Making an Infused Oil with St. John’s Wort

Hypericum_perforatumMany people have heard of St. John’s wort, often as an herbal aid for depression. But St. John’s wort is also a marvelous herb for your skin.

Surprised? Well, many herbs have both internal and external uses, and St John’s wort is no exception.

This wonderful herb has been used for hundreds of years for nerves. We have nerve cells both inside our bodies (the central nervous system, where neurotransmitters regulate our moods) and in our skin, where nerves let us know if we’re hot or cold, or if our skin (our body’s outer defense layer) has been hurt in any way, such as scratches or insect bites or sunburn.

Over the years, many cultures observed that a plant’s shape and/or growth seemed to roughly correlate to parts of the human body. People realized that the herb, or the relevant part of it, benefits the corresponding area of the body (in Christianity, this was known as the “Doctrine of Signatures”).

It is easy to make a beautiful, dark-red oil from St. John’s wort to be used directly on your skin, or add to salves and lotions.

All you need is a clean, dry jar with a lid, good-quality olive, sweet almond oil, or other vegetable oil (preferably organic), and a nice stand of the plant in bloom.

St. John’s wort is easily identified with the help of a good field guide. The cultivar you want is known botanically as Hypericum perforatum, the “perforatum” of the species name referring to little translucent glands scattered throughout its leaves, somewhat mimicking the nerves and glands of our skin.

Other species of Hypericum don’t have the constituents that are needed, so even if you have a beautiful ornamental St. John’s wort shrub in your yard, resist the temptation to use it –you’ll get disappointing results.

St. John’s wort grows in sunny fields and roadsides, as well as partial shade. I was surprised one year to find it taking over the woodsy hill in my backyard!

It blooms from the middle of June until August or September, though less profusely after July. The herb got its name because it blooms around St. John’s Eve, June 24.

So, on a beautiful, sunny day, when dew or rain have dried off the plants (usually late morning), take a pair of scissors and a basket or paper bag and go harvest St. John’s wort tops.

Take only the top quarter of the plant (flowers, buds, possible seed heads, leaves, and stems). All these parts contain active ingredients.

Two cups loosely packed is enough.

This allows the perennial plant to keep growing and blooming so it can come back next year.

Be aware of where you are picking. Do not take plants closer than a few yards next to a highway or busy street, or from an area you know or suspect is contaminated with lead or other chemicals/heavy metals. Remember that whatever goes onto your skin gets absorbed into your body to some extent.

When you get home, spread the St. John’s wort out to wilt for a few hours or overnight, or place in a very low-temp oven for a short time. This gets out some of the moisture, so your oil is less likely to mold. It is called fresh-wilting.

Next, cut up the plant material to some extent.

Lightly pack the St. John’s wort into your clean jar. You don’t want to cram as much plant material as possible into the jar, but you also want more than a few sprigs of herb. The herb matter should be slightly springy.

Pour the oil in and fill the jar to a little above the top of the plant matter, then take a skewer or chopstick and stir to get air bubbles out.

Screw on the lid.

Label your jar with the date, the herb, and the kind of oil you used.

Check the jar the next day and add more oil if necessary, because the plants may have absorbed some and the level may have dropped. Make sure plant material is completely covered, because any plant matter that is above the oil, in air, can easily cause molding. You can shake the jar to get the herb and oil to combine more completely.

Depending on your preference you can leave your oil on a sunny windowsill or place it in a dark cupboard. Either way, put it on a plate or something oil-resistant! Some of the oil will inevitably ooze out of the jar. Let this mixture brew for six weeks (if you’re in a hurry, 4 weeks will do), checking it occasionally and stirring out air bubbles.

After six weeksyour oil may go bad if you wait too long. Using cheese cloth or clean muslin (don’t use a coffee filter or paper towels, the pores are too fine and will clog up), strain out the plant matter, then squeeze out any leftover oil from the plant matter.

Put your infused oil into another clean, dry jar. Label this jar also.

The oil will last for several years, especially if you keep it refrigerated or in a cool place.

You can use the oil directly on your skin, or as the base for salves and lotions. St. John’s wort oil is a great soother for sunburn, sun-poisoning rash, and some eczemas. It is also a fine moisturizer. Traditionally St. John’s wort has been used externally to help with nerve pain.

Remember not to use it on open wounds, and always consult a health-care practitioner about any skin problems.

Flower Friends

Flowers and plants have always been part of my life.

When I was a young girl, living in South America, I would make garlands of flowers to wear in my hair.

When I was a bit older, I would take the local kids and introduce them to plants in the neighborhood gardens.

