recovery of wounds and bruises. In addition, Hypericum is recommended for pinched nerves, deep needle wounds, and problems with spinal disks (torn, herniating, bulging), taking internally and externally.[6] St. Johns Wort oil contains antiviral constituents and can be used topically to relieve pain from genital herpes[7], and promising recent research has confirmed that Hypericum contains antiretroviral properties that may be effective in the management of HIV infections.[8]


I believe that the dark red color that the fresh wilted flower makes in liquid is very symbolic of the color, texture, and even smell of blood. This can be seen as an indication for the liver which works to flush the blood in the body, detoxifying it before sending it out to the general blood stream. When compromised, the liver forms scar tissue that starts to take over the organ, purifying less and less blood. The liver becomes bumpy and withered, more yellow, and once the process of cirrhosis begins, there is no going back. This organ is traditionally viewed as the seat of one’s “will” and the home of those strong, hot emotions of anger and jealousy, and I think that Hypericum’s power in treating neurosis and psychosis (those phantasms that Paracelus was talking about) and its ability to detoxify the blood, demonstrates Hypericum’s ability to cool down heated states both physically and mentally. Understandably, Hoffman (1983) consistently adds Hypericum his formulas for treating viral hepatitis affecting the liver.


In moving back to Santa Cruz, land that is unceded Awaswas Ohlone Territory along the Central Coast of so-called California, I don’t see St. John’s Wort growing in the wild or anywhere for that matter. The habitation of the Chrysolina beetle successfully thwarted this plant from proliferating here decades ago. Meanwhile, the unique coastal prairie ecosystems that were historically comprised of vast open meadows of spectacular annual wildflowers so adapted to routine fire management and Indigenous tending practices since time immemorial (literally, time beyond memory), continue to disappear at alarming rates as well.[9] The USDA definition of a noxious weed is “Any plant or plant product that can directly or indirectly injure or cause damage to crops (including nursery stock or plant products), livestock, poultry or other interests of agriculture, irrigation, navigation, the natural resources of the United States, the public health, or the environment”. The agricultural and resource extractive industries in California commonly use this definition in rhetoric to justify the elimination of certain plants by any means necessary, including chemical, mechanical and biological. This logic is not only used with invasive non-native plants, but also prolific native species that restrict the full economic exploitation of a landscape, as seen with the logging industry and the struggle to save the tan oak tree in territories of the Manchester Band of Point Arena Indians.[10] In addition, applications of chemical herbicides on invasive plants in National Forest have disproportionately affected Indigenous Peoples who continue to gather culturally significant plants.[11]


I wonder if we can learn to understand the presence of invasive species as a symptom of colonialism, not the cause of the destruction of ecosystems. I wonder about the ways of engaging with invasive plant species through an anti-colonial perspective; meaning, inquiring about these plants’ histories, their stories, their relationship to their native lands and people, and the meaning of why they are here. I wonder how the harvesting of these plants can be used to support the health of communities, and if their medical attributes could treat illnesses associated with traumas caused by systemic exploitation. I wonder how these lands would look if they continued to be tended and stewarded by the Indigenous occupants of this land. I wonder if there is a way we can belong to the process of cultivating relationship with these landscapes and re-imagining our sense of place.


[1] Hobbs, Christopher. “St. John’s Wort: An Ancient Herbal Protector”. 1998.

[2] Winston, Rachel. “Biology and Biological control of common St. John’s Wort”. 2012.

[3] Klein, Helen. “Common St. Johns Wort”. 2011.

[4] De’Terra, Donna. Yerba Woman Herbal Apprenticeship. 2015.

[5] Hoffman, David. “The Holistic Herbal”. 1983.

[6] Wood, Mathew. “The Book of Herbal Wisdom”. 1997.

[7] Gladstar, Rosemary. “Herbal Healing for Women”. 1993.

[8] Wood, Mathew. “The Book of Herbal Wisdom”. 1997.

[9] Parker, Ingrid M. “Remembering Our Amnesia, Seeing in Our Blindness”. 2017.

[10] “March to Let the Forest Heal”. Mendocino County. 2016.

[11] California Environmental Protection Agency. “Residues of Forestry Herbicides in Plants of Interest to Native Americans in California National Forests”. 2002.

[12] Hoffman, David. “Medical Herbalism”. 2003.

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Prints by Melody Overstreet

St.John's Wort Tincture Recipe

Common Name: St. Johns Wort

Botanical Name: Hypericum perforatum

Family: Hypericaceae

Parts Used and Collection: Flowering tops, when open, on a very sunny day. Use fresh in tinctures or freshly-wilted for oil.

Energetics: Cooling, moist

Actions: Anti-inflammatory, astringent, vulnerary, sedative, antispasmodic, expectorant, nervine, analgesic, antioxidant, sedative

Body System: Nervous system

Constituents: Glycocides including rutin, volatile oil, tannin, resin, pectin, flavenoids, querecetin, xanthrones, hypericin, hyperforin

Dosage and Preparation: Infusion: 1-2 tsp. per 1 cup boiling water, rest 10-15 min. 3X daily.

Tincture: 1:5 fresh flowering tops (do not use dry) 56-65% alcohol. 1-4 ml 3X daily.

Oil (topical use only): Because Hypericum has a special relationship with the sun, the fresh wilted flowering tops and oil should be left to macerate in the sun for a few weeks or with another heat source for a few days to a few weeks. The color should turn a dark red. Because of the self-preserving properties of pectin and volatile oils, the oil is unlikely to go rancid.

Contraindications and side effects: Increases photosensitivity in cattle when ingested, so it may increase it in humans, particularly pale skinned and prone to sunburn. Externally it is the opposite effect, and can help sunburns. There are reports of Hypericum use leading to elevated levels of serotonin in patients who were using selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors. Theoretically, this could reduce the activity of simultaneously administered drugs including non-sedating anti-histamines, oral contraceptives, certain antiretroviral agents, some chemotherapeutic drugs, antiepileptic medications, calcium-channel blockers, cyclosporine, and selected antifungals.[12]

Pregnancy: Avoid during pregnancy.

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