Plant Rant: Jim Duke’s Herb a Day on St. John’s-[Wort] Day

Celebrating Saint John, June 24 (adapted, edited and updated from Jim’s “electronic online newsletter” archives from 2001 and 1989)

The week spanning Father’s Day (June 17, 2001) to St. John’s Day (June 24, 2001), stresses a saintly plant, St. John’s-wort, Hypericum perforatum, and its relatives St. Andrew’s Cross and St. Peter’s-wort, a real saintly combination. As best I can determine, Hypericum was not mentioned in the Bible, though St. John’s-wort does grow in the Holy Land now as a weed. And I have seen it there, cultivated as a medicinal. Poor Israel, with little forest and little fresh water, is better off with a sun-loving weed, like Hypericum perforatum, than a moist forest species like Hypericum punctatum.

Overgrowth of introduced forest-tolerant weeds, like bittersweet, honeysuckle and multiflora rose, are choking out important forest medicinal plants like black cohosh and wild yam, and the subject of today’s rant, Hypericum punctatum. The latter does better in forest, and has more active ingredients (I think), than does the introduced European weed, Hypericum perforatum. Hence, methinks, the forest species may be potentially more medicinally important than the Klamath Weed, another name for Hypericum perforatum, which once had a price on its head in California.

Native Hypericum punctatum, Spotted St. Johnswort, with larger leaves and smaller flowers

Along Highway 29, Howard County, Maryland, and probably along most highways in the U.S., in full sun, you’ll find the introduced weed, Hypericum perforatum. But drop out of the heat of the highway into the cool of the eastern deciduous forest, and you’ll find the shade-tolerant native American medicinal plant, also known as St. John’s-wort, Hypericum punctatum, with bigger leaves and smaller flowers than the European weed. More importantly, analyses provided me more than a decade ago (see below) that my Hypericum punctatum contained more of the active ingredient, hypericin and related compounds, than the weed. This tells me, if not the FDA, and the merchants of Hypericum perforatum, that our Native American species would be more medicinal for those activities based on hypericin than the better studied weed.

Non-native Hypericum perforatum, Common St. Johnswort, smaller leaves and larger flowers

From my database at the USDA (, here are the biological activities for hypericin:  *HYPERICIN: Antiadenomic IC>80= >5 uM BO2; Antianemic IC50= 5 ug/ml FT66(1):66; Anticytomegalic FT66(1):65; Antidepressant 411/; Antiflu PM56(6):651; Antigliomic IC50=<10 uM/l HG40:23; Antiherpetic FT66(1):65; AntiHIV PM56(6):651; Antiinflammatory HG40:24; Antileukemic HG19:19; Antileukotrienic HG40:24; Antiproliferant IC50= 1.7 ug/ml FT66(1):66; IC74=10uM BO2; Antiretroviral 50 ug mus iv EMP5:221; Antistomatitic PM56(6):651; Antitumor (Brain) IC74=10uM BO2; Antiviral 5 ug/ml (with UV) FT66(1):66; Anxiolytic 411/; Apoptotic HG40:23; Bactericide; Cytotoxic CD50=1.2ug/ml; Herbicide; Insecticide; Larvicide 438/; MAO-Inhibitor 411/; Melatoninergic QRNM 1997:292; Photodermatotic JBH; Phototoxic 30-40 mg ivn man SHT56; Phototoxic 3g/kg HG19:30; Protein-Kinase-Inhibitor IC50= 1.7 ug/ml FT66(1):66; 10-100uM BOI; IC50=4-12 uM BO2; IC72=2.5 uM (under light) IC50=0.02uM (w high light) BO2; PTK-Inhibitor 10-100uM BOI IC50=0.02-0.4 uM BO2 (w high light); Tonic CAN; Tranquilizer CAN; Tr! emorigenic AFR27:212; Viricide EC50=0.8 PM56(6):651;

And those are just the data accrued for hypericin, one of dozens of biologically active compounds in Hypericum punctatum and the better studied H. perforatum. Yes, I am suggesting that from a commercial view, Hypericum punctatum might be a poor man’s generic equivalent, cheaper and more potent, than the processed standardized Hypericum perforatum extract. But yes, I also believe that those who can afford the processed standardized St. John’s-wort are more likely to get the a specified dosage of hypericin. Remember these secondary metabolites like hypericin often vary 10-fold, sometimes more than 100-fold. So without analyzing my Hypericum perforatum anew I don’t know how much hypericin it contains. Nor would I know how much the weedy species along Highway 29 contained, without analysis.

