Sandy’s Garden ... Hypericum

Sandy Simpson
Sandy Simpson

A man spent three hard days digging a ten-metre trench in my garden to accept the foundations of a small extension we were having built.

Afterwards he told me: “I’ll tell you, sir, I’m right glad I’m no’ gairdening in this!”

“Amen to that,” I, who had spent some twenty years trying to do just that, responded. Stones are in plentiful supply in my garden soil. There are … or, more accurately, were … some quite large stones; there are many fist-sized stones; and there are lots and lots of small stones, often compacted together as if a Roman road had once passed this way. We bought this property second-hand, although houses never seem to be so described. The first owner had spent five years struggling to free parts of the garden of enough stone to let something other than grassy weeds grow; and he had planted hypericum, for which I was grateful, for it carries showy yellow flowers for months on end from mid-summer right into the autumn. The Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) describes hypericum as liking well-drained soil in full sun or partial shade; growing to a height of between half-a-metre and a metre; being generally pest and disease free; and as requiring no pruning, although it can be cut back in the spring if it is becoming intrusive. Hypericum ‘Hidcote’ is the most popular and reliable variety, dense and busy with masses of golden yellow flowers up to 5cm across … say, 2 inches in old money … which covers bare spots quickly. It holds a coveted Award of Garden Merit from the RHS. What better plant could one ask for in my then-new garden?

Why is nothing ever as straightforward as this might appear? The plant’s willingness to grow almost anywhere and its lack of need for any tender loving care means that it spreads just like a weed. And, just like a weed, once it has become well-established it is difficult to eradicate. Yes, it can be cut back: but the root system is pervasive and hypericum keeps on reappearing after one has grown tired of its repetitive, always-yellow flowers. Indeed, in the aeons since hypericum originated in China and the Himalayas, it has become widespread in many parts of the world and has become a major problem in grazing land in, among many other countries, Australia and the United States.

There are more than 400 different species of hypericum, one of which … Hypericum perforatum … is widely cultivated as a medicinal herb. Its generic name Hypericum comes from the Greek word ‘hyperikon’ which means ‘above an image’ and refers to the old Greek custom of hanging a sprig of the plant above a picture to ward off evil spirits by means of its unpleasant smell; and the specific name perforatum … meaning ‘punctured’ … refers to the many tiny dots found on the leaves and flowers which at first glance seem to be small holes but are, in fact, tiny glands which, when pressed, release the essential plant oils and resins. These oils and resins are the basis of the herbal medicine widely sold today as St. John’s wort, having been used in Europe since Classical Antiquity as a standard component of theriacs, which were originally used as an antidote to snakebite but quickly became known as an antidote to any toxin, venom or poison. Over time, theriacs were prescribed for almost any ailment, from the common cold to complex diseases.

A National Health Service research study suggested that St. John’s wort can actually be useful in treating mild to moderate depression, although there is the essential caveat that one should speak to one’s doctor about the risks and benefits of St. John’s wort and about the many common prescription drugs which do not mix with the herbal medicine before taking it.