St John's Wort: A Solar Herb
More than a Clinical Study
Numerous clinical studies have shown that St John’s Wort is as effective as pharmaceutical drugs for mild to moderate depression and has some success for helping those with severe depression. But we have all read this, nothing new.
What I am interested in is uncovering St. John’s Wort’s relationship to human beings since the time before laboratories and pharmaceutical anti-depressants. As a Clinical Herbal Therapist, I rely on the information researchers bring to the forefront about the use of herbal medicine. But as an herbalist who is committed to understanding all the uses of a plant that are beyond measurement, I need to travel back in time.
It is through the language of the people who came long before our current age of technology that I often come to understand not only the clinical applications of a plant, but also the rich spiritual relationship between plants and people.
Although St. John’s wort is native to Europe and Asia, it grows like a weed here in North America where my ancestors settled just over a hundred years ago. Being of Celt ancestry, I am drawn particularly to the Celts relationship with plant medicine. Let’s imagine what a Celtic herbalist might have shared with her apprentice before the missionaries arrived on the islands surrounded by the cold, swelling waters of Atlantic and North Sea.
The Herbalist Tells her Apprentice a Story
The Celtic herbalist may have begun with the tale of Airmed, the daughter of a great healer who some call the God of Healing, Dian Cecht. Dian Cecht was like so many gods, a jealous god. And like gods of old, he was jealous of his children.
Dian Cecht healing feats were many. His blessed a well with waters that healed all soldiers’ wounds, other than loss of limb. He is credited for saving Ireland when heaven’s queen gave birth to a child so ugly that the other gods decided it must be evil. Dian Cecht, killed the infant and found in the child’s heart three serpents. These serpents if left to grow would have killed all the Celts. He slayed them, burnt them and spread their ashes in a river. The tale tells that the serpents were so powerful, even their ashes made the river boil and killed every living thing in it.
When the King lost his arm, Dian Cecht made one of silver. For this he was highly esteemed. But when his son Miach replaced the silver limb with one made of flesh, blood and bone, Dian Cecht flew into a jealous rage and killed him.
This is where Airmed, Dian Cecht’s daughter comes in. She loved her brother dearly and wept for many days over his grave. Each tear she shed blossomed into a healing herb. When her grief had exhausted itself, she gathered the plants and laid them out according to their properties. Soon, she understood every healing plant that ever was. (Hint, if you need help understanding a herb, think of Airmed.)
Dian Cecht, again in a jealous rage (he probably could have used some of the herb St John’s Wort) and strew the plants across the land. Since then, no one has ever known all the healing plants and properties.
This is important to know as an herbalist. For, there are no studies, no matter how carefully designed that can show us the vast abilities of a plant’s medicine. Have faith in the plants and their gift of healing. But never assume that there is nothing else to learn even from the most familiar plant, such as St John’s Wort.
St John’s Wort and Summer Solstice
On summer solstice, when the sun stands still in the sky and there is perfect balance between the hours of darkness and light, dressed in loose clothing, our herbalist takes her apprentice into the fields to collect St. John’s Wort yellow flowers.
Along the way, she explains St John’s Wort medicine in this way. The plant belongs to the Aine, the goddess of summer and wealth, synonymous with brightness, joy and glory. Taking St John’s Wort helps us remember the radiant sunny days when hope and optimism warmed the soul.
Like in all traditional healing systems, upon coming to a patch of St John’s Wort, our herbalist has a conversation with the sunny plant. She speaks about her intention for the medicine and asks the plant for permission to gather it asking the plant to bring light into a dark soul.
To show her apprentice St John’s Wort medicine, she rubs the flowers between her finger tips and a red blood like liquid stains her finger tips. (Although, the liquid is not sticky like blood and has a bit of a red/purple hue to it). The Herbalist then speaks of how the blood of St John’s Wort bring the warmth of the sun’s fire back to the soul when wounds caused by ugly words, hurtful looks, rough hands or broken promises, tear apart the body and soul. A body/soul is woven back together by the blood found in this simple yellow flower. St John’s Wort is a plant of remembering the wholeness one knew before the hurt.
A Solar Herb in Cancer
Most solar herbs are harvested when the sun is in Leo. In western astrology the sun rules Leo. It follows that medicine traditionally gathered when the sun travels through the sign of Leo are like the sign of Leo, ruled by our fiery star. (However, I live in a northern climate and must gather many plants while the sun is in Leo whether or not they are ruled by the sun. Necessity trumps astrology.)
St John’s Wort, unlike other solar herbs, is traditionally gathered when the sun moves into Cancer on summer solstice. The yellow flowers can be gathered anytime during the sun’s journey through Cancer. Let’s take a look at the sign Cancer to discover what it can tell us about the sunny plant’s medicine.
Summer solstice is the still moment before the northern hemisphere of this beautiful planet gently turns towards shorter days and longer nights. It is the black dot in yin yang symbol. It is said that the dark time’s seed is planted at summer solstice.
The ocean’s tides are highest and lowest during summer solstice. The Sun journeys closer to the earth on summer solstice than any other time of year. During this time, the sun has as strong an influence on the tides as the moon. At summer solstice the moon yield some of its power over the water element to the sun, ruler of the fire element. The cool rhythmic emotional nature of the moon is warmed by the sun’s joyous embrace on the 1st day of summer.
Cancer is ruled by the moon. It is the sign of maternal feelings, love of home and tenderness. St John’s Wort’s medicine carries the warmth of a mother’s love. It brings warmth to our inner home - our heart.
Cancer’s symbol is the crab. The crab carries its home, a shell formed by another, on its back. As the crab grows it leaves behind one shell for another; a shell made by another. Because the crab is unable to renew its home on its own, the time between shells, the seeking of a new home, is the time the crab is most vulnerable.
A friend of mine, born under the sign of Cancer, is fond of saying, “Don’t leave your cave”, while pointing at his heart center. As a mature Cancer, my friend is saying, know your heart, trust your heart, live by your heart. Don’t let another take you away from your heart.
Or as the famous mythologist Joseph Campbell said, “Follow your bliss.”
We are most vulnerable when lose sight of the warmth our heart wish brings to our lives. Sometime I think of depression as the pull of undercurrents into icy places with little light, far from the inner knowing, the iwarmth our hearts naturally bring. (By the way, the heart is considered to be an organ ruled by the sun.) St John’s Wort, understanding how to balance the water emotions of the moon with the fiery passions of sun eases depression returning the comfort of hope back to our lives. We are most vulnerable when like the crab, leave our natural home found only in our hearts.
The Sign of Cancer and the Disease of Cancer
How does this relate to Cancer the sign? Cancer is a disease that can cause people to feel hopeless, powerless, lost. A diagnosis of cancer can make one feel like their body has been taken over by a disease (remember crabs don’t build their own shells). Cancer is the sign that takes us back home. Home is where the heart is.
Many people who have struggled with cancer attest to the fact that there is an emotional component to the disease. To heal cancer, many feel one needs a return to a sense of purpose, or follow their heart’s desire. Cancer is a disease that returns many to the thinking with the heart, not just the head. In this way, the sign of cancer has much to teach those who help others challenged by cancer. Again, St John’s Wort helps us return to a time of wholeness, or should I say, homeness.
I feel I have meandered wide during this short piece of St John’s Wort: A Solar Herb. But then again, when Dian Checht scattered the healing plants far and wide he forced those who wish to understand a plant’s medicine to explore different traditions to gain knowledge of a plant’s medicine. Perhaps the meandering is part of learning a plant and its medicine. Perhaps, a non-linear approach opens us to greater possibilities, just as the medicine of St John’s Wort does for those darkened by depression.