Iris WeaverIn my late teens, when depression became a frequent visitor in my life, flowers and plants became real sanity-savers for me.
I was living in New Haven and didn’t have a car, so I walked everywhere.

I would walk with my head down, which meant that I got a good view of the ground. I found myself one spring noticing the first crocuses, and then the daffodils and tulips and other flowers coming along. Across the street from the house where I rented a room was a magnolia tree that blossomed gloriously. I got such pleasure looking at it through the window while I sat working.

Seeing the first flowers and plants coming up gave me joy and somehow lifted me out of my pain for a while. I don’t know what spiritual chemistry plants have to do this, but I have experienced it ever since.

Some years later I was living in Salem and again dealing with deep depression. As spring came on (I was now in school and again without a car), I found where on my everyday routes the crocuses and daffodils were, later the violets and then the roses.
That’s when I realized that I’d been looking for the flowers every spring wherever I lived.

As I got to know a great many more wildflowers and wild plants (commonly known as “weeds”), as well as their cultivated relatives, I would watch for the appearance of all these friends as well.

Now I watch for their arrival in summer and fall as well, and watch the plants that keep some greenery throughout the winter.

I have found a few flowers that bloom in late winter or early spring and I especially adore their color when all else is still so bare.

This spring look down at the ground and around you to see what flowers are coming up. Watching the process of plants grow and change is a wondrous experience. Bring some fresh flowers into your home, either cut flowers or blooming plants. If those are beyond your financial means, learn to identify wild flowers which are free for the picking and just as beautiful in a vase as cultivated flowers. As a matter of fact, many of our weeds are actually plants that once were grown in gardens and escaped to become common roadside sights.

Plants have given me companionship and joy and helped me through dark times. I hope you find your own form of that connection.

February 2003

Foraging for Local Food Plants

It’s April, and in my little corner of New England, that means it’s time to go out and see what’s coming up that’s good eatin’.

ground ivy swathYou can call it wild-crafting or foraging, or just plain nibbling on weeds, but whatever it’s called, it comes down to finding the plants around you that are edible and palatable and then eating them.

So as the season begins, I thought I would share some thoughts on foraging and suggest a few guidelines.

Whether you forage only once or twice a year, or you forage every day, there are a few things that are really important:

  1. Know your plants! Or at least the ones you want to use. And the ones that are poisonous.
  2. Know the area where you are foraging. Is it pristine wilderness? Is it your lawn, or a city park? Is it where dogs congregate? Were chemicals used on the land or dumped there at some point? Do you know what plants grow there at different times of the year?
  3. What do you want to do with the plants you collect, and what parts of them do you want to use?
  4. Take care of the land and the plants where you forage, whether in the middle of the city or the middle of the wilderness.

Let’s take these one at a time.

Know Your Plants

It’s pretty useless to go out foraging if you don’t know what you’re looking for! So you need to know at least one plant you want to find, and where to look for it. No use looking for a desert plant in a swamp and vice versa. No use looking for a plant that only grows in the western part of the country in the east (believe me, I know this—I’ve tried!).

You need to know which plants are edible, or medicinal (or both), or can be used for what you have in mind. You also need to know which ones are inedible or even poisonous. There is a difference between inedible and poisonous. Inedible simply means that it can’t be eaten or that it does not have nutrition for humans (e.g., cows get nutrition from grass, humans do not). A poisonous plant will have physical or psychological effects on you, making you sick in some way or even causing death. The amount needed varies with the plant, some will make you sick but not kill you even in fairly large amounts, others will kill you with tiny amounts (e.g., certain mushrooms).

How do you know which plants are edible/useful and which ones to avoid? If you’re lucky you’ve picked up at least a few in passing. Otherwise, and to get a broader scope, you have to learn. How do you learn? Books, classes, friends, the internet.

Books are some of the best sources I can think of for learning about plants. The best have been around for awhile, and the information has been checked and double-checked. Despite the prevalence of handheld electronic devices I think the pictures in books are easier to see and compare. At the end of this article, I have a list of a few of my favorite books for foraging and identifying plants in general.

Taking a class or going out with an experienced teacher or friend is invaluable. Having someone who knows what they’re looking at and explaining it to you is the best way to take in this knowledge. I have been on plant walks, and what a teacher said, say, eighteen years ago, still echoes in my mind, I carry that with me. It helps me know the plants better and gives a richness to the experience. Also, having a person there that can answer your questions is really helpful.

