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Getting To Know St. John ... and His Wort

Before four years ago, I had never heard of St. John's Wort, and even then I was steeped in herbal encyclopedias and was a regular attendee at herb shows and festivals. When I first heard of this herb, though, my first reaction was predictable: "Saint John's what?" No, to my knowledge, Saint John did not suffer from warts, nor any other sort of skin ailment. In archaic taxonomy, the word wort actually meant herb. That's it. So, when you see the word wort as part of the name of any herb (e.g. St. John's Wort, Woundwort), it simply means a plant or herb used for healing purposes.

I bought my first St. John's Wort in 2013 at the Asheville Herb Festival for $3. It was a sprout the size of my pinky finger. Three months later in August, my little St. John's Wort sprig had expanded into a colossal tangle of green leaves and woody stems. I was amazed at how rapidly it had grown - no wonder people often consider it to be a roadside weed.

I did some research into the plant that winter and found that it boasted a wide array of uses and a very unique history as a healing herb. St. John's Wort might best be associated with fighting depression and anxiety, and it has been used for this purpose for hundreds of years.

Applied directly to the skin, this herb still has a lot to offer. It acts as an astringent, kills harmful bacteria, soothes and quickens the healing of burns (including sunburn) and cuts, and is especially effective in relieving bug bites and stings. Just recently, there has been a renewed interest in St. John's Wort and there is ongoing research into its further applications.

After I had gone through so many pages praising this herb's versatility and effectiveness, I simply had to buy more. So, the very first thing I did that following Spring (after removing wheelbarrow loads of weeds from my garden, of course) was divide the massive St. John's Wort plant/shrub/tree into 28 plants. I set them as the border of my garden, interspersing chives amongst them for a pop of color - it is only now, three years later, that I realize how naive I was.

In its first year, my St. John's Wort did not bloom, which is typical. However, every year since, it has put on hundreds, probably thousands, of little yellow blossoms - and each one has to be carefully handpicked, so as not to pull off other buds sitting right next to it. Making this process even more tedious is that these flowers magically appear every single morning without exception for about a month, from mid-June to mid-July. Of course they would wait to bloom until the hottest months of the year roll around!

It can take hours to pick these flowers every day, and to top it off, the mosquitoes will carry you away. I guess it's a good thing St. John's Wort is a cure for mosquito bites. Still, there are some redeeming qualities of harvesting St. John's Wort blossoms.

You wouldn't know it from the pictures, as the flower is bright, sunshine yellow, but St. John's Wort blossoms, when squeezed, stain your fingers blood red. After you've pulled even two blossoms, your pinching fingers begin to change color, and by the time you've finished, the color deepens to a dark shade of purple. Things get even more exciting when the flowers have morning dew on them. The water serves to spread the dye over your entire hand, so, on special occasions, you'll finish the job with a bright purple hand!

St. John's Wort is undergoing a revival in medical study today, but it has long been a part of our cultural history, ranging from dynastic China to the empires of Ancient Greece and Rome, and even across the earth in Native American tribes. In the past, it has been used medicinally, but also perhaps just as often, spiritually.

As it's name suggests, St. John's Wort is dedicated to Saint John the Baptist. It was once believed that if a sprig of St. John's Wort was placed under your pillow at night, St. John would manifest to you and offer his blessing of protection from evil spirits. Extra steps were taken by hanging a branch of this herb somewhere in the home, especially above religious images or icons, where they were also believed to protect the home from evil.

Another use of the blossom was found by lonely bachelorettes, who would place a few blossoms beneath their pillows before bedtime (people of the past seemed to have a love for cuddling up next to herbs). The flower was supposed to prompt a dream of their future husband - or maybe it was their wishful thinking!

I know of few other plants that claim qualities like those of St. John's Wort. Thus, I must admit, despite the bites and stings I've incurred, the gallons of sweat I've lost, the sunburns I've earned, and the fingers I've stained purple, St. John's Wort has emerged as one of my favorite herbs out of them all. From its intricate ties to biblical history and folklore across the world, to its efficacy in healing a variety of common boo-boos, St. John's Wort has certainly earned its place in the Herb Hall of Fame as well as your home.

Keep us on the radar for next week, where I'll tell you the story of another herb from our gardens. Enjoy your week and stay Greene!

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