Growing St. John’s Wort in Florida

The title for this post is a false statement because really you can’t grow St. John’s wort Florida, although many of its cousins flourish here. Hypericum perforatum, the namesake of the Hypericaceae family, does not like Florida, although it is rated in most plant guides as suitable for this climate.

St. John\'s wort as a creeper
Hypericum perforatum in pot.

For many years, I bought this plant from garden stores hoping it would grow and feeling for certain I lacked the proper skills to keep it alive because every year it died. I so admire and resonate with this wonderful plant: the flowers with their delicately perforated margins, the tiny perforated leaves, and the healing gifts she offers. I especially enjoy the beautiful, luxurious and healing red oil from the flowers. I have been very determined to harvest this plant from my own property. But the green goddess has not been willing in this endeavor.

H. perforatum (called St. Joan’s wort in the Wise Woman tradition) is a multifaceted herbal ally with a variety of properties including antiviral, diuretic, antidepressive, and antispasmodic. St. Joan’s wort is useful externally as an oil for neuralgia, muscle spasms, minor burns or as a wash for minor cuts and scrapes; and internally as an infusion or tincture to treat depression, urinary issues, viral conditions, colic, and migraines.

Despite the fact the cattle consuming huge quantities of the herb have succumbed to photosensitivity, called “hypericism,” there is only a small likelihood of a problem for anyone taking the recommended dosage of 2.7 mg of hypericin per day, which is considerably below the level required to produce phototoxicity. Fair-skinned individuals, however, may want to exercise caution if planning to be out in the sun for extended periods of time while taking St. Joan’s wort internally. Paradoxically, Hypericum oil is recommended for healing minor burns and also protects the skin against ultraviolet radiation and the antiviral properties of the oil may actually be increased by the ultraviolet radiation! (Remember, it is not a good idea to smother a deep wound in oil, as the chances of bacterial growth may increase.)

Although most people I know have never seen St Joan’s wort flower in Florida, this does not stop nursery growers and retailers from selling it and writers of herbals, including growing guides, from claiming it does grow here. I suppose the keyword is “grow.” It grows after a fashion. Trailing like a slow creeping vine. It never grows up and to its normal height of one to three feet, but instead just hugs the ground as if it were afraid of being seen. And it is quite fragile, succumbing easily to not enough water, too much water, too much sun, not enough sun, or too much humidity.

St. Andrew\'s Cross
Hypericum hypericoides

Florida has a number of native Hypericum species including H. cistifolium, H. gentianoides, H. myrtifolium, H. reductum, H. fasciculatum, H. crux-andraea, and the quite abundant St. Andrew’s cross (H. hypericoides ) and St. Peter’s Wort (H. tetrapetalum ). H. perforatum , the Hypericum that produces copious amounts of red pigment from its flowers, is sadly not among them. The compounds that produce the red color are two eight-ringed structures, hypericin and psuedohypericin, which along with other constituents, make H. perforatum the most active pharmaceutically of the Hypericum species. These compounds are specifically found in the specialized glands that appear as black dots on the flower and leaf margins.

H. perforatum is purported to grow in Georgia, but I have not found it in my travels. Friends tell me that it starts to show up in fields in Virginia, and it can be gathered in the Carolinas. Of course, it is quite the “weed” in cooler climates, falling into the noxious plant category in many states and counties.

My fellow herbalists in Florida have been greatly frustrated by this plant’s refusal to flourish here. I know someone who dug St. John’s Wort out of the ground in North Carolina when she was visiting a friend. The plant was upright and healthy. When she returned to Florida, she planted it in her Jacksonville-area garden and after a few weeks, it began to spread out and creep along the ground. Some of us have started them from seed, even stratifying the seeds, with no luck. We have tried growing them in different micro-climates and even growing them in pots. H. perforatum is quite pretty in a hanging basket, but so far in my experience and that of friends, it won’t flower.

If you gather the green leafy tips and squeeze them, you will notice a reddish tinge from the leaf glands. Some studies have indicated that high levels of these active compounds are also found in the leaves. An oil made from the tips eventually gains a reddish hue (after a month in a sunny spot!), but it is not the deep red apparent from infusing the yellow flowers in oil for just week or two.

Hypericum is derived from Greek (huper , above and eikon , image) and, as best as most translations go, means “over an apparition” or “power over evil.” This makes sense as traditionally it was used to banish evil spirits, and its bright yellow flowers, which bloom June through August, were thrown into fires during Roman and Greek solstice celebrations. As was common when the Christian churches began to exterminate traditional festivals and beliefs, saint names were used liberally, and so Hypericum became commonly called “St. John’s Wort.” Similarly, other plants in the Hypericum genus were “christened” with saint names when discovered in the New World.

American native peoples used various Hypericum species including H. hypericoides and H. fasciculatum . The leaves were used in salads or to flavor liquors; and to promote healing, especially of burns, cuts, and varicose veins. An infusion of H. hypericoides leaves was used as a wash sore eyes. The root of H. fasciculatum was used by the Seminole people for treating urinary and bowl blockage, acting as a cathartic. Other native people used the root bark to treat fevers and pain (including toothaches and pain at childbirth). A leaf infusion was reported to have helped treat rheumatism.

References

Austin, D. 2004. Florida Ethnobotany . Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press.

Grieve, M. 1931/1971. A Modern Herbal . New York: Dover Publications, Inc.

Moerman, D. E. 1998. Native American Ethnobotany . Portland OR: Timber Press Inc

US

4 Responses

  1. All the years I lived and practiced in Archer/Gainesville I had the same experience with Hypericum. I would grow,grudgingly, but never thrive. Luckily I lived part time in the Ozarks and in parts of Missouri there were carpets of St J’s Wort blooming wildly in summers. I think it is important to keep finding the medicinal herbs that do want to live there – which indeed is a challenge because we have so much of the Euro- herbalism and the farther north North American models in most books and many teachers.
    What a nice website!

    Posted on December 4th, 2008 at 12:30 pm

  2. I live in Tennessee,this is the second year I have had this lovely plant. It has not bloomed yet this year but it has spread to a foot wide from one individual plant to several. I hope it blooms vibrantly. I am planning to see how many of the fabulous herbs will grow here in Tennessee.

    Posted on May 9th, 2009 at 3:39 pm

  3. well, that explains it. i’ve got it half in and out of the sun in atlanta, and it’s been growing and spreading for the 3 years i’ve had it, but i’ve never gotten even a bud out of it. i wonder if i should put it more in the sun, but i’m thinking it will crisp up and die if it gets more than morning sun. great plant, tho, but disappointing to my herbal expectations. (how strong the sun is – i put a comfrey plant just a foot farther into the sun from where i put the hypericum, and it died in the sun, but still thrives in a shadier spot in the same garden)

    Posted on October 22nd, 2009 at 12:04 am

  4. Here in the southeast, the sun can be brutal on a lot plants that thrive in up north. I have planted my comfrey in a place that gets dappled shade most of the time and full shade in the afternoon in the summer. It seems healthy.

    The Hypericum has been a disappointment to me as well, and I am resigned to wildcrafting (or enjoying the wildcrafting fruits of my friend’s when they travel to up the coast to Virginia and North Carolina. I only wish I knew the reason it won’t grow here. Is it the soil? The sun? The humidity? Maybe someone will figure it out.

    Posted on October 22nd, 2009 at 10:15 pm

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