These days the internet is a valuable tool for getting to know your plants. I love being able to plug a plant name or description into a search engine and have the answer or the beginning of the trail to an answer pop right up. The reason I don’t put the internet at the top of the list of ways to learn is because there is so much information and if you don’t know what you are doing, you don’t know whether it’s right or wrong. At best, it’s right and you get good information; at worst it’s inaccurate or plain wrong and could lead to being sickened or worse. The internet has plenty of information and lots of wonderful pictures, a real plus. But I use it more to confirm and add to knowledge than as a starting point. I also have an idea of what sites and bloggers, etc. are reliable.

Know About the Area Where You Are Foraging

Now that you know what plants you want to find, where do you go to forage? I’m lucky, I can go out in my backyard or my garden and start plucking the weeds (aka wild foods) that grow there. Foragable plants grow everywhere! It’s just a matter of whether you want to eat the plants that grow where you have found them.

What you want to be aware of is the environment in which your plants are growing. If you are foraging in your backyard, or a neighbor’s, make sure that chemical fertilizers and/or pesticides haven’t been used there. Also be sure that the land doesn’t have lead or other contaminants in it from previous uses. This same advice goes for foraging in fields, empty lots, woods, and so on. You can’t always know what was used on the land or how it was used previously, but use your best judgement.

Don’t forage where dogs congregate. Their feces carry parasites and other unpleasant critters that you don’t want getting into your body. Do check the ground around where you are foraging before you begin.

What about foraging in the city or near roads? This is a perennial question for which I have never developed a definitive answer. Cars spew chemicals that contaminate roadsides. Weed-killers are sometimes used as well. But sometimes that’s where you find your plants. Use your own judgement and intuition. My best advice is not to use plants really close to the road if you can help it.

I have such mixed feelings about using plants growing in the city. So many pollutants, so many germs. But what’s a city-dweller to do? See advice above. There are people who forage in Central Park in New York City, and who grow plants in pots on fire escapes or in little pocket lawns in the city. Again, it’s up to you. And a question to ask yourself: is what you are foraging for in a less than  pristine environment anymore contaminated or polluted than conventionally grown produce?

And it really, really helps if you know something about the environment in which your desired plants grow. That way you are looking for plants in the right places to find them. I was so happy to get a field guide that shows in what parts of the country various plants are found, so that I finally understood why certain plants in my edibles books just never, ever showed up in my eastern New England plant hunts.

If you go to the same places to forage month after month, year after year, you learn to know the plants that grow in the area. You know what plants to look for, when they appear, and what time of year they are ready for use. You develop a real connection with the plants and the land that cannot be taught in any book or gained on-line. It is subtle and sublime. There is an ineffable joy in meeting your plant friends in the same places each year, greeting them and watching them grow and change.

You also notice when new plants appear and ones you’ve been seeing for years disappear. Sometimes this is part of the natural cycle of change, sometimes this is an indication that something may be wrong that you may possibly be able to address.

Knowing the land where you forage also helps you to know what may be poisonous in the area. You know where to skirt around the poison ivy or poison oak, where the poison hemlock grows that you must avoid. When a new plant appears you don’t have to appraise every plant in the area to determine if it’s poisonous.

What About the Plants You Are Foraging?

Now, you know what plants you want to find, you know pretty much where to look for them. However, you also need to know what parts of the plant you will use. Some plants only have edible roots, some only have edible leaves or flowers; some, like chickweed, can be eaten in their entirety, excepting the roots. And some plants have edible parts only at certain times of the year, seeds being a prime example.

Some plants may be poisonous but have an edible part at one time of the year. Amazing, isn’t it? Pokeweed is an example of this, having edible shoots in early spring, but being poisonous in all other parts and other times of the year. Other plants may need certain types of processing to take out or neutralize their toxins. These are not the sort of plants that I would recommend for beginners. Far easier are plants like dandelions that are not poisonous and don’t require special preparation.

This is where books and classes come in really handy, as well as some internet info. Field guides specifically for edibles or medicinals tell you what part of the plant to use and when to eat or use them. Some even include directions and recipes for using the plants you find.

Take Care of the Plants and the Land

It is very important to be respectful of the land where you forage and the plants you harvest. It is not acceptable to go ripping up plants or ground to get what you want or over-harvesting for your own use. You share this land and the plants with other creatures and plants, and the very land itself.

When you forage and harvest, do your best to leave the area undisturbed. Pat down the dirt where you dug your roots, tidy up the stems and twigs from what you cut or plucked.

Never take all of a population of a plant in the area where you are harvesting, even if it is abundant. Leave some for others, and for the plant itself.

