Sunday, December 16, 2007

Saint John's Wort

What’s green above the snow: Conifers, grasses, Apache plume, roses, Japanese honeysuckle, hollyhock, winecup, columbine, rockrose, coral bell, snapdragon, bouncing Bess, blue and yellow flaxes, sea pink, yellow and pink evening primroses, vinca,, sweet pea, yuccas, red hot poker, iris, Saint John’s wort, anthemis, Mount Atlas daisy, Mexican hat, purple aster.

What’s gray or gray-green: Salt bush, winterfat, buddleia, loco, snow-in-summer, pinks.

What’s red: Cholla, soapwort.

What’s blooming inside: Aptenia, geranium.

Animal sightings: Bird tracks.

Weather: Snow Monday and Friday; ground frozen and heaving under gate.

Weekly update: It’s a week until the winter solstice, and the cold of winter has already set in. Almost everything has been buried by snow at least once this week, but one emblem of Midsummer’s eve, Saint John’s wort, poked through the icy crystals with tinges of red on the edges of its green, ovate leaves.

When I bought Hypericum perforatum in 2000, the store posted a warning it could become invasive. Since so few things grow in my garden, I thought it would be nice to have something that would fill in dry areas beyond the hoses, especially if it covered itself with bright five-petaled flowers.

Alas, my Helos cultivar has only bloomed three times, and then, rather than bouquets of stamens standing high above large, butter-yellow pads, the plants produced chartreuse tips. If any flowers were there, they were too insignificant to see.

However, as promised, it did spread.

I decided to move the plants from my front garden to an area where anything green was welcome, and discovered the rust-colored, serrated stems stood ready to protect their position. Whenever my arm brushed them, it started to itch. The likely cause is hypericin, a napthodianthrone that collects in the dark oil glands on the flowers and leaf margins.

That red chemical is the reason Saint John’s wort became commonplace after people with AIDS claimed it was a possible cure. Scientists have since found it is effective against T-cells and cancerous cells, but haven’t yet found a way to make it reliable enough to prescribe.

Maria Leach suggests this particular Hypericum species arrived in England with the crusaders who found it healed wounds in the middle east. In 1597, John Gerard still recommended using leaves, flowers and seeds soaked in olive oil to close cuts, a remedy repeated by Nicholas Culpepper in the 1650's.

Germans treat depression with hyperforin from the translucent leaf glands. This practice may be an extension of the traditional belief that it thwarts demons and counteracts spells, especially during the summer solstice when the spirits are active. The symptoms of the one may well be the same as the other, allowing for changes in language and the metaphors of emotional problems.

James Frazer believed the ancient Druid bonfires in England were the same as those in central Europe on Mid-Summer’s eve, only yellow flowers of mistletoe were collected to heal cuts and cure epilepsy. Saint Patrick is the one credited with substituting the name date of John the Baptist for the pagan rite.

Since I’m not ready to experiment with dosing myself with something that irritates my skin, I have no reason to leave the multi-branched interloper in my front garden. Its eradication is a constant struggle because the woody taproots have runners that break and regenerate.

In a way I’m lucky they don’t bloom. The hermaphroditic flowers are able to produce seed without being pollinated. Once buried, the seed can remain viable for ten years. In California they finally imported beetles from Australia to protect livestock from sickening when they ate it.

Since I’m not willing to combat one invasive species with another that might find other things to eat in my arid environment, I’m left with weeding, itching, and pondering the conflations of hyperforin with hypericin and Christmas mistletoe with snowbound Saint John’s wort.

Notes:Culpeper, Nicholas. Culpeper’s Complete Herbal and English Physician, 1650's, 1826 edition republished in 1981.

Frazer, James George. The Golden Bough, 1922.

Gerard, John. Gerard’s Herball 1597; reprinted as Leaves from Gerard’s Herball, 1969, from a 1929 edition by Marcus Woodward.

Leach, Maria. Funk and Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology and Legend, revised 1972 edition.

Photograph: Transplanted Saint John’s wort in the snow, 14 December 2007.

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