St. John’s Wort is known as nature’s antidepressant, and although it’s not officially approved by the FDA to treat anxiety and depression, the herb is a popular alternative to prescription drugs. Follow our guide on growing St. John’s Wort at home, and you’ll be using your own medicinal herbs in countless remedies, in no time.
Herbalists and physicians have been using St. John’s wort for centuries, both for its healing benefits and its effects for pain management and wound healing. In fact, it has proven so effective that European scientists began studying the drug’s effectiveness on mild to moderate depression during the late 1990s.
You can easily find the herb in health food stores, pharmacies, gardens, and even on roadsides throughout Europe and North America. Best practices involve growing St. John’s wort at home for your personal use in powders, tinctures, oil infusions, fluid extracts, or teas.
That said, some U.S. states consider the plant an invasive weed. It’s also important to note that it comes with the most herb-drug interactions than any other home herbal remedy.
St. John’s Wort Varieties
There are over 300 species of St. John’s wort, but some are more medicinal than others. Look for those that have tiny black dots on the flower petals to find the varieties you can use in alternative medicine. These will begin to bloom near the summer solstice, and continue throughout the summer months.
The herb’s active ingredient is called hypericin, and that gives the plant a deep red color when crushed. This plant grows tall, with the flowers growing at the upper half.
Hypericum perforatum is the Latin name for the type of St. John’s Wort that’s best to grow for medicinal purposes. It grows to 2-3 feet, with small, oval, veiny leaves, and bright yellow flowers. When the leaves are held up to the light, you’ll notice the tiny holes (perforations) that give this plant its name.
A few cultivated, ornamental species also exist. These are perfect for marking property boundaries or pathways, and people often use them in rock gardens as well. These cultivars include:
- moserianum – A rainbow of colorful foliage, including red, pink, green, and cream.
- frondosum – Handles harsher winters well and grows in a bushier mound that can reach two feet around.
- calycinum – Produces chartreuse foliage that changes to a golden orange color in bright sunlight.
How to Plant St. John’s Wort
While you can start growing St. John’s wort from seeds indoors, they require nearly three months to germinate. These plants won’t grow very quickly over the first year, but seeds may continue to sprout indefinitely.
Soaking the seeds in water overnight before planting helps, as does mixing them with sand before freezing them for 10 days prior to planting.
Grow the plant outdoors in an herb garden or in a container. Sow the seeds on the surface of the soil in autumn or early spring, then place the plant in a partially sunny window or sunny garden spot, and keep the soil moist.
For the best results, begin the plants indoors and move it outside when they’re old enough. Make sure to protect the seedlings from frost and cold winters if you want to see flowers during the second year.
The easiest way to start these herbs is from a few small root cuttings. Simply begin the plant in a container and transplant the shrubs to the garden when they’re a few inches tall. Be sure to space them around 24-36 inches apart, and water thoroughly after planting.
The best part is that once you get your St. John’s wort plants started, these weed-like perennials will always be around. They thrive in poor soil, but you can add sand, organic matter, or heavy clay soil to your garden for a better overall soil texture.
How to Care for St. John’s Wort
St. John’s wort grows best in sunny or partial shade, in slightly acidic soil. You can test your soil to ensure the right pH balance, and anywhere from 5.5 to 7 is perfect. This herb adapts well to either dry or moist soil, it can withstand droughts or flooding, and requires little maintenance to grow.
Regular watering is necessary to keep these plants healthy, but be careful not to overdo it. If the summer is particularly long or dry, you may need to water more often. Avoid overly wet soil.
St. John’s Wort grows best in planting zones 5 through 8, although some ornamental varieties can withstand lower temperatures. Use mulch to protect the roots from frost if you live in a place that gets particularly harsh winters.
Fertilizing and Pruning
Fertilize only if your soil is low in nutrients, or if you’re growing in a container. The herb should take care of itself just fine. All you’ll need to do to maintain the plant is to prune it during the early spring with disinfected shears. Remove any dead or damaged stems, and prune the plants back as necessary if they get unruly.
Two main problems pop up when growing this herb: too much sunlight and unfertile soil. It doesn’t typically suffer from serious diseases or pest trouble.
Under harsh sunlight conditions, the plant’s leaves can become scorched while the opposite can result in a lower number of flowers. Pick a spot with great morning sun and afternoon shade for the best results.
Unfertile soil will require a bit of work before you can transplant your St. John’s Wort. Try spreading around two inches of compost or manure in your garden bed, digging it at least 8 inches into the soil.
Harvesting and Storage
This herb is typically best used fresh. If you steep fresh blossoms in olive oil, that oil will turn deep red in hue. If the oil is made from dried St. John’s wort, however, it may remain clear. Roll a flower bud between your fingers, and if you see a deep maroon or purple-ish stain, your plants are ready for harvest.
To harvest the herb, pick the fresh flowers and buds from your plant. You can also cut the top 2 or 3 inches off in full bloom period during late June or early July. Doing so will ensure that the herbs you’ve gathered contain a good amount of hypericin.
For the best results, you should always harvest from your own plants to ensure a clean, pesticide-free harvest. Avoid harvesting from roadways and wild patches around the United States, as they are typically in waste places that may have been treated with various chemicals.
Also, avoid over-harvesting because bees adore this plant. If you harvest too much, there won’t be anything left over for the bees to pollinate, or for the plant to produce seeds later in the season.
Some Special Notes About Harvesting:
Never harvest more than 4-6 inches from the main stem of a plant or two, and never from flowers on the branching stems.
Commercial farms also cultivate the herb, but these imported herbs are often found with unwanted additives and food coloring. Not all companies are reputable and sell ineffective products. To ensure you are taking real St. John’s wort, it’s better to grow your own product.
One of the easiest ways to preserve it is to freeze dry the plant, which preserves its activity. That said, it’s best to pick your own and create homemade remedies immediately.
Drying the herb is great for storage and best used in teas, although you must dry a fresh harvest. Follow these steps to dry the flowers effectively:
- Spread out a layer of St. John’s wort blooms on a screen or drying rack
- Either leave the flowers and leaves on the stem, or strip them off fully
- Allow the herb to sit out of the sunlight until it’s entirely dry and crispy
- Store the dried herb in an airtight jar, away from heat or sunlight
How to Use Your St. John’s Wort
There are tons of ways you can use this herb. A tincture can help ease nerve pain, the direct application can aid skin problems, and an extract with 3% hypericin can ease depression and anxiety symptoms. St. John’s wort can be used fresh or dried to make:
- Bath Soaks
- Smelling salts
- Skin care recipes
- Aromatherapy roll-on oils
- Massage oil
- Lotion and cream
- Salve, balm, or ointment
- Infused Oils
- Compressed and poultices
Growing St. John’s Wort at home will allow you to create oils and lotions you can spread on your skin to treat ailments such as:
- Bug Bites
Taking This Herb Internally
Nerve pain can become nonexistent, as St. John’s Wort can help repair damaged nerves by using external treatments like a bath soak, compress, or massage into the skin using an infused oil. These same applications are said to also help joint and muscle aches.
When taken orally to help depression, start out with a 300 mg dose three times per day. You can increase the dosage to 1,200 mg each day if you don’t notice any side effects. However, you should consult your doctor to ensure there are no harmful interaction with any other medications you may be taking, especially if you’re pregnant or nursing. Dangerous interactions are common with:
- Birth control pills
- HIV/AIDS medications
- Blood thinners
- Chemotherapy treatment
- Organ rejection medications
- Other antidepressants
As a final note, St. John’s Wort is poisonous to some animals, so make sure to keep it away from your pets’ reach.