Hypericum, mixed with my Father’s Day flowering evening primrose; serotoninergic tryptophan rich, Oenothera biennis, would seem to me to be the herbal mixture of choice for PMS and PMDD, after reading Brown (2001). Of course, allopathic Dr. Brown in a mass distribution medium, sponsored by Eli Lilly, dismisses the hypericum and doesn’t even mention the evening primrose, herb of choice for PMS (premenstrual syndrome) if not PMDD (premenstrual dysphoric disorder).  “The only pathophysiologic factor that has been demonstrated to be associated with premenstrual symptoms in clinical trials is a serotonin deficiency. .” But Brown adds that healthy diet and regular exercise have benefits with low risk of adverse events (and should be recommended to virtually all women). Pharmacologic therapies carry a greater risk. Options are available: dietary modifications, vitamin and mineral supplementation, exercise, psychotherapy and relaxation [diet with ca 60% complex carbohydrates, 20% protein, and 20% fat. Limit intake of sodium and caffeine. Eat smaller and more frequent meals.] Supplements include vitamin E, vitamin B6, and calcium. Vitamin E, at 400 IU daily ameliorates breast tenderness. Vitamin B6 is required for the synthesis of serotonin. Increased B6 intake may increase serotonin concentrations. Dosages of vitamin B6 should not exceed 300 mg. Calcium relieves physical and emotional symptoms (1200 mg daily) (GI tract cannot absorb more than! 500 mg at one time). “Several herbal remedies, including St. John’s-wort, have also been suggested for the treatment of PMS and PMDD, but published data to support these uses are scarce. [Here she recites the pharmacy Party Line]… Psychotropic agents used include anxiolytics, tricyclic antidepressants and selective serotoninreuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) (in women who experience severe emotional symptoms). Then Brown names the pharmaceutical alternatives, e.g. alprazolam 0.25 to 0.5 mg tid; buspirone 10 mg tid; nortriptyline, 50 to 125 mg daily, and clomipramine, 25 to 75 mg daily and some of their side effects: cardiotoxicity, seizures, anticholinergic effects, weight gain, and possibly more serious effects in overdose. SSRIs are her choice for PMDD. Fluoxetine (SarafemÔ), the most extensively studied for PMDD, and is the only SSRI approved by the FDA for PMDD. A meta-analysis found treatment with SSRIs was favored over placebo for PMDD. That’s the pharmacy party line. Here’s! my party line. I’d recommend to my daughter instead, St. John’s-wort and evening primrose seed (oil approved in Great Britain for PMS). St. John’s-wort, has been compared favorably with many of these pharmaceuticals, and tends to have fewer side effects. Evening primrose oil is a major source of GLA, also useful for the symptoms of PMS and the seeds after extraction of the oil are rich in tryptophan, dietary precursor of the serotonin which Brown mentions is deficient in most PMS and PMDD females. [Brown, C. 2001. Helping Women Cope with Premenstrual Symptoms. Highlights Newsletter 4(2):1-6.]

