I have alluded to the superstitions which clustered so thickly around the night of St. John, midsummer's eve; when evil spirits were at large, and this plant was in great demand in order to protect persons or dwellings against their assaults. Stowe, in his "Survey of London," tells us that on the vigil of St. John, "every man's door was shadowed with green birch, long fennel, St. John'swort, orpine, white lilies, and such like, garnished upon with garlands of beautiful flowers," and with lamps burning within all the night long; which reminds us of the present custom, in Switzerland, of lighting fires on the summits of the mountains, on St. John's day. The plant was formerly carried about as an amulet by the Scottish Highlanders; and to some such feeling we may attribute the still-prevailing Welsh custom, taught by mothers to their children, of placing its leaves - under the name of "touch-leaf," or "touching-leaf."- between the leaves of their Bibles, or otherwise carrying them about; although, in some places, the original reason for so doing is forgotten, and the habit is supposed to have arisen from its pleasant scent, though it is certainly not so agreeable as many more easily-found plants; and in the retired villages of the Pyrenees, where lingers yet a vital remnant of the "old-world-spirit," garlands of the millepertuis are hung over the doors on this enchanted night, and are even preserved through the year, in order to secure the general prosperity of the inmates, and to counteract the effects of "storms, thunder, heretics, and other evil spirits,"
* Jones is mistaken when he applies these last two names to the St. Peter's-wort (Symphoria), of which none of the species are British. See his "Physical herbs, trees, and fruits," compiled, as he tells us, in his useful Dictionary, "by the great pains and industry of Thomas Jones," in the year 1777.
Other powers, too, were attributed to the St. Joh'n-wort, on this night; it was used in divinations, more especially in such as are recorded in the following lines; -
"The young maid stole through the cottage door, And blushed as she sought the plant of power. ' Thou silver glow-worm, oh lend me thy light, I must gather the mystic St. John's-wort to-night;
The wonderful herb, whose leaf will decide If the coming year shall make me a bride.'
And the glow-worm came,
With its silvery flame,
And sparkled and shone,
Thro' the night of St. John, And soon has the young maid her love-knot tied.
And with noiseless tread,
To her chamber she sped, Where the spectral moon her white beams shed:- ' Bloom here, bloom here, thou plant of power, To deck the young bride, in her bridal hour!' But it drooped its head, that plant of power, And died the mute death of the voiceless flower, And a withered wreath, on the ground it lay, More meet for a burial, than bridal day. - And when a year was passed away All pale on her bier the young maid lay;
And the glow-worm came,
With its silvery flame,
And sparkled and shone,
Thro' the night of St. John, And they closed the dark grave o'er the maid's cold clay".
It is a curious circumstance that the greater part of the superstitions connected with the night of St. John relate to the vegetable world; such as the custom of flinging garlands on a flowing stream in order to ascertain whether their maker will be suc-cessful in love; or seeking for the seed of the fern, which it was formerly believed could only be found on this night, and which, if secured, would enable the wearer to become invisible. A belief thus alluded to by Beaumont and Fletcher:-
"I have the recipe of fern-seed - I walk invisible".
And also in the curious old story so circumstantially narrated of the man who, having been so fortunate as to find the seed, wrapped it carefully in paper and placed it in a box; but on his return home found that his treasure had disappeared, though the box and the paper had evidently never been opened by the beings who had thus revenged themselves by "spiriting" away their contents.
Some poetical old physician calls the tutsan "Balm of the warrior's wound," in allusion to the vulnerary and balsamic properties which it is supposed to possess. This more especially applies to the H. Androscemum,* the tutsan, properly so called, which takes its trivial name from two Greek words signifying man, and blood, in allusion to the dark red juice which exudes from the fresh capsules, when bruised. It was this part of the plant therefore which - in compliance with the "doctrine of signatures" - was applied to external wounds, and very probably not without success, as the whole tribe have astringent properties. Gerarde informs us that the bruised leaves are good for burns, that a decoction of the seeds drunk for forty days will cure sciatica, and "take away" tertian, and quartan agues. And in more modern times the plant has been recommended as a febrifuge and also as an anthelmintic, possessing as it does, bitter, purgative, slightly astringent, and aromatic secretions in its re-sinous juices:- properties which, even without the testimony of experience, give a contradiction to the opinion expressed by Daniel, when he clothes in a sneer the very undeniable truth that faith accelerates a cure:
* The Androscemum Officinale of De Candolle.
