Friday, April 16, 2010

“St. John’s Wort doth charm all witches away!”

In recent years St. John’s Wort has been in the news again for having exceptional healing powers. We are more familiar with it as Hypericum, and this product has been turning heads lately in our industry. Suffice it to say that while Hypericum perforatum and other species may have mild anti-depressant qualities, as well as some astringent properties, I would be extremely careful using it as medicine. There may be some merit in hanging it above your door to ward off the hobgoblins and witches!
On the other hand the new ornamental varieties are exceptional in terms of vase-life, longevity and most importantly for their decorative qualities, and new varieties such as “White Romance” pictured here provide wonderful details to all floral compositions, as well as holding up during hot summer weddings.

The word Hypericum is derived from a very old Greek word for the flower Yperikon and first mentioned by Greek doctor Euryphon in 288 BC. It is a composite word thought to be formed from either Hyper, meaning above, being coupled with erikon, the Greek word of heather. The implication is that Hypericum is a flower that stands taller than heather. However, given its use for hundreds of years for medicinal purposes, it seems that the combination of Hyper with the word eikon meaning figure or apparition is a more plausible explanation. Certainly it has been used for several thousand years to ward off the evil eye, and in pre-Christian England it was said that a sprig brought into the house on Midsummer’s Day would ward off witches.

St. John’s Wort doth charm all witches away
If gathered at midnight on the saint’s holy day.
Any devils and witches have no power to harm
Those that gather the plant for a charm:
Rub the lintels and post with that red juicy flower
No thunder nor tempest will then have the power
To hurt or hinder your houses: and bind
Round your neck a charm of similar kind.

In Mediaeval France, and throughout Europe, during the summer solstice which had by then been annexed by the Catholic Church and renamed St. John’s Day, the people participated in widespread festivities that lasted through the night, and included in the rituals were the construction and burning of massive bonfires. (Burning Man anyone?) St Johns Wort, or “Toutesaine”, was one of a select group of generally woody-stemmed herbs thought to have magical powers and which were thought to be even more powerful if passed through the smoke of the Mid-Summer fires.
These were then bunched and hung over doors and windows to keep away the evil spirits. Probably these bunches, called “Bosquets” in mediaeval French, eventually formed our understanding of the modern word we use today – Bouquets!
It is because this flower generally blooms around the time of the summer solstice that the name of St. John’s Wort was ascribed to it, but it seems one variety in particular is thought to have been highly valued for medicinal purposes, namely H. perforatum. This variety has unusual punctures in the leaves which the Crusaders believed to symbolize the stigmata, and which the Knights of St. John used to treat the wounds of pious soldiers injured in combat. They would macerate the petals of the flowers in mortars, which when crushed turned scarlet, and then mixed the contents into olive oil yielding a red unguent they called “Blood of Christ”.
On the plant, the flowers are generally bright yellow but short-lived, and it is the fruits displaced on terminal racemes that are of interest to florists.
Up until 2000, however the USDA had a ban in place on these “fruits”, and domestic supplies were rather limited and often contaminated with leaf-miner.
As soon as the ban was lifted several plantations went into production, commencing with “Excellent Flair”; now called ‘Dolly Parton’, and doing a superb job of cultivating clean, disease free berries and foliage. Since then, a considerable amount of industry has been focused on hybridizing new varieties, and recently there has been a proliferation in hybrids, which now feature berries of yellow, orange and even white.

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