Herbs in History: St. John's Wort

St. John's Wort

Hypericum perforatum L.


By Alain Touwaide & Emanuela Appetiti | June 2023

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Daughter of the Sun

St John’s Wort (Hypericum)

Illustration 1: St John’s Wort (Hypericum)

June is the month of the summer solstice (June 21), the astronomical zenith of the sun, the longest days of the year. It is also the month of St. John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum L.), which flourishes and covers the land with its sunny-yellow flowers (Illustration 1). June is also the month of the birth of St. John the Baptist (June 24), who became the eponym of Hypericum species.


The genus is large, with 469 species currently identified. The ancients did recognize this multiplicity. As early as Antiquity, Dioscorides (1st cent. BCE), author of the most comprehensive encyclopedia on medicinal plants of that time (De materia medica), described four species. Although he did not explicitly identify them as species of the same genus, he grouped them one after the other, stressed that they were sometimes confused (their names were interchangeable according to some), compared them (except the last one), and described them with common characteristics. These different plants were also represented in manuscripts. In one such manuscript produced in Byzantium in the 10th century, however, the Constantinopolitan artist did not have a clear idea of the different species and tried to differentiate them, possibly on the basis of their written description.

The four species are described by Dioscorides as below with their Greek name and, at the end of the paragraph, their other name(s) according to Dioscorides. This is followed by their identification according to current taxonomy and complemented, for some of them, by a representation in the 10th-century Constantinopolitan manuscript and a herbarium specimen.

  1. Uperikon in the manuscript of Dioscorides

    Hypericum crispum L. Specimen collected at Pigadia (Greece)

    Illustration 2: Uperikon in the manuscript of Dioscorides, De materia medica, now in New York, Pierpont Morgan Library, M 652 (10th century, Constantinople), f. 178 verso.

    Illustration 3: Hypericum crispum L. Specimen collected at Pigadia (Greece).  US National Herbarium, at Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of Natural History, Department of Botany.

    Askuron in the manuscript of Dioscorides

    Hypericum perforatum L. Athens

    Illustration 4: Askuron in the manuscript of Dioscorides, De materia medica, now in New York, Pierpont Morgan Library, M 652 (10th century, Constantinople), f. 11 verso.

    Illustration 5: Hypericum perforatum L. Athens, Goulandris Museum of Natural History, 019058.

    Androsaimon in the manuscript of Dioscorides Hypericum coris L.

    Illustration 6: Androsaimon in the manuscript of Dioscorides, De materia medica, now in New York, Pierpont Morgan Library, M 652 (10th century, Constantinople), f. 12 recto.

    Illustration 7: Hypericum coris L. US National Herbarium, at Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of Natural History, Department of Botany.

    Uperikon: it has leaves like rue (Ruta graveolens L.). It is an undershrub, of a spithame (ca. 9.1 inch = 23 cm), reddish, with a flower like that of lily, a capsule slightly hairy, round elongated, of the size of barley (Hordeum vulgare L.) in which there is a black seed smelling of resin. It grows in cultivated and rough terrains.  (Illustration 2).

    Some call it androsaimon and some korion.

    Identification: Hypericum cripsum L. (Illustration 3).

  1. Askuron: this one is a kind of uperikon, differing in size, with longer twigs, more woody, and red; it bears yellow flowers, a fruit like that of uperikon, smelling of resin, and, when crushed, it stains fingers as blood. This is why it is called man’s blood (androsaimon) (Illustration 4).

    Some call it askuroeides (= similar to askuron) and some androsaimon.

    Identification: Hypericum perforatum L. (Illustration 5).

  1. Androsaimon: it differs from uperikon and askuron being thin-stemmed, woody, red in its stems. Its leaves are three times the size of rue, which release a winy juice when crushed. It has many branches pinnatifid at the extremity, around which are small yellow flowers. The fruit in a capsule similar to that of black poppy, as if it were painted. When crushed the foliage releases a resin-like smell (Illustration 6).

    Some call this one, too, askuron.

    Identification: Hypericum perfoliatum L.

  2. Koris: it has a leaf similar to that of tree heath (Erica arborea L.), smaller and shinier, and red. It is a shrub of a spithame (ca. 9.1 inch = 23 cm), tasty, pungent, fragrant.

    Some call also this one uperikon.

    Identification: Hypericum empetrifolium Willd. perhaps more than current H. coris L. despite the name (Illustration 7).

