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Hypericum Perforatum
Hypericum's complete botanical name is Hypericum perforatum.

Perforatum is Latin for "perforated." The leaves of Hypericum perforatum, when held to the light, reveal translucent dots, giving the impression that the leaf is perforated. The dots are not holes in the leaf, but a layer of colorless essential plant oils and resin.

The flowers are a bright yellow-orange. The petals are peppered with black dots. When the black dots are rubbed between the fingers, the fingers become red.

Many herbalists say the translucent "perforations" and the black-red spots contain the most active medicinal qualities.

The stem of Hypericum perforatum is unique. As Rudolf Fritz Weiss, M.D., describes it in his book Herbal Medicine:

The plant has two raised lines down the stem. This is something quite unusual in the plant world. Round or four-square stems are the general rule. It is only H. perforatum which has these two raised lines, making the stem appear pressed flat.

Hypericum perforatum is also known as St. John's wort. (As previously stated, wort means "plant.") How the Hypericum perforatum wort got to be named after St. John is not known. Like most unknown things, however, the naming of St. John's wort has a number of perfectly reasonable, possibly even true, explanations.

All seem to agree that the plant's namesake was John the Baptist, not John the Beloved. The stories as to why Hypericum perforatum was named after the baptizer include:

  • When the Bible says John lived on locusts and wild honey, the Greek word for locusts might have meant not just the insects, but the tops of plants on which the locusts alight. (The Greek word akron is an image of a locust landing on the top of a plant.) Usually in the Bible akron means the bug, but legend has it that when it refers to John the Baptist's culinary delights, the word includes both insect and plant.
    The legend takes a locust-sized leap in assuming the plant St. John may have ingested with his honey-coated insects was Hypericum perforatum. But if that legend does not hold up to logical investigation, there are others.
  • The black-red spots on the petals represent the blood shed by John at his beheading, and the translucent spots on the leaves represent the tears shed over that event.
  • Hypericum perforatum, a plant which grows wild (it's considered a troublesome weed in Colorado and Australia), blooms in summer. This corresponds to the celebration of St. John's Tide. The hypericum flowers, which can cover a field in brilliant yellow blooms, were called St. John's wort because they appeared around St. John's Tide.
  • Maybe all three.
  • Maybe none.

Whatever the reason for its name, by medieval times people believed that if you slept with a sprig of St. John's wort under your pillow on St. John's Eve (the night before St. John's Tide),

the Saint would appear in a dream, give his blessing, and prevent one from dying during the following year.

Hypericum perforatum has a long service to humankind, except where it's been a pesky weed.

Copyright © 1996 by Harold H. Bloomfield, M.D. and Peter McWilliams