A Brief History of St. John's Wort
A Brief History of St John’s WortToday, St. John’s Wort seems to be popping up everywhere you look. From handcrafted herbal teas to medicinal pills, the plant is popularly used to treat depression, anxiety, and other conditions. But what exactly is this St. John’s Wort, and what is the story behind how it made its way from the fields to your teacup?
Growing St. John’s Wort
St. John’s Wort is a perennial plant that is native to Europe, West Asia, North Africa, and more. For centuries, the plant has been extolled for its medicinal and therapeutic merits. Indeed, it was “administered as a remedy by the Roman military doctor Proscurides as early as the 1st century AD,” and became popular in medicinal elixirs in the Middle Ages meant to ward off diseases and demons alike.¹
By the early modern period in Europe, St. John’s Wort became known as a popular anti-nausea agent, among many other treatments. In Nicholas Culpeper’s pathbreaking herbal, originally published in the 17th century, he wrote that the plant “helpeth all manner of vomiting and spitting of blood, occasioned by the bursting of a vein, bruises, falls &c.” He continues, “it likewise helpeth those who are bitten or stung by any venomous creatures; also easeth the plain of the stone and, when applied, provoketh women courses.”² From this brief excerpt, then, it becomes clear that for early modern Europeans, St. John’s Wort was understood as a panacea for a number of diseases.
In particular, as Susan Francia and Anne Stobart detail, St. John’s Wort was used in medieval European manuals as a “vulnerary in the healing of wounds and fractures.” For instance, one Latin medieval treatise written by a French physician “cites St. John’s wort as incarnatif (promoting the growth of new tissue in a wound or sore; promoting the closing of the lips of a wound), mundicatif (an ointment, powder, plaster or liquid used for cleansing a wound or ulcer) and consolidatif (promoting cicatrization or closing of a wound). It was also, according to Francia and Stobart, used to calm fevers and help with “fainting fits.”³
Native Americans, according to Dr. Christopher Hobbs, used the plant as an “abortifacient, antidiarrheal, dermatological aid, febrifuge, hemostat, snake bite remedy, and general strengthener.”⁴
St. John’s Wort and Depression
St. John’s Wort did not start out only as a potential cure for depression. Dr. Leah Songhurst, in her dissertation on the medicalization of happiness, lists several 19th-century uses of St. John’s Wort, including to cure pulmonary consumption, treat gangrene, and more. Yet, as Dr. Songhurst concludes, “it appears, however, that St. John’s Wort was perhaps declining in popularity by the nineteenth century.”⁵
There are some examples of St. John’s Wort being used to treat “melancholia” in the early modern and modern period, including in a 1770 book by Joseph Miller entitled Botanicum Officinale which states that “a tincture of the flowers in Spirit of Wine, is commended against Melancholy and Madness.”⁶ Other books from similar time periods also mention its use against madness. And yes, as Dr. Songhurst points out, “definitions of mental illnesses are historically specific,” and it is thus difficult to evaluate if the plant was being used to treat what we today consider as depression.⁷ Other scholars, like Francia and Stobart, write that “the postulation that the modern-day use of St. John’s wort for depression, in combination with valerian, was also valid in the medieval era could not be verified by a close analysis of the extant medieval literature available to us from the monastic community.” However, as they note, this does not necessarily mean it was not used for depression-- only that the surviving evidence does not show signs of it.⁸
St. John’s Wort became popularized in Britain and America as an antidepressant-- “nature’s antidepressant-- by the 1990s. According to the Milton S. Hershey Medical Center, “there is good evidence that St. John’s wort may reduce symptoms in people with mild-to-moderate, but not severe (or major) depression.”⁹ Other studies corroborate this, noting that St. John’s Wort is superior to a placebo in mild and moderate depression.¹⁰
The brief history of St. John’s Wort not only suggests its persistence as a plant of many beneficial uses for different societies throughout time, as well as the different ways traditional medicine impacts our current understanding of science. So, drink up your St. John’s Wort tea (after consulting with a medical professional, since it can weaken the effectiveness of certain prescription drugs)— it may just have some interesting benefits in store for you.
Pöldinger, W. "[History of St. Johns Wort]." Praxis 89, no. 50 (2000): 2102-109.//
Culpeper, Nicholas and Ebenezer Sibley. Culpepper’s English Physician; and Complete Herbal. London: British Directory Office, 1789. P. 211.
Francia, Susan, and Anne Stobart. Critical Approaches to the History of Western Herbal Medicine : From Classical Antiquity to the Early Modern Period. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2014. P. 263-264.
Hobbs, Christopher. “St. John’s Wort: Ancient Herbal Protector,” 1998. https://www.christopherhobbs.com/library/articles-on-herbs-and-health/st-johns-wort-ancient-herbal-protector/
Songhurst, Leah. The Medicalisation of Happiness: A History of St. John’s Wort. University of Exeter, 2010. P. 81.
Francia, Susan, and Anne Stobart. Critical Approaches to the History of Western Herbal Medicine : From Classical Antiquity to the Early Modern Period. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2014. P. 264.
“St. John’s Wort,” Penn State Hershey Medical Center, 2017. http://pennstatehershey.adam.com/content.aspx?productid=107&pid=33&gid=000276#Overview
Apaydin, Eric A et al. “A systematic review of St. John's wort for major depressive disorder.” Systematic reviews vol. 5,1 148. 2 Sep. 2016, doi:10.1186/s13643-016-0325-2
Wise Words Written by: Julia Fine - Julia is a writer, food historian, and the host of Brewing Productivitea Podcast. She has written for Atlas Obscura, Nursing Clio, and other historical publications.