Of interest here, the common and distinctive characteristics of the species: all are low woody, twiggy shrubs, with twigs of a brownish/reddish colour, a yellow flower, and a resin-like smell. They differ by the length of their twigs, the size of their leaves (which are elongated in all species, however), and the seed. Some of these individual characteristics are incorrectly attributed to one species as if it was a distinctive sign. This is the case of the environment of the first species (uperikon) (cultivated and rough terrains), for example, which is not a diagnostic element. Also, the oily exudate mentioned for two species (askuron and androsaimon) is present in all species and accounts for the reference to a resin-like smell, which is, in fact, an essential-oil smell. In the case of koris, the name itself is a diagnostic characteristic as, in ancient Greek, koris is the name of bugs. Its use to distinguish a species probably refers to its smaller flowers and its small round buds, possibly evocating the shape of bugs.


St. John’s Wort has been brought to the forefront of research and pharmacotherapy in the past decades for its use in the treatment of mild depression, with some side effect, however, in addition to increased photosensitivity leading to photodermatitis. Since ancient pharmacotherapy has been demonstrated in more than one case to have a judicious use of plants, it should be explored to possibly identify awareness of health issues resulting from the administration of Hypericum spp. that could have alerted the scientific community in modern times.
Not unsurprisingly, the most ancient texts in the Mediterranean tradition, the gynecological treatises in the collection grouped and transmitted under the name of Hippocrates (5th/4th century BCE), do not distinguish between species as Dioscorides does, but mention only uperikon, which we should treat as a generic name. They recommend Hypericum spp. for the treatment of uterine infections mostly in the form of injections, and dysmenorrhea in internal use (a draught). Also, they prescribe the plant in internal use against lung infection with fever, and consider, more generally, that it is a refreshing plant like rusty back (Asplenium ceterach L. [syn. Ceterach officinarum Willd.]), mint (Mentha spp.), seseli (Seseli tortuosum L.), chicory (Cichorium intybus L.), pimpernelle (Sanguisorba minor Scop.), and nettle (Urtica dioica L.).
From the early Hippocratics (5th/4th cent. BCE) to Dioscorides (1st cent. CE) applications changed substantially, with a reduced use in gynecology (amenorrhea) and a broader, though limited, range of other conditions, hinting at new explorations to diversify uses and develop new, more specific ones.
Interestingly, all species distinguished by Dioscorides share two major indications: the treatment of pain in the hip (traditionally identified as sciatica) and burnings. For the former, the seed is recommended in internal use for forty days (uperikon), with hydromel (askuron) or without specification (androsaimon and koris). One species (androsaimon) is identified as particularly active in this case. For burnings all species (except koris) are recommended in external applications of the leaf and also the seed (uperikon).
For the other indications, the four species form two groups with identical uses. One such group consists of uperikon and koris; it is recommended for diuresis (fruit in internal use, koris) and amenorrhea (external application, uperikon). The other group (askuron and androsaimon) is characterized by a purgative action, eliminating bile and feces (fruit, androsaimon).

Three species have exclusive usages:

  • uperikon is efficacious against quartan fever (malaria?) administered in internal use with wine;

  • androsaimon (the whole plant) is antihemorrhagic in external application;

  • koris has three specific uses:

    • antidote of spider venoms in internal use with wine;

    • shivering in internal use with pepper;

    • opisthotonos, either in internal use with wine or in external use as an unguent.


Coming in the following century, Galen is more succinct. He first reduces the number of species by considering androsaimon as a variety of uperikon and omitting koris. Then, he theorizes the applications by subsuming them in a general property. In this way, the diuretic and emmenagogue action of uperikon is accounted for by its warming and desiccating property, itself resulting from a refined structure of the matter of the plant. The leaf must be used, not only the seed. He also develops the external uses of uperikon, not only burnings as in Dioscorides, but also cicatrization (leaves, fresh), in addition to the treatment of gangrenous and infected wounds (leaves, dry, in application). And he concludes that uperikon is administered against hip pain by some, whom he did not mention, discrediting them, however, by this final note without further information.
Whereas he does not provide any specific indication for androsaimon since he considers it a variety of uperikon, he does recommend the second species as cathartic (the fruit) and vulnerary (the leaves). As he explicitly specifies, the latter action results from the desiccating and cleaning nature of the plant, which also accounts for its application in cases of burnings. Furthermore, boiled in wine, it cicatrizes major open wounds.

