It’s a very familiar plant, although the one generally grown in our gardens, is not strictly speaking the St John’s Wort of British tradition, its bright gold flowers beam out like the sun at midsummer. Across Britain its virtues were many but one seasonal application was that it once widespread was the placing of it across doorways. William Bingley in his 1800 Tour Bound North Wales records that:
“On the Eve of St. John the Baptist they fix sprigs of the plant called St. John’s-wort over their doors, and sometimes over their window’s, in order to purify their houses, and by that means drive away all fiends and evil spirits.”
In the 1972 Folklore of the Ulster People Sheila St Clair notes that there it protected against the evil eye. Tony Deane and Tony Shaw in their 1975 Folklore of Cornwall state that wreaths were placed at St. Cleer ‘to banish witches.’Maureen Sutton (1996) A Lincolnshire calendar a correspondent from Chapel Hill suggests that the custom was still remembered in the 1920s and 30s there:
“if you hang it up on St John’s Day it will keep away the Devil’.
Christine Hole in her 1977 Witchcraft in England writes of St. John’s Day:
“ the saint’s own golden flower, St. John’s wort-which is quite clearly a sun-symbol-was brought indoors to promote good fortune and protect the house from fires.”
However, the earliest reference shows how this was not just a country custom. In John Stow’s 1603 book on London he noted:
“On the vigil of St. John the Baptist, and on St. Peter and Paul the apostles, every man’s door being shadowed with ….. St. John’s wort.”
It was not alone and other plants were also stuck there creating ‘a goodly show, namely in New Fish street, Thames street’. Whilst it is not clear why they were doing so it would seem that there was some reason for it. It would appear to related to Ella Mary Leather records in her 1912 The Folklore of Herefordshire:
“Antiquatis records that the practise of making midsummer garlands was common in Herefordshire in the old days, ballads were sung while weaving the garlands and the foliage used in their construction were for divination. Those in request were the rose, St. John’s Wort”
In this case it is clear it was for divination rather than protection but one would thing one arose from the other. Fran and Geoff. Doel and Tony Deane 1995 Spring and Summer customs in Sussex, Kent and Surrey note that it was worn to warn away witches.
Why Midsummer? Midsummer was thought to be when the evil spirits were abouts. But why St John’s Wort It is probably likely that this was related to its medicinal properties of the plant which may have scientific background as it has been proven that it has positive effects on nervous disorders such as depression which was often linked to devilish activity. I have not read of anyone who still hangs St John up at Midsummer so I imagine it is not long extinct.