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Oil of St John's wort

St. John's wort (Hypericum perforatum) is an interesting plant, thanks to its many associations with folklore, traditional medicinal treatments and modern herbal remedies.

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The plant's (English) common name comes from the fact that its flowering period begins roughly around the time of St John the Baptist's day, in late June, although it continues to flower well into September and its beautiful bright gold flowers are striking in fields, on hillsides and verges.

Reference to the use of Hypericum in a medicinal sense date back as far as the Greek physicians Hippocrates and Dioscorides, and it also gets a mention from Roman author Pliny the Elder. Hippocrates described the plant being used in the treatment of sciatica, inflammations and pus formation - and there are also references to it being used in ancient Greek times as a preemptive antidote to poisoning, and for 'emotional suffering'.

Over the centuries it became widely used, in the form of an oil infusion, as a topical treatment for superficial wounds, scars and burns.

Alongside its medicinal uses through the ages, Hypericum has also been a plant steeped in mystery and superstition.

It was one of the main plants burned on Midsummer Day fires (also called St John's fires), which were common across Europe and intended to strengthen the power of the sun and protect both crops and livestock from lightning, droughts, fires and a range of evils.

The herb was also believed to protect against witches and the devil and was often attached to the doors of stables and houses to protect their inhabitants. It has even been recorded as being worn in a bundle under the (left) armpit to ward off evil spirits.

The plant also has significance in the Christian realm, where its bright red sap was taken to symbolise the blood of St John the Baptist and to represent a reminder of his execution.

These days, the plant is widely known for being an effective mild antidepressant, as well as for its use in treating mild skin problems including sunburn, skin blemishes and psoriasis.

Research has shown that the plant has some anti-bacterial properties and that it may help reduce both wound size and healing time.

Following a traditional Italian method, oil of St John's wort (oleolito di iperico) for the treatment of mild skin conditions (note: not for ingestion) is made as follows:

1. Pick the flowers of St John's wort and place them in a clean, dry glass jar.

St John's wort; Hypericum perforatum.
St John's wort; Hypericum perforatum.

2. Add enough olive oil or sunflower oil to cover the flowers and as much again.

Oil of St John's wort, hypericum.
Cover the flowers in oil.

3. Seal the lid of the jar and then leave in a place where it will be exposed to sunlight for around a month until the oil has turned a deep orange colour.

Oil of St John's wort, hypericum.
Seal the lid and leave exposed to sunlight.

4. Apply oil to the skin as needed, very gently massaging the oil into the affected area.

Oil of St John's wort, hypericum.
The oil turns a deep orange colour.


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