Playing with Fire

From the Hippocratics to Dioscorides, to Galen, there is a clear shift from gynecology to a broader range of applications, with a particular emphasis on the treatment of cutaneous and external traumatic conditions. No depression and no sign that administration of Hypericum spp. might have had negative collateral effects. The focus on dermatological and vulnerary applications could hint at a possible awareness about Hypericum link with light. Its very name establishes a connection with the sun.
In current bibliography, we discover that the Greek phytonym uperikon that gave its name to the genus Hypericum, has been interpreted first as a reference to the genus Erica, the ancient Greek name of which is ereike pronounced as erike. A connection with uperikon seemed justified, so more so because Dioscorides explicitly compared one species (koris) with heath. More recently, however, this interpretation has been revised and the term uperikon has been cut in two parts: uper and ikon, assuming that the second corresponds to the Greek term eikon pronounced as ikon. Since upo means among other above, over, and eikon is the term for an image, a new interpretation is that uperikon designates a picture above, actually a picture above doors, as an apotropaic symbol to protect shrines from evil spirits and, later, also houses.
However seductive this interpretation might seem—particularly because Hypericum is indeed linked with many traditions of spirits and rituals—, it is not founded on solid word formation and does not consider more significant components of Hypericum, especially its flourishing at the summer equinox. Probably the most significant characteristic of Hypericum is this life cycle, which had almost a calendarial function, marking the maximal height of the sun. In ancient Greek, this notion of maximum is expressed by the preposition uper, which, in the context of measurement, means above, beyond, exceeding. And ikos is not a substantive, but a suffix to form an adjective. Analyzed in this way, uperikon means the excessive, the maximalist, which is exactly what the sun is at the summer equinox. And, by way of consequence, also Hypericum. Hadn’t it been that another plant was identified as the Bride of the Sun (Sponsa Solis = Calendula), Hypericum would have qualified for this coveted title.

This sunny relationship of Hypericum translates into traditions all over Mediterranean Europe and beyond, to play with fire during the night of June 24, lighting a bonfire or jumping over fire (the so-called St. John’s Fire), and not doing only that, but also cutting hair to reinvigorate them, and preparing St. John’s water as an elixir of felicity, rejuvenation, and prosperity (Illustration 8):


St. John’s water

Illustration 8: St John’s Wort (Hypericum)

At sunset, pick up different aromatic herbs and flowers, put them in a transparent bowl with water and leave them out all night, to absorb the magic properties of this special night (it is believed that the dew of the Gods falls during the night of Saint John). The flowers will gather the dew and the morning after you will rinse your face and hands with this water (charged with positive energy) for good luck, good health, love and fertility. Which herbs should you collect? First and foremost, St. John’s wort, then you can choose among many others, such as: artemisia, rue, mint, sage, basil, roses, red poppy, rosemary, parsley, lavender, marigold, verbena, cornflower, chaste-tree flower, hibiscus, elderflower, chamomile, thyme, fennel. By tradition, the herbs and flowers (only the petals or the entire corolla will be used, not the stems) should always be collected by a woman, possibly on an empty stomach, and the number of herb species collected should be odd (usually seven or nine species, but more samples of the same species can be included.

Whatever the form, these are rituals of passage, eliminating the past and looking forward to the future.
This is where St. John comes in. He is not the Evangelist, but the Baptist, whose date of birth is supposed to have been June 24, the exact day of the equinox.  It is no surprise that the plant marking this time of the year better than any other became St. John’s plant. The assimilation goes beyond this calendarial correspondence. Just like the solar movement and the rituals of renewal, John the Baptist announced a transition, a passage. And, according to John’s Gospel, he said of himself, speaking of Jesus, “He must increase, but I must decrease”.
With his connection with St. John the Baptist, Hypericum lost its solar filiation and possible title of Daughter of the Sun, and it became a holy herb, St. John’s Wort. 

