The Saint John’s wort plant is a single species within the hypericum genus, which is a member of the clusiaceae family, and is native to Europe, as well as temperate regions of North America, China and India. These small but tough shrubs are perennial plants that can grow between 12 to 36 inches in height, and form in an erect manner. The foliage is stalkless and opposing, slender, oblong, and dark to yellow-green in hue; they also bear small perforations along their bottoms, which act as oil glands. One of their most recognizable features is their bright, star-shaped flowers, which develop in large cymes along the ends of the upper branches. These blossoms are made up of distinctive yellow petals that bear tiny black markings, and a burst of feathery stamens that connect in bundles of three at the base of the head.
The Saint John’s wort plant has long been known as an exceptionally useful antidepressant; however, its applications extend well beyond that. Some of its earliest recorded functions date back to 6th century AD, but these uses had more of a religious than medicinal inkling. For example, Saint Columba – an Irish missionary monk – was said to always carry a piece of Saint John’s wort out of respect for John the Baptist. Other religious associations consist of gathering this plant on the day of Saint John’s feast, and displaying them during the Christmas season as a representation of the sun’s life-giving bounty. As a medicinal herb, the Saint John’s wort plant was first used in Ancient Greece to treat everything from poisonous bites to sciatica. The Greeks also felt that the essence of this plant could help to drive away wicked spirits. The use of these shrubs eventually spread throughout Europe, then, more recently, into the United States, where it is applied to a myriad of complaints, ranging from skin wounds to anxiety, inflammation to ear infections. The Saint John’s wort plant has also found its way into legends. One such tale states that if a young girl should pick one of the blossoms at night, it would tell her whether or not she would be married within the year. If, by the morning, the plant was wilted, it was a definite no; on the other hand, if it was still fresh and lovely, she could be sure of her impending engagement.
Over time, Saint John’s wort has accumulated a good deal of symbolism. In its earlier days, these plants were associated with the sun, and thus – as a religious allegory – is was an emblem for the spirit. It also became a representation of protection, invincibility, fertility and courage. As a gift, these plants are relatively uncommon; however, that might make them a unique choice when given to someone changing direction in their life, starting a new family, or to someone who just needs a bit of extra encouragement.