Make sure that you help the plants keep regenerating. If the plant has seeds, scatter some around to start new plants. If you are digging roots or tubers, leave some that are capable of regenerating, or replant some that you have dug up.

If you are foraging for endangered or at-risk plants, think long and hard about what you are doing. Do you really need to get it from the wild? Can you find a source that is grown organically? With some endangered plants, such as goldenseal, they are so rare that it is never alright to harvest them from the wild. With at-risk plants particularly, it is imperative to pay attention to how much you are taking and to make sure that the plants can continue to grow and reproduce. And if it is the only plant of its kind in the area or one you’ve never seen there before, please just leave it where it is.

An excellent resource for finding out what plants are endangered or at-risk is United Plant Savers.

Tools for Foraging

What do you need to have with you when you go out to forage? Foraging is not generally a tool-intensive activity and often the most important thing you’ll need, or wish you had, is bags or containers to carry things home!

When I go out to forage I try and remember a couple of things. The most important, to me, and most versatile, is a good pair of scissors. Scissors with points and that are well sharpened can do a variety of things, They cut stems, leaves, and flowers, of course, but they can also dig into the dirt in a pinch or used to pry things out. Some people may prefer a good knife, which I think could work just as well; I just never think to use a knife.

If you are going after thicker stems or small branches, pruners are very useful. At a certain point scissors just won’t cut it (pun intended) and you will be frustrated. But pruners don’t really substitute for scissors, because they are not good at cutting very thin stems, etc.

A trowel or small shovel is a handy thing to have along if you are going after tubers and roots.

And of course, you need something to put all those wonderful plants in to carry home! Stuffing a couple of plastic bags in your pockets is simple and easy. Having a cloth bag of some sort is handy, and can carry those plastic bags as you separate the different plants you’ve collected. Baskets are also lovely, and you can find baskets woven in a deep bag shape or made of wonderful materials like birch bark to make your collecting even lovelier. And if worst comes to worst, you can slip off your shirt or your jacket and use it to carry your plants. I’ve done that more than once.


Here is a list of some of the books I’ve found helpful. Some field guides focus on the eastern or the western part of the United States, so depending on where you live, you may want to get the appropriate guide.

I always recommend using more than book. No one book has all the information you will need or all the plant you will encounter. And each book has its own slant and way of organizing the plants and information. I also find general plant guides to be very useful, as they have many more plants in them than the specifically edible or medicinal plant guides. They also let you identify the interesting plants that grow around you, many of which don’t necessarily have an assigned use, or one that is currently popular.

If you look, there are often field guides to specific places, such as Baja California or the islands of BostonHarbor in Massachusetts.

My favorite field guide for general use, and an absolute must-have, is Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide.

Enjoy foraging and learning, and while using good sense and caution, don’t be afraid of getting to know the wonderful plants around you!

Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide by Lawrence Newcomb, 1977, Little, Brown     and Company

A Field Guide to Wildflowers of Northeastern and North-central North America by Roger Tory Peterson and Margaret McKenny, Houghton  Mifflin Company

The Audobon Society Field Guide to North American Wildflowers: Eastern Region, 1979, Alfred A.  Knopf, Inc.

 A Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants: Eastern and central North America (Peterson Field Guides) by Lee Allen Peterson and Roger Tory    Peterson, 1999, Houghton Mifflin Company

 A Field Guide to Medicinal Plants and Herbs: Of Eastern and Central North America (Peterson Field Guides) by Steven Foster, James A. Duke and Roger Tory Peterson, 2000, Houghton Mifflin Company

A Field Guide to Western Medicinal Plants and Herbs by Christopher Hobbs, Steven Foster and Roger Tory Peterson, 2002, Houghton Mifflin Company

A Field Guide to Venomous Animals and Poisonous Plants: North America North of Mexico (Peterson Field Guides) by Roger Caras, Steven Foster and Roger Tory Peterson, 1998, Houghton Mifflin Company

Guide to Wild Foods and Useful Plants by Christopher Nyerges, 1999, Chicago Review Press

Edible Wild Plants by Elias and Dykeman, 1990, Sterling Publishing Co., Inc.

Color Field Guide To Common Wild Edibles by Bradford Angier

Field Guide To Edible Wild Plants by Bradford Angier

 A Field Guide To Berries And Berrylike Fruits by Madeline Angell

Everything-but-the-kitchen-sink Stock/Broth

Do you have bouillon cubes sitting in your kitchen cupboards? Do you actually use them? When you do, are they all gooey and sticking to the foil, and looking a little icky?

