John the Baptist’s Sunburn-Soothing, Fairy-Dispelling Plant

St. John’s Wort is named for John the Baptist: the Feast of the Nativity of John the Baptist occurs on June 24, and it is now, in mid/late June that Hypericum perforatum is in full bloom.


The Nativity of John the Baptist is noted on this date because, according to the Annunciation of the Angel to the Virgin Mary which is celebrated on March 25, Mary’s cousin Elizabeth “has herself conceived a a son . . . [and she] . . . is now in her sixth month.” Nine months being the standard pregnancy term, voila St. John’s Birthday is set three months later in June. (Or six months before Christ’s birth at Christmas, if you prefer).

St. John’s Day is also associated with the summer solstice, which has recently passed on June 21. From now until the winter solstice on December 21 (for those of us in the Northern hemisphere), the days get shorter; there is a little less sunlight each day. So too, when John’s disciples asked him if he was jealous of Christ’s ascendancy, John famously replied, “He must increase and I must decrease.” The sunlight of John the Baptist is decreasing as we prepare for the coming of light into the world with the Nativity of Christ which follows a few days after the winter solstice.

St. John’s Day is a public holiday in Quebec, Canada (St. Jean-Baptiste Day). The Eve of St. John the Baptist was often celebrated throughout Europe with bonfires. Wikipedia has three whole pages devoted to this midsummer celebration—one for the evening festival with customs across the globe, another for the daytime revelries, and a third for the Canadian legal holiday. It was an ideal day for picking herbs . . . including St. John’s Wort.

st jhn wort2

St. John’s Wort is a hardy perennial native to Europe and Western Asia, now naturalized in North America, known for clusters of five-petalled scented yellow flowers. The flowers, mixed with alum, make a yellow dye for wool, or when mixed with alcohol, yield a violet-red silk dye.

St. John’s Wort may not be a miracle herb, but it is close. Ancient Greek herbalists and medieval apothecaries used it to dress wounds and salve sword cuts. Like arnica, in lotion or infusion form, it eases bruises and sprains, especially those accompanied by swelling, and may also be used to treat varicose veins. Like aloe, a macerated oil of St. John’s Wort soothes sunburn.

Its most famous use is as an herbal anti-anxiety or anti-depressant. Once only available in natural food and herb stores, now most chain drug stores carry capsules of St. John’s Wort in their vitamins and supplements aisle. Any readers suffering from depression should of course first consult their physician and seek professional medical advice. From my own experience, St. John’s Wort helps elevate the mood if somewhat downcast, but is ineffective in addressing more serious psychological malaise.  St. John’s Wort often causes hyper-sensitivity to the sun, so wear sunscreen if taking it.

Folklore concerning St. John’s Wart is numerous. Pre-Christian pagans used it to cleanse rooms and drive away evil spirits. Anna Kruger, in her book An Illustrated Guide to Herbs: Their Medicine and Magic calls it “an herbal exorcist.”  After the coming of Christianity to Europe, the plant was believed to bleed on the anniversary of the Beheading of John the Baptist, commonly observed on August 29. Although its flowers are yellow, when crushed, they appear to ‘bleed’ red.

Natives to the Isle of Wight believed stepping on the plant at dusk would result in a terrifying overnight ride on the back of a fairy horse. Alternately, noted fairy folklorist Katherine Briggs cites St. John’s Wort as an herb, like the four-leafed clover, which can dispel the glamours of fairies as well as spells of evil spirits.

Someday I’ll grow this versatile plant in my own backyard herb garden. But I wonder, will it disperse the fairies from my yard? Or merely enable me to see them better?



St. John and the Annunciation: Luke 1:36

“He must increase; I must decrease”: John 3:30.

General info and folkloric references: Kruger, Anna. An Illustrated Guide to Herbs: Their Medicine and Magic.  U.S./Great Britain: Dragon’s World. 1993.  (This book is based in part on Maud Grieve’s A Modern Herbal, 1931, Penguin 1980).

Medicinal reference: Bremmes, Lesley. The Complete Book of Herbs: A Practical Guide to Growing and Using Herbs. N.Y. Viking Penguin, Dorling Kindersley, 1988. (Out of print. Sorry).

Invaluable fairy-folklore resource: Briggs, Katharine. An Encyclopedia of Fairies: Hobgoblins, Brownies, Bogies, and Other Supernatural Creatures. N.Y.: Pantheon, 1976.


Extra: Gardening with St. John’s wort: advice from Fine Gardening Magazine.

Note: This information is presented for entertainment purposes only.

Please consult your doctor for all medical conditions.  

Photo credits: Upper: Joshua Mayer through Flickr/Creative Commons

Middle: B. Vasily through Flickr/Creative Comons

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