|Linden Tree Herbals||
|Linden Tree Herbals||
From the archives! Originally posted December 2014.
St. John's Wort and I have a rocky history. For years I have stayed away from it, afraid of destabilizing the physical and mental balance I've kept for well over 10 years now. Retrospectively, I credit my unpleasant experiences to a mis-application of St. John's Wort in pill form (thankfully short-lived) by someone who did not really have all the facts needed to suggest this plant as part of a treatment protocol. You may have heard this before, but I will say it here: relying on marketing trends for impartial, complete information is not an effective way to make decisions for yourself or for others. Marketing, by definition, is information communicated expressly for the purpose of selling something. Opinions and conclusions formed solely from this kind of biased information can have such a wide range of effects - not all of them good. My reactions to St. John's Wort were, at best, upredictable.
These days, now that I know more about plant medicine in general and St. John's Wort in specific, I count this plant as a good ally. It's a pretty little plant with bright yellow flowers. I find it growing in sunny fields. It seems to like field edges, along paths and little clearings where it can get plenty of sunshine.
St. John's Wort is more widely known for its nervine actions, and though I acknowledge its value in this arena, I have very little experience using it this way. In my first year of herb school, I learned how to use St. John's Wort topically, as an infused oil or salve. St. John's Wort is specific for nerve and muscle pain in general and sciatica in particular. As a person who spends 8+ hours a day at a desk, I have come to have great respect for the sunny, warming, and soothing topical applications of this little weed.
I have heard and read that the flowers are the only part of the plant that should be gathered, and only while they're flowering. I've also read that they should be gathered only under full sunshine. The fun thing about herbalists is that we all have different ideas of what works and why. Partly because I learned from jim mcdonald, and partly because it is my nature, I like to experiment. I also don't like absolutes that declare there is only one way to do things. When I read "St. John's Wort only works if you use the flowers gathered midday in full sun and full flower"...well, that makes me want to see what happens when I pick flowers in the evening, or gather some on a cloudy day, or (!) infuse flowers that are spent and/or gone to seed.
This year I caught my first harvest of St. John's Wort in full sunny flower, and put it in olive oil not an hour after I picked it. Super fresh, full bloom, maybe even during the day when it was sunny out. Unfortunately I don't have pictures to prove this. You'll just have to trust me. This batch was about a cup and a half of oil, plenty for my own use over the next year or more. After bringing the flowers home and picking through them to make sure I didn't infuse any little insects too, I dropped them into a glass canning jar and poured in enough olive oil to cover the flowers, plus a little more in case the flowers absorbed more oil than I expected. (Side note: I like to use light olive oil because the color and scent changes dramatically depending on the plant that is infused.) You want to keep the plant material completely covered by the oil, to lessen the chances of spoilage. Also, when infusing fresh plants, you don't want your container airtight - at least not for the first week or so. Cover the top with paper towel and a canning ring or rubber band, so that moisture can escape.
Typically when infusing plants in oil, it is best to put them in a warm (not hot) location, out of the sun, for 4-6 weeks. St. John's Wort is an exception - it prefers to infuse in the warm sunshine. The sun-warmed oil extracts lots of color and good aromatics from the flowers. You know you have good St. John's Wort oil when it turns a deep cranberry color and has that distinct St. John's Wort aroma. If you pick your own flowers to infuse, you'll know what I mean. I think it smells savory and...well, kind of meaty. Initially I found this to be off-putting, but now that I associate the St. John's Wort aroma with the sensation of waking up in the morning without a backache, I have grown to really like it.
After infusing for 6 weeks or more, strain out the plant material and store in a cool place out of direct light. You can use this lovely oil by itself, or use it to make salves, balms, creams, and other topical preparations. I would not ingest this oil, even if you think it smells delicious, simply because I think its topical uses are so excellent that I feel it would be wasted in any other way. If you want to use St. John's Wort internally, there are more effective ways for sure.
I made up some salve using one of my oil infusions this past weekend:
Turning St. John's Wort infused oil into salve is really easy. All you need is the oil and some beeswax, which I often get from local beekeepers at the farmer's market. If they don't have beeswax blocks, I often come home with beeswax candles and chop them up. You can buy beeswax online too, if that's what you want to do.
Melt the beeswax in a double boiler on low heat, about a teaspoon and a half beeswax to one cup oil. James Green, in his book The Herbal Medicine Maker's Handbook, says one ounce beeswax per cup of infused oil, but I find that makes my salve harder than I prefer. I like my salve to be a little on the oily side, especially for St. John's Wort, because I like to massage it in to my sore muscles before going to sleep. Oil is so much easier to massage with than wax! I might also apply St John's Wort salve to scratches, bites or small cuts for its wound-healing properties and for this purpose might make a slightly harder salve by adding more beeswax.
