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St John’s wort: medicinal plant of the year 2015

Each year the Study Group Development History of the Study of Medicinal Herbs (Studienkreis Entwicklungsgeschichte der Arzneipflanzenkunde) at the University of Würzburg, Germany, chooses a plant to highlight as the “Medicinal Plant of the Year”. For 2015 they’ve chosen St John’s wort. New research into this interesting plant is the main reason for the choice – special extracts are being tested as therapies for Alzheimer’s and cancer. St John’s wort is best know  for its antidepressant properties – it–s been successfully used to treat light to moderate depression, anxiety and restlessness.

Botany, ecology and name

St John’s wort belongs to the Clusiaceae family and the three Hypericum genuses cover around 400 species worldwide. Nine species of the plant are native to Germany, but only one Common St John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum) is of medicinal importance. St John’s wort is a tough plant which grows in any sunny open places, from roadsides to heathland, along forest edges, hedgerows and rough grassland. The plant usually grows between 15 and 30 cm high and has delicate, starry yellow flowers. It’s probably called St John’s wort, because it blooms around St John’s day which is June 24. The buds, the flowers and the green seed capsules are especially high in active substances.

A long tradition as a therapeutic herb

The first uses of St John’s wort are lost in the mists of time; it was used in antiquity especially to treat burns, sciatica, bladder and menstrual problems. The first mention of it as a treatment for depression, or as it was then called “melancholy”, is in the “Lorscher Arzneibuch” from the 8th century. Despite its long use and much research how St John’s wort works is not fully understood. It is thought that messenger substances such as serotonin stay longer and in higher concentration in the brain. The herb is also thought to support a healthy circadian rhythm and to intensify people’s response to light.

A prescription drug in high concentrations

St John’s wort oil is used internally to treat mucous inflammation of the stomach and intestine and externally for cuts and bruises, sunburn and sciatica. St John’s wort can affect the efficacy of certain other drugs, which is why highly concentrated St John’s wort has been available only on prescription in Germany since 2003. But you can buy less concentrated St John’s wort as capsules, tea or oil over the counter.

Source: Heike Kreutz, www.aid.de