Liquid Courage

“There are many ancient superstitions regarding this herb. Its name Hypericum is derived from the Greek and means ‘over an apparition,’ a reference to the belief that the herb was so obnoxious to evil spirits that a whiff of it would cause them to fly.”
~ Maude Grieve, A Modern Herbal, 1931

Tracy’s not the only person who talks about St. John’s wort as a plant to be taken very seriously. Other teachers have taught me to take care in asking permission to gather it and to be mindful of my use of it.

Permission? Permission from whom?

Permission from the plant, permission from the place. I don’t know how to explain this other than saying when I sit down in a place where I want to gather St. John’s wort (or any other plant, for that matter) after a few minutes I’ll know whether it’s OK or not. Intuition? Maybe. Or maybe it’s environmental, like when Tracy told me about crop dusting in Idaho (see St. Joan’s Wort According to Tracy Maier below). If I have any sense that it isn’t the right time, place, or plant, I move on empty handed.



St. John’s wort tea brewing in the winter sun. Commercialization of St. John’s wort products led many to believe that only alcohol extracts had any benefit, however tea and beer were used long before tinctures and concentrated extracts existed. “It happened that someone added a little Hypericum, especially if they wanted really intoxicating ale” ~ Odd Nordland, 1969

Another person told me to set my intentions when working with St. John’s wort or perhaps the spirit of the plant won’t help. Others have said that when picking a plant, I should tell the plant what I’m using it for so that it knows how to help me. What this tells me is that mindfulness is part of the process of gathering wild plants and making concoctions from them. Mindfulness is part of the medicine.

This reminds me of a student who brought me some herbs. She got out of her car, pulled a bundle of herbs from the back seat. Then as she approached she was whipping the plants around while complaining of her spouse. Hmmm, I thought.

Another lesson: herbalism is about relationship. Something to contemplate in these dark days of winter.

I recently wrote about St. John’s wort for an online class, but as you can see I have more to say. For instance, this year I made two batches of St. John’s wort tincture. The first was made from Hypericum perforatum, common St. John’s wort. Tracy taught me to find it in clear cuts in the Pacific Northwest. When a forest is cut or land is disturbed, a tribe of wound healing weeds pop up in the first few years, reconstructing the soil, preventing erosion, healing the land. In the Rocky Mountains it is invasive, covering swaths of land preventing native plants from growing. I’ve seen herbalists kill the plants. Cattle ranchers out there worry that it will kill their cows if they eat little else, making them so sensitive to the sun that they succumb to heat and sun burns.

(Perhaps this sensitivity to the sun is how a little St. John’s wort helps me through the dark days, increasing sensitivity to the sun’s life-giving rays. A dose of liquid courage.) 

Here in NE Ohio, St. John’s wort is less troublesome: coming up on roadsides, in gardens, and other disturbed places, but it doesn’t take over. I planted it at BLD farm when I first moved here. Now it shows up here and there in the gardens. Just enough to save some for tea, make a tincture, and of course a special cordial for the dark days of winter. 


This summer, a cousin to St. John’s wort appeared to heal our land, circling the barnyard where the fire happened last winter (picture on the right). The flowers are tiny and the leaves are large compared to Hypericum perforatum (picture on the left). The entire plant, including the stems, is covered in purple dots. It is aptly named spotted St. John’s wort. These purple dots are filled with a purplish-red oil that brings a vibrant color to preparations of St. John’s wort. (It’s also a clear indication that you’ve got the right plant… if your yellow St. John’s wort flowers don’t bleed red in alcohol or oil, then perhaps you’ve gathered the wrong plant.)


Spotted St. John’s wort also has perforations, though less obvious than those in the leaves of common St. John’s wort.  Although some herbalists suggest that only the perforatum species is medicinal, I found that the purple dots stained my fingers the same way and it tastes the same. So I decided to tincture it and try it – I mean, it was all over the backyard how could I ignore this? Within 5 minutes the tincture turned dark purple-red, the same color as preparations made from common St. John’s wort. The scientific name of spotted St. John’s wort is Hypericum punctatum. The species name, punctatum, reminds me of the dots used in punctuation, as if my friend St. John’s wort is enthusiastically calling to me with lots of exclamation marks. (!!!)  

Taste test?


Common St. John’s wort: oily, bittersweet, stimulating, slightly tannic like red wine but without the sour aspect, warming

Spotted St. John’s wort: nutty, stimulating, warming, bright, bitter, oily


Hypericum punctatum is native to eastern North America, see the distribution map here:



More stories about Tracy:

St. Joan’s Wort According to Tracy Maier: 

Off With Their Head:

Making Room for Grief:

More stories about Winter and St. John’s wort:

On Being Grateful:

The Art of Making Tinctures:


Herbal Safety

*This statement has not been evaluated by the FDA. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.*

Don’t take St. John’s wort with any kind of medication. It has a direct interaction with some medications, especially those for anxiety and depression, and it may reduce the effectiveness of other medications. This happens because St. John’s wort clears out stagnation in the liver increasing the elimination of prescription drugs and other chemicals. It works best on depression associated with liver stagnation and use should be stopped when the stagnation has cleared. It is commonly used in salves and oils, and will be absorbed through the skin, so don’t cover your whole body or large parts of your body with it if you are concerned about interactions. It can also be used as a flower essence or as a homeopathic remedy without side effects. 

One thought on “Liquid Courage

  1. Thank you for your brilliant writing! I am happy to learn of St. Joan’s Wort and now I too miss Tracy. How the gift of his life keeps giving! I have been drinking Elder and Elderberry teas and now, I’d like to try hypericum! Charles hasn’t written about the new barn lately, I’m glad St. Joan’s Wort was there
    to help the earth heal. Such a nice series of posts!

Comments are closed.