You’ll be relieved to hear that ‘wort’ is an old name for a common flower or herb… and so no, St John is not being remembered for a skin growth!
So how did St. John get his own wort? June the 24th is celebrated as the birthday for John the Baptist, the same day that a beautiful bright yellow flower with five petals (thought to resemble a halo) that oozes red liquid when picked (thought to represent the spilled blood of St. John), generally started to appear each year (on the other side of the world!).
They named this flower ‘St. John’s Wort,’ Hypericum perforatum.
Here’s the bit I really like. Hypericum comes from a Greek word, Hyperikon. Hyper, meaning ‘over,’ and eikon meaning ‘image or apparition.’ This roughly translates as, use this herb to get rid of ghosts, evil spirits or apparitions.
Wondering how this came about?
One of St. John’s Wort’s uses is as a nervine tonic. As a generalisation, herbalists use it to enhance mood and ease depressive symptoms. When someone had ‘melancholy’ in the days of old, it was generally thought that they were possessed by evil spirits. When they were given a good few doses of St. John’s Wort, they generally started to improve and so it was thought that St. John’s Wort got rid of the evil spirits!
Over time, St. John’s wort became known as a medicinal herb that could bring clarity, ease the nervous system and relieve anxiety: rather than exorcise spirits!
But before you think, ‘gee, I’m feeling a bit flat,’ and you pop out and grab a bottle of this amazing herb, keep in mind that there’s a great big list of contraindications for St. John’s Wort! The big ones here include the contraceptive pill (it will stop it from working), if you are photosensitive, if you have serious depression or if you’ve ever had psychotic symptoms. If you’re taking a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) as an anti-depressant, then taking St. John’s Wort can cause what’s known as serotonin syndrome which can cause confusion, muscle spasm, fever, shivering and sweating. It can also randomly cause hypomania in people with no history relating to such!
Used therapeutically though, there’s another great big list of clinical studies showing that St. John’s Wort is very effective when prescribed carefully. The Cochrane Review (who go through all clinical trials to assess an overall conclusion) found that St. John’s Wort extracts were more efficient than placebos for treating mild to moderate depression and with fewer side-effects than standard anti-depressants.
Meanwhile, it’s also a weed. A very effective weed, but still a weed! One of the reasons its been on my mind is because I’ve been pulling it out of my garden. I do feel better though knowing that it is so effective in my clinic, when I look over the garden and see more of those little yellow flowers still needing to be pulled out.