European Medicines Agency
Hyperici Herba
03 March 2021
Committee on Herbal Medicinal Products (HMPC)
European Union herbal monograph on Hypericum perforatum L., herba (well-established and traditional use)
2nd Draft – Revision 1
03 March 2021
Committee on Herbal Medicinal Products (HMPC)
Assessment report on Hypericum perforatum L., herba
2nd Draft – Revision 1
03 March 2021
Committee on Herbal Medicinal Products (HMPC)
List of references supporting the assessment of Hypericum perforatum L., herba
2nd Draft – Revision 1
On the Hypericum genus
Crockett S. L., N. K. B. Robson 2011. Taxonomy and Chemotaxonomy of the Genus Hypericum. Medicinal and Aromatic Plant Science and Biotechnology 5 (Special Issue 1) (January 2011): 1-13.
Klemow K. M. et al. 201. Medical Attributes of St. John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum). In: Benzie I.F.F., S. Wachtel-Galor (eds), Herbal Medicine: Biomolecular and Clinical Aspects. 2nd edition. Boca Raton (FL): CRC Press/Taylor & Francis, 2011: 211-237.
doi: 10.1201/b10787-12
Scientific articles (selection, chronological order)
Zepeda R. C., C. Juárez-Portilla, T. Molina-Jiménez 20323. St. John's Wort usage in treating of perinatal depression. Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, 2023, 16:1066459. DOI: https://doi.org/10.3389/fnbeh.2022.1066459
Monteiro M. et al. 2022 . Hypericum perforatum and Its Potential Antiplatelet Effect. Healthcare, 10(9) (Sep. 15 2022): 1774.
Orhan N., St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum) Laboratory Guidance Document, Austin, TX: ABC-AHP-NCNPR Botanical Adulterants Prevention Program, 2021.  http://herbalgram.org/media/17014/bapp-lgds-stjohnswort-122021-final-v1.pdf
Scotti F. et al. 2019. St. John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum) Products – How Variable Is the Primary Material? Frontiers in Plant Science, 24 January 2019, Sec. Technical Advances in Plant Science.
Ng J. Y. 2021. Trends in the St. John's wort (Hypericum perforatum) research literature: a bibliometric analysis. Journal of Complementary & Integrative Medicine, December 2021: 10.1515/jcim-2021-0417.
doi: 0.1515/jcim-2021-0417
Booker A. et al. 2018. St John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum) products – an assessment of their authenticity and quality. Phytomedicine 40 (2018): 158–164. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.phymed.2017.12.012
Ng Q. X., N. Venkatanarayanan, C. Y. Xian Ho 2017. Clinical use of Hypericum perforatum (St John's wort) in depression: A meta-analysis. Journal of Affective Disorder 210 (2017): 211-221. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28064110
Ferrara M., F. Mungai, F. Starace 2017. St John's wort (Hypericum perforatum)-induced psychosis: a case report. Journal of Medical Case Reports 11(1) (May 15 2017): 137. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28502251
Lyles J. T. et al. 2017. The Chemical and Antibacterial Evaluation of St. John's Wort Oil Macerates Used in Kosovar Traditional Medicine. Frontiers in Microbiology 8 (2017): 1639. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28943862
Istikoglou C. I., V. Mavreas, G. Geroulanos 2010. History and therapeutic properties of Hypericum perforatum from antiquity until today. Psychiatriki 21(4) (Oct-Dec 2010): 332-338. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21914616
Galeotti N. 2017. Hypericum perforatum (St John's wort) beyond depression: A therapeutic perspective for pain conditions. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 200 (Mar 2017): 136-146. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28216196
Marrelli M. Et al. 2016. New Potential Pharmaceutical Applications of Hypericum Species. Mini Reviews in Medicinal Chemistry 16(9) (2016): 710-720. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26156546
Wölfle U., G. Seelinger, Ch. M, Schempp 2014. Topical application of St. John's wort (Hypericum perforatum. Planta Medica 80(2-3) (Feb 2014): 109-120. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24214835
Shalaby A. S., S. F. Hendawy, A. Abdel Motaal 2014. First cultivation of Hypericum perforatum L. under local Egyptian conditions. Bulgarian Journal of Agricultural Science 20(2) (2014): 364-370.
Ghasemi Pirbalouti A. et al. 2014. Chemical composition and bioactivity of essential oils of Hypericum helianthemoides, Hypericum perforatum and Hypericum scabrum. Pharmaceutical Biology 52(2) (Feb 2014): 175-181.
Stojanović G, A. Ðorđević, A. Šmelcerović 2013. Do other Hypericum species have medical potential as St. John's wort (Hypericum perforatum)? Current Medicinal Chemistry 20(18) (2013): 2273-2295.
Crockett S. L., B. Schaneberg, I. A. Khan 2005. Phytochemical profiling of New and Old World Hypericum (St. John's Wort) species. Phytochemical Analysis 16(6) (Nov-Dec 2005): 479-485. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25464055
Barnes J., L. A. Anderson, J. D. Phillipson 2001. St John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum L.): a review of its chemistry, pharmacology and clinical properties. Journal of Pharmacy and Pharmacology 53 (2001): 583–600.

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