"But this is only sweet and delicate Fit for young women, and is like the herb St. John, Doth neither good, nor hurt: but that's all one; For if they but conceive it doth, it doth, And it is that physicians hold the chief In all their cures - conceit and strong belief".
Another writer, quoted in the "Anatomy of Melan choly," recommends it under the name of Hyperion, to be gathered "on a Friday in the hour of Jupiter, when it comes to his effectual operation (which is at the full moon in July): so gathered, or borne, or hung about the neck, it mightily helps this afflic-tion (melancholy), and drives away all phantasticall spirits".
The juice of these plants resembles gamboge, both in colour and properties; so that the H. baccatum and other species occurring in Guiana, where the fer-vour of a tropical sun gives intensity to their powers, are commonly known by the name of "American gamboge;" and mixed with turpentine and olive oil they are said to form the "oil of St. John's-wort," which is used medicinally.
The Welsh name, Llys perfigedd, refers to the anthelmintic properties of which we have spoken; perfigedd being a term applied to a disease produced by worms in cattle.
The young tops and flowers of all the species afford, in their resinous juice, a useful dye. It is per-fectly soluble in water, alcohol, and vinegar; pro-ducing with the first two, a deep blood-red colour, and with the last, a pure bright crimson: or, if combined with an acid, a good yellow. The same colour is produced by boiling the dried plant with alum, and it is thus used for dyeing woollen yarn by the country people. Combined with oil of turpentine, and linseed oil, this juice also furnishes an excellent red varnish, which is frequently used by upholsterers for colouring woods.
As before shewn, a part of the plants of the order Hypercaceae are tropical; these, however, are few; yet their distribution is pretty nearly universal both as to station and locality, though they occur most abundantly in the cooler districts of Asia and Europe. Almost the whole of the order have yellow flowers; in fact I believe the H. cochinchinense, or red-flowered Hypericum to be the single exception to this rule.
With the golden stars of all our own species, the Eurinllys, or golden herb, of the Welsh, the reader is probably familiar.
The general favourite in this tribe is the bright and pretty little trailing St. Johns-wort (H. humi-fusum), which creeps over dry and desolate districts, on arid stone walls, on boggy pastures, or on broken and gravelly ground, as if all places were alike to it, so it may but weave its slender stems and diminu-tive golden stars into the "fair tapestry" that clothes the earth.
Yet the mere question of beauty may be disputed with the upright St. Johns-wort (H. pulchrum), whose rigid branches are clothed with beautiful rosy-tipped blossom-buds; or with the common or per-forated St. John's-wort (H. perforatum), of which a woodcut is given, and which is more particularly-alluded to in the well-known lines:
Common perforated St. John's-wort. - Hypericum perforatum.
"Hypericum, all bloom, so thick a swarm Of flowers, like flies, clothing its slender rods That scarce a leaf appears".
Of this the Germans say that the perforations of its leaves are made by witches, with pins, for very spite, because the plant "hurts the devil greatly".
Of the H. androscemum, with its large handsome flowers, and its sparkling and resinous black berry, I have already spoken, and the remaining British species may be thus briefly enumerated:- The large-flowered St. John's-wort (H. calycinum), which is so frequently cultivated in shrubberies, and which has, perhaps, hardly a right to be deemed a native plant: - the square-stalked (H. quadrangulum), which decorates the sides of streams, ditches, or other moist places:- the imperforate (H. dubium), which so often passes for the H. perforatum, and the petals of which are frequently marked with black dots:- the moun-tain (H. montdnum,) with its large leaves:- the H. barbatum, or bearded St. John's-wort (which, I be-lieve has only been found near Aberdalgy, in Perth-shire):- the line-leaved (H. linarifolium) which bears some resemblance to the little H. humifusum: the hairy (H. hirsutum), with its downy leaves:- and finally, the H. elodes, or marsh St. John's-wort, which brightens our spongy bog-lands.