The FDA  announced that St. John’s-wort was a detoxifier, as herbalists have long maintained. And they were right when they said grapefruit juice could potentiate many medicines. As a matter of fact, grapefruit can potentiate Viagra enough that you could halve your dose, saving $5.00 a pop. But St. John’s-wort reportedly detoxifies the same drugs that grapefruit potentiates. So if you are taking some pharamceutical poisons, you may not wish to use St. John’s-wort, either the weedy species or the woodland species. (Or as Herbal Ed Smith quipped, when he heard about the depotentiation of potent pharmaceutical poisons, he was going to give up the poisonous pharmaceuticals instead of the St. John’s-wort.). It may detoxify that medicine, nullifying or reducing the intended medical effect.  Here are some things I published a decade ago relating to the same subject, but long before it was proven than hypericum was a detoxifier. And before JAMA “proved” (according to their questionable standards) that St. John’s-wort was no better than placebo for serious depression. Respectable herbalists who have published on the subject, almost unanimously have qualified that St. John’s-wort is for mild to moderate, not serious, depression. The JAMA article tended to denigrate the numerous clinical trials that showed that St. John’s-wort was as effective as many of the more often prescribed pharmaceuticals for mild to moderate depression, cheaper and with fewer side effects. Small wonder that St. John’s-wort outsells Prozac and other prescription antidepressants in Germany. I think America will be a happier and healthier country when the natural outsells the synthetic antidepressant in our country too. ~Jim Duke

Jim Duke singing “Hush Puppy” with Jerry Cott discussing his study:

Evening Primrose opening at dusk:

From the 1989 Archives:

