Flowering Scilly

St. Johns Wort (Hypericums) Clusiaceae Family (formerly called Guttiferae and prior to that Hypericaceae)

"So then about her brow
They bound Hypericum, whose potent leaves
Have sovereign powers o’er all the sullen fits
And cheerless fancies that besiege the mind."

Flower Image
In the previous issue of Scilly-up-to-Date, I discussed the general botanical features of the St. John’s Wort, the Hypericum family, but did not have space to enlarge upon its folk-lore and medicinal uses.

It was a herb widely believed to be beneficial to mankind both medicinally and mystically as the above couplet shows. With very few exceptions it was a herb of white magic and not of black magic with its association with devils and witches. The only reference to the latter that I could find was a spell in Reginald Scot’s "Discoverie of Witches" 1584 – in which he wrote that you could "Raise the ghost of a hanged man with the aid of a hazel wand tipped with an owls head and a bundle of St. John’s Wort".

Alexander Carmichael comprehensively described its virtues when he wrote "One of the few plants cherished by the people, to ward away second sight, enchantments, witch-craft, evil eye and death, and to ensure peace and plenty in the house, increase prosperity in the fold and growth and fruition in the field". (It was also good against lightning!)

In different countries bunches would be placed over door lintels, in windows and even included in wreaths placed on the roof. Because of the association with John the Baptist, his day, June 24th, was considered particularly propitious to pick the flowers, especially before dawn whilst wet with dew, a sure way in which to strengthen the magical properties.

The eve of St. John’s Day, June 23rd, was also considered lucky, and bonfires were lit into which flowers of St. John’s Wort would be thrown. The more active participants would jump through the smoke and over the flames. Not so lucky, in some countries, was the adding to the pyre of a live black cat, in the ignorant belief that they were the peculiar (or companions) of witches. These cruel and pointless acts only serve to confirm my belief that many of these ceremonies lie deep with Pagen beliefs and were only christianised at a much later date. On a lighter note – on going to bed – put St. John’s Wort in you pillow and you will dream of your beloved.

For some obscure reason St. John’s Wort was favoured by the Celtic Saint, Columba. In Gaelic the flower was called Achlasen Chaluimchille. Translating as the ‘armpit package of St. Columba,’ which for some odd reason was the place where he chose to carry the herb. Faithful men and women copied this, although it was only considered really effective if the flower was found by accident and not after a deliberate search!

The medical benefits were as equally diverse as the magical. The apparent holes in the leaf (made by the devil’s needle) were considered "a signature’, signifying its use for any holes or punctures of the skin. In fact the ‘holes’ were, as mentioned last month, transparent drops of oil. Macerated leaves formed the basis of a salve used by the Knights of St. John in the Crusades, to treat the wounds of their soldiers.

Similarly the reddish sap, referred to as the ‘Blood of John the Baptist’ was a ‘signature’, or sign, to specify its use in bleeding and bruising. Interestingly, in Norway, it was referred to as the Blood of Baldur, suggesting that its healing powers were also attributed to a Pagan Norse God!

The common name of Tutsan is a corruption of the French Toute Saine – heal all. Herbalists have used hypericum for diverse ailments. It was considered a mild sedative, diuretic, antiseptic and astringent, although it was pointed out that too much use of the oil damaged nerve endings and could produce allergic conditions in hypersensitive skins, especially aggravated in sunlight. It was used as an anti-depressant and tranquilliser (possibly another reason for calling it Fuga daemonum – devil chaser), for chronic inflammation of internal organs and for gynaecological disorders. One writer made the comment that, "Although John the Baptist discovered its medical powers, such an ascetic character would have learnt of its tranquillising ability rather than its gynaecological powers!"

Personally I have no beliefs whatsoever in its magical powers. None-the-less I would like to enjoy the experience given in tales from the Isle of man "If you tread on a St. John’s Wort after sunset, a fairy horse will rise from the earth and carry you about all night, leaving you in the morning wherever you may chance to be at sunrise".

Special Notice

A member of the dandelion family, Common Ragwort (Senecio jacobaea) has become very invasive on open areas and farmland. It has a ‘bunched’ head of many yellow flowers and lush, cut-about leaves. It is dangerous to eat and as it is more palatable if cut and allowed to dry, is even more dangerous to animals. It should be pulled up in its entirety, roots and all, and incinerated.

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