Flowering Scilly

St. John’s Wort (Hypericums) Clusiaceae Family, formerly called Guttiferae, prior to that Hypericaceae

"Trefoil, Vervain, John’s Wort, Dill, Hinder witches of their will."

During the summer months four of the St. John’s Wort (Hypericum Family) flower on the islands, although not in any great numbers. Three of these are truly wild and cleverly avoid detection.

The fourth is a garden escape. Trailing St. John’s Wort, Hypericum humifusum, is the commonest and can be found on all the inhabited islands. Being of the prostrate growing habit, as the name trailing suggests, it is easily overlooked in spite of growing to 20 centimetres plus. The specific botanical name of humifusum re-inforces its habit of lying low from the Latin humi, meaning ‘on the ground’. The two other wild St. John’s Worts are less common and listed only on St. Mary’s. The Upright, Tall or Slender St. John’s Wort, Hypericum Pulcrum, rises elegantly to 30 centimetres or more. In spite of this, its habit of hiding in the long grass helps it to escape the notice of any but the most observant flower lover. Bog St. John’s Wort, Hypericum elodes, is now very rare here. It has flowers of a subdued yellow, compared with its fellows and the leaves, of a dull sage shade, are so hairy that they are best described as felted. It lies will concealed in a boggy habitat. The largest and distinctly flamboyant garden escape, the Tall Tutsan, Hypericum x inodurum or elatum, rises to well over a metre in height. It flaunts bright, yellow flowers and very glossy red berries which darken to a purplish black when ripe. Gerald’s Herbal of the early seventeenth century has a succinct description, "St Johns Wort hath brownish stalks beset with many small and narrow leaves, which if ye behold between your eies and the light, do appeare as if were bored thorow in an infinite number of places with pinnes points. The branches divide themselves into sundry small twigs, on the top whereof grow many yellow floures which with the leaves bruised do yield a reddish juice of the colour of blood. The root is long, yellow and of woody substance."

The ‘pinnes points’ of light in some of the leaves are, in fact, not perforations at all, but minute glandular pellucid dots of oil, appearing as transparent windows when held up to the light. Careful inspection reveals that there are also black dots and some red on the perimeter of some of the leaves, petals and sepals. The five petalled flowers have many strikingly attractive stamens, joined at the base in bunches and brilliantly red tipped.

Hypericum, the generic botanical, derives from the Greek Hypereikon which divides into two parts, hyper – above and eikon – picture. This was because it was often placed above pictures in the house, in the belief that it would ward off evil spirits. Wort is an old Anglo-Saxon word Weod, meaning a herb or small plant, therefore the name St. John’s Wort merely means St. John’s plant.

There are many country names associated with this flower. Because its perfume was thought to be faintly musky and aromatic, it was given the names of Sweet Amber and Rosin rose. The habit of placing it between the pages of books gave it the names of Book leaf and Bible leaf. Another odd name of Treacle leaf was not used in the sense of a sweet food. It meant a ‘Sovereign’ remedy, being possessed of supreme powers and therefore extremely good.

The herb was considered a ‘simple’, one that could be used alone and did not necessarily require to be associated with other plants and so could be used simply be itself. It was also believed to be a ‘signature flower’. In writing our name our signature is our identification. By observing certain methods of growth or particular features of the plant, it was believed that this was a sign to indicate its uses, particularly in the field of medicine for which it was much in demand. Known to the herbalist by the odd name of Park leaves, a contraction and corruption of its generic name of Hypericum, it had common names such as Touch and Heal and Touchen leaf. It was also used as a dye and when boiled with alum produced a rich yellow shade.

John the Baptist reputedly discovered its medicinal properties, although the probability is that, as with much folk lore and folk medicine, the special Saint’s Day of 24th June sanitised the pagan beliefs associated with the week of the summer solstice.

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