Stir up your salve ingredients as they are melting, to make sure the beeswax melts completely and blends with the oil. Chopsticks work really well for stirring, but you can use a knife or whatever you want.
You may want to test your salve for consistency/hardness before pouring it into containers. An easy way to do this is to drop a little of the melted salve mixture on a cold plate and pop into the freezer for a moment. This will cool and harden it quickly, so you can do a test application of cool/room temperature salve on your skin to make sure it's the way you like it.
When you feel your salve is ready, remove from heat and pour into containers of your choice. Set aside, uncovered, for..oh, I don't know, overnight maybe. Long enough to cool completely and harden. If you have curious pets or children, you may want to transfer your open salve containers onto a plate, cookie sheet, pie pan or similar and store in a cool, out of the way place. I've taken to storing mine in the cool oven overnight, sometimes with the door ajar. Make sure you don't turn the oven on before removing your salve!
This Year's Experiment
Remember what I said earlier about absolutes, and The Best Way to Pick St. John's Wort, as defined by people other than me? Here it is again: "St. John's Wort only works if you use the flowers gathered midday in full sun and full flower." Partly because I like to experiment, and partly because I realized near the end of the St. John's Wort season that this was the year to start offering my herbal creations to folks outside my immediate family, I decided to see what would happen if I harvested and infused recently spent flowers and seed pods. I was curious to see how the resulting oil would compare with that made from fresh flowers. My teacher jim mcdonald often says that the important thing about aromatic plants is that they SMELL aromatic, and that the most fragrant specimens are the ones to use for good medicine. For example, if you needed yarrow or wild bee balm but it is the middle of autumn and the only plants you can find are dried and brown, pick a leaf/flower/stem and crush it in your fingers. If you can smell it (if it smells aromatic), go ahead and try it! It might not be the strongest preparation, but it could certainly be effective. I've often thought that I would rather have a mild or even weak plant preparation, rather than none at all. With this thought in mind, I came home one day with a small bagful of sticky, resinous St. John's Wort flowers and seed pods that looked something like this when I picked them:
It's my habit to wildcraft from early afternoon to evening, as I like to avoid the heat of midsummer but I am definitely not a morning person. This batch was picked on a warm August evening, about an hour from sunset. I made sure to pick the spent flowers and seed pods that had the distinctive St. John's Wort aroma, the same as the fresh flowers do. Some of the plants that had gone entirely to seed were even more resinous and sticky than some with fresh, bright yellow flowers. I thought that was a good reminder that plants are individuals too, with constituents that can vary depending on the individual plant, the area in which it is growing, the weather, the season, etc.
As with previous batches, I picked through the flowers and seed pods, put them in a glass canning jar, and added olive oil. I kept this jar in the warm sunshine routine along with my all-fresh-flower batch of oil. My first observation was that the experimental batch seemed to need a longer time to get going. It took weeks before the oil was more than lightly pinkish-red in color. This past summer was much cooler than usual, and I was infusing later in the season. I had nothing to lose except about a cup of olive oil, so I diligently put the experimental jar in as much sunshine I could find, for weeks and weeks. I often wondered what the mailperson thought of the oil-filled jars lined up on the concrete sill below our mailbox. It makes a great shelf for catching the sun.
I strained and pressed the first batch of St. John's Wort oil in late August. It had been infusing for 6-8 weeks and though I didn't think any harm would come from leaving the flowers in, it's difficult to actually use oils or make salves if you have plant material in the way. My second, experimental batch of St. John's Wort oil was still going strong at this point, and I didn't feel it was finished infusing so I decided to keep it on sunshine rotation for another 3-4 weeks.
For straining oils, I often use a small strainer, canning funnel and cheesecloth or a coffee filter. Chopsticks come in handy for this part too, especially if your plant material is small and light, or all your funnels/strainers are in use already. I've recently invented a chopstick-and-coffee-filter funnel that seems to work fairly well. The picture below shows some of the different color results you can get, based on the plant used for your oil infusion.
In late September, as the weather turned chillier and autumn set in, bringing cloudy days and rain, I took another look at my experimental St. John's Wort oil. By then, it had turned a nice cranberry color that hadn't deepened with extra time in the sun, so I decided to press it. I hadn't touched it much in weeks, other than to move the jar from one patch of sunshine to another, giving a gentle shake every so often. I am happy to report that when I unscrewed the jar and upended the whole thing into a strainer, I could smell a strong, sunny St. John's Wort aroma. All appeared to be normal! Appearance and scent of the spent flower and seed pod batch seem to be the same as the batch made with sunny, peak-blooming flowers. This is a nice, hopeful beginning to my experiment.
Further observations, tests and conclusions are needed of course, and this winter season I hope to get plenty of feedback from those lucky people who received some of my St. John's Wort salve for the holidays.
Merry holidays to all, and to all a good night!