St. Peter’s Cross. The Bu$iness of Herbs 7(4):6-7, September/October. Hypericum (A decade ago)  With Gordon Cragg, National Cancer Institute (NCI), and his associates, I collected several vouchered specimens of Hypericum, including Hypericum hypericoides, the St. Andrew’s Cross, a.k.a. St. Peter’s-wort. Evenly divided samples were submitted independently to Drs. Neil Towers and Leon Zalkow for hypericin  analysis. Their analyses, while varying quantitatively, showed  reasonably good qualitative agreement, with H. punctatum being highest and H. hypericoides being lowest by both analyses. Strangely and unexpectedly, Gordon Cragg (personal communication) wrote that only the H. hypericoides showed any activity in the NCI  AIDS screen. Dr. Cragg even reported that synthetic hypericin showed no activity. This goes against what we had expected from the National Academy of Science (85:5230?4, 1988): “Hypericin and pseudohypericin display an extremely effective antiviral activity when administered to mice after retroviral infection.” In view of the unexpected inactivity of Hypericum perforatum and H. punctatum collected after flowering in 1988 and the surprising activity of H. hypericoides, Dr. Cragg has requested flowering specimens this year. Perhaps the folklore regarding phenology (the timing of biological phenomena) is correct. Maybe these plants are more active when flowering. Around St. John’s Day, June 24, I obtained flowering material of Hypericum perforatum for analysis. Parallel flowering material of H. hypericoides will perforce come later since it is phenologically different. H. perforatum, supposed to peak flowering around the summer solstice and St. John’s Day, is reported to possess more biological activity and antiretroviral hypericin at flowering time. H. punctatum, at least at Herbal Vineyard, starts flowering a bit later than H. perforatum, but well before H. hypericoides. The St. Andrew’s Cross flowers later. St. Andrew’s Day is much later than St. John’s Day, too, falling on November 30, well past the flowering time of H. hypericoides, mostly July and August here in Maryland. While pondering phenology of various Hypericums, it is appropriate to quote from Chris Hobbs’ excellent review of the St. John’s Wort, “Some early Christian authors claimed that red spots, symbolic of the blood of St. John, appeared on leaves of Hypericum spp. on August 29, the anniversary of the saint’s beheading, while others considered that the best day to pick the plant was on June 24, the day of the St. John’s feast.” (HerbalGram No. 18/19). Farther south, Hypericum hypericoides can be found in flower on St. Andrew’s Day (November 30) or St. Peter’s Feast (January 18), so I’ll appeal to my Florida colleagues to collect a kilo of flowering St. Andrew’s Cross on specified days. In Hartwell’s Plants Used Against Cancer the St. Andrew’s Cross, under the name Peter’s Wort, is mentioned as a South Carolina “remedy” for tumors. According to Moerman (Medicinal Plants of Native America, 1986) the Alabama Indians used the whole plant infusion as a collyrium (eye medication) and for dysentery, the decoction for children who were too weak to walk. Choctaw took the root decoction for colic, also using the infusion as a collyrium. Houma packed the bark into aching caries, using the scraped root decoction for fever and for pain. Other references suggest folk astringent, hemostat, lithontriptic (dissolving deposits such as gallstones and kidney stones), purgative, resolvent and tonic activities.  It’s clear that phytochemical profiles and bioactivities of plants and people vary phenologically, ecologically, and even show diurnal (day to night) and possibly lunar variations. Poppy alkaloid profiles are different by night and by day. Certainly, photoactive compounds like hypericin must show diurnal variations as well. Is it possible that photoactive plants collected at midnight might have different activities than the same plant collected at noon? Stay tuned until St. Andrew’s Day. We may have some answers. Hopefully, the Peter’s Wort will show anti-AIDS activity, sparing us from the anaphrodisiac “safe sex” syndrome.  ALL-SAINT’S TEA (alias SynergisTea) Jim Duke  Perhaps we should call it Dispari-Tea because it was contrived for a desperate man, dying of AIDS. His money was almost exhausted and a friend had come to me. What can we do? We’ve tried everything! And his T-cell count was still going down. I gave him my standard answer. I am a botanist. I do not prescribe!  “But Jim, what would you do if you were dying of AIDS? There must be something you’ve learned after nearly a decade of watching the AIDS literature and collaborating with the National Cancer Institute.” Well, I said, if I were dying of AIDS, I would try a mixture I would call the All-Saints-Tea which would contain St. Andrew’s Cross (alias St. Peter’s-wort) (Hypericum hypericoides) and St. John’s-wort (Hypericum perforatum and Hypericum punctatum), generously mixed with all-heal or heal-all (Prunella vulgaris). Matter of fact, I’d mix in any species of Hypericum I came across. I’d sweeten my All-Saint’s Tea with licorice, (watching my blood pressure and potassium levels.) I’d add in some hyssop which has shown some antaAIDs activity. I’d take the better proven immune boosters (like coneflower, Echinacea spp, and Huang Qi, Astragalus spp) and I ask Subhuti Dharmananda for his latest immune-boosting Chinese traditional concoctions, which would probably contain the latter.  Further I get a juicer or blender and indulge in a wide variety of vegetable juices and fruit juices. My vegetable juices would have a lot of garlic/onion in them for flavoring and immunoregulation as well. Additionally I have some one growing some bitter melon (Momordica charantia) and eat it every day. I’d eat a pear and an apple a day, or consume the juice of several pears, if they were cheap. Pears are one of the better sources of caffeic acid and chlorogenic acid.  If I were taking AZT I would also consume a few legume nodules (reported to be the best vegetable source of heme). Heme is reportedly synergistic with AZT. My hog peanut is loaded with nodules and almost a weed in my valley.   And I would call every dermatologist familiar with photopheresis for lymphoma or with the PUVA (psoralen plus untraviolet A) treatment for psoriasis, an autoimmune disease. I’d ask them if any AID’s patients had been through their treatment and I would tell them that I wanted to go through the PUVA or Photopheresis, if they knew of no reason why an AIDS patient should not undergo the treatment. If anyone even hinted that photopheresis or PUVA might be helpful, I would go to the Deep Sea area, ingesting seeds of the Bishop’s Weed (Ammi majus) and exposing myself to the sun, getting vigorously massaged with evening primrose oil extracts of Hypericum flowers, collected on St. John’s Day. Israeli scientists tell me that there are synergies of the hypericin compounds. I would have many species of Hypericum in my Hypericum oil, hoping to get several hypericin-like compounds which are synergistically more potent than an equivalent amount of any one or two of them. Even if they didn’t! kill the virus, they might curb my depression, thereby enhancing my immune system.  I’d grow and multiply the endangered Venus-fly-trap, not convinced that the “carnivora” treatment for AIDS was anything more than a scam. But I’d steep a leaf or two of the Venus-fly trap in my tea and I would  contemplate the wonders of this insectivorous plants and God’s (and/or Nature’s) other wonders.