You should know that there is usually a lot of salt and unfermented soy in those cubes, as well as artificial flavors and maybe even colors (sorry, I haven’t looked at them in a long while). I stopped using them several years ago, and now make my own stock or broth to use in soups and for cooking grains, beans, and so on. Sure, it takes some work, but I love the results of what I make and have enough to last a couple weeks or more, depending on how much I’ve made and how quickly I use it up.

This all started with Bone Broth, well-loved by many people who are eating more traditional, nutrient-dense and nutritious diets. Bone broth is made with a couple pounds of bones and whatever vegetable bits you have saved, and is very wonderful.

My version has evolved as I never seem to be able to afford a really large quantity of bones, and I always seem to have a lot plant matter around, courtesy of my herb and plant work. I also have egg shells from my farm-raised eggs and save them to include in the broth. So now my broth includes a few bones, some shells, and a goodly amount of plants. The recipe is below, along with a couple of ideas about collecting the materials for your stock/broth.

To begin with—the bones. You don’t have to include them if you’re vegetarian or vegan. But if you are omnivorous, like me, then it’s great to include some. Any bones that you have, either saved from what you’ve already cooked, or bought at the store for this purpose. If you have to accumulate them over a few days or weeks, toss them in a bag or jar in the freezer until you need them.

The eggshells. These should be from organic eggs, if possible. Farm-raised is even better. You can save your shells in a basket or pot somewhere to one side of your kitchen. Don’t worry about rinsing them, they dry just fine without any smell or rotting. Crush them up to save room.

Here’s the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink part—all the veggie, herb, and plant bits and pieces and handfuls and bagfuls that you’ve been saving for your wonderful stock!

When you are chopping, trimming, etc. vegetables, all the end parts that you’d normally throw in the trash or compost are put in a bag or jar in the freezer till later. Carrot ends, onion skins, dried out garlic bulbs, celery stubs, asparagus butts, kale stalks, etc. Too tough to eat, but not too tough to stew!

You can add herbs and healthy, ingestible plants as well. If you’re stripping herbs off of stems, save the stems. Have some extra herbs from the farmer’s market or a neighbor? Toss ‘em in.

Include your “weedings” from when you’re weeding your garden and hate to throw out all those dandelions and plantain and other “weeds” that threaten to take over. You can also wildcraft them or ask a neighbor if you can have theirs, or go to a farm or a farmers market to find some of these plants. The point is to find them and use them. They will add new levels of taste and nutrition to your stock.

Here are some suggestions: dandelions leaves and roots, burdock leaves and roots, goosefoot or lamb’s quarters leaves and stems, amaranth leaves and stems, yellow dock leaves and roots, plantain (the weedy plant, not the banana) leaves and seed stalks, evening primrose leaves and roots, nettles, wild lettuce leaves, Jerusalem artichokes (sunchokes), the tough stalks from flowering onions, garlic, and chives.

Play around to see what you like the taste of and what you don’t. I am finding that a lot of plantain makes for a more bitter stock, and also is slightly laxative, so probably it should be kept to ¼ cup or so. Yellow dock roots can also be slightly laxative, so use just a few small pieces.

If you are unsure if a plant is safe or not, err on the side of caution. Especially if you are not really familiar with your weeds, it is better not to take chances. A good motto is: When in doubt—don’t!

You also add vinegar. The acidic vinegar will pull out calcium from the bones and eggshells and help pull out minerals from the plants as well. Combined with the fat from bones, if you use them, this will make the minerals and fat soluble vitamins very available and easily absorbed for excellent nutrition.

Use this stock for cooking rice, beans, veggies, or as the starting point for soup. You can also heat it up, add a bit of salt (and cream if you like) and have a lovely, nutritious tonic drink.

So here’s the recipe, with approximate measurements. Don’t worry if you use more or less of anything, it will work!

Everything-but-the-kitchen-sink Stock/Broth

1 to 2 gallons water (filtered if possible)
1 to 2 lbs. bones (chicken, beef, marrow, etc.)
As many eggshells as you’ve got
1 to 4 or 5 cups veggie trimmings, herbs, wild plants—fresh or dried or frozen
¼ cup vinegar—apple cider, red wine, home-made, etc.

Put all your ingredients in a large pot, bring to a simmer, and let simmer for 24 to 48 hours. When it is done, or you can’t stand having that large pot on your stove anymore, you can put the stock in spaghetti or canning jars and the stock will stay good in the fridge for several weeks. Or you can freeze your stock, and pull it out as you need it. Make sure to keep the wonderful fat in your stock. Your body needs it!