St. Johnswort infused oil

The garden curator’s side note: The red staining pigment found in St. John’s-wort flowers is referred to as hypericin or the “blood of St. John.”  If you observe the flowers growing along the side of the road or in a field, take one and rub it between your fingers and the red pigment, hypericin, will become apparent. One can also use the flowers of St. John’s-wort to make an infused oil for neuralgia, sore muscles, burns, sunburns, strains, sciatica and bruises.  To make the oil, take fresh flowers and buds, place in a quart jar, and cover the flowers with oil. It is often to an advantage to slightly crush the flowers, but not always necessary. Keep the jar covered with a tight lid or with cheese cloth, place it in a warm sunny spot for a couple of weeks – shaking or stirring it daily. You will notice the oil turn deep red. After two weeks or so, strain the flowers out and keep in a cool, dry, dark area. Use topically or make a salve with the oil.

For mild to moderate depression, Jim and I also make a vinaigrette containing the infused oil of St. John’ s-wort, walnut oil for its omega -3’s, seven stigma of saffron due to an Iranian study: Comparison of Crocus sativus L. and imipramine in the treatment of
mild to moderate depression: A pilot double-blind randomized trial
[ISRCTN45683816] Shahin Akhondzadeh*1, Hasan Fallah-Pour1, Khosro Afkham1, Amir-
Hossein Jamshidi2 and Farahnaz Khalighi-Cigaroudi2

Saffron consists of the stigma of the Crocus sativus


Garden report from 7/1/2012:

I just returned from the garden and must report that the derecho of Friday night dumped a huge litter of leaves, branches, large limbs etc. all over the Duke’s yard, but fortunately, nothing was hurt in the storm. The power remains out at the Duke’s, and Jim and Peggy are without air conditioner, water, and obviously anything electric. Fortunately, their neighbor has been bringing over morning coffee for Peggy, and Sara has been out picking and raking up and keeping on top of things.

Tonight, while stopping by for a visit to the garden and to check on Jim and Peggy, we were greeted by the opening of the night blooming cactus, Selenicereus grandiflora or Queen of the Night! Emerging out of the side of the thin and rambling cactus has been an ever evolving shape. This shape initially started out as a bump of a wooly and downy feather looking mass and eventually grew into a bud with the appearance of a long tapering profile resembling a swan neck, head and beak. During the week, the neck portion of the bud grew to almost six inches and the outer rays surrounding the tight large bud started to expand. Just as dusk approached, the bud started to become “Queen of the Night.” The beak point of the bud opened to a small one inch diameter revealing the numerous inner stamens and stellar stigma inside. Within the next fifteen minutes, the bud became a crepuscular star with a huge ivory white corolla and yellow and mauve rays expanding out as the evening drew darker. This beautiful sight helped to usher in the almost full and waxing gibbous moon. As a matter of note, the flower was illuminated and faced the direction of the moon as it rose in the eastern sky. We did not detect any pollinators to the flower, but I have read that in their native environment of Central America, West Indies and Mexico, night-blooming cacti depend on bats for pollination.

According to Harvey Wickes Felter, M.D. (1922), Selenicerus grandiflora  is used medicinally as a cardiotonic  and to increase renal secretions for individuals with palpitations and angina acting as a sedative and a diuretic. (

When I plan to return to the garden in the morning, I know the flower will be limp and exhausted, hanging its spent corolla downward. She is a Queen of the Night for only one night. There is a second bud in queue and yet to be determined as to when it will elongate, expand and open wide. Perhaps during this full moon cycle, perhaps on July 4th. Hard to say. C’est la vie.

to see what else was blooming during June, come visit us on our facebook photo album.

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2 Responses to Plant Rant: Jim Duke’s Herb a Day on St. John’s-[Wort] Day

  1. Pingback: St. John’s Wort–A Summer “Must-Harv” | All Things Herbal

  2. Pingback: St Joan’s Wort Oil | Herpes Survival Kit

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