St. John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum) loves the sun and reaches across wide sections of the meadow during the peak days of summer. The bloom begins in July here in Vermont--much later than the actual feast day of St. John (which traditionally marks the summer solstice). But the herb’s yellow flowers, small and clustered into intense bursts of color, signal that transition from the growth of spring to the fullness of the hot months. Here we are! The time of thunderstorms and cicadas, hot nights and fireflies.
In the fields and gardens, but also in bright, neglected city corners, the Hypericum bloom reflects back at the sun. It may be true, though this is controversial, that this plant is named after Hyperion, the father of the sun and moon in Greek myth. But be it the Neolithic sun-god of the solstice, or Helios the charioteer, the solar affinity is undeniable. The twist, as herbalists know, is in Hypericum’s juice, its extract, or the oil infusion: all are a deep blood-red, as will be your fingertips after an hour of harvesting. Now, while Helios the Olympian could not die or be harmed, the old sun-gods did not have this privilege, and every year, at the peak of power, the summer solstice would bring a mortal wound that slowly killed them. Fortunately, a new sun-child would be born on the winter solstice to restart the cycle. But the blood of the sun, shed during the hottest months of the year, is carried to earth on the Hypericum, in a warming, resinous oil.
Once, walking along a sheep trail on his way back to the village, a boy had been plucking little buds from the Hypericum that was growing in big, tall clumps. He had a small handful of them, golden-yellow, and as a ray lit them up, he thought for a moment that he held a cup of sunlight itself. Then the ray disappeared: a dark cloud was moving across the ridge behind him, quickly racing towards the village. After a few minutes, the boy heard thunder.
Sometimes, when we are preoccupied with thoughts, we speak out loud without even realizing it. On hearing the rumbling behind him, the boy spoke out loud and said, “Hypericum, if you are of the sun, then keep this storm away until my travel is done.” The wind picked up but, rather than intensifying, the cloud started to break apart. By the time he made it back home the sun was even peeking through in places, casting long beams across the valley. He left the flower buds by his doorstep and settled in. Later that night, when everyone was asleep, a lightning storm ran down the valley, blowing wind and water. But the boy was safe and dry, and well-fed, and happy to hear the rain. He thought of the Hypericum, now washed away, and how it had kept him from getting soaked to the bone.
Perhaps because of delicate crops, or the need to dry hay and grain for the winter, farming magic always included a good measure of plants that could avert rain and storms. Some are recorded as simple folk legends about weeds, like those about Hypericum, or about burning stinging nettle leaves to scare bad weather away. Others are more fanciful tales: legends tell of the fern-seed, which is invisible and ripens almost instantaneously from an invisible flower. If you could find it and collect it--again, on the solstice or after--it offered protection from all manner of storm and lightning, as well confer invisibility (of course). Many methods, which sound as complex as those used to find unicorns, are described for gathering the elusive fern-seed (note: ferns spread using spores, and have an amazing two-part life cycle--but no seeds). One interesting method describes shooting a magical arrow into the sun during the peak days of summer, and waiting for the sun’s blood to fall as fern-seed. Here we see again that, to affect the weather, you must work with a wounded sun: counterintuitive perhaps, but not if you remember that possessing the blood of another being was thought to confer a deep connection. So whether you foster ferns in a shady garden spot, or find them on forest walks, take a moment to look under their leaves. You may find log rows of brown dots, the spores, which you can collect and sun-dry. Like the spores of clubmoss, they will light on fire quickly and all at once, giving a bright burst of light. This may not protect you from storms, but it is fun around a campfire.
Across the Alps and through northern Europe and Scandinavia, the winters are long and can get quite cold. One way to keep cozy is to use slate tiles covered in sod as roofing material: it insulates well and keeps moisture out. In the summer months, when the flocks are up grazing in fresh meadows, farmers would protect their grass-roofed homes by making sure that a Sedum plant (also known as houseleek) was planted right above the front door. This way, they say, no lightning will ever strike the house. And as summer stretches into fall, the Sedum blooms, white, pink, yellow and red (depending on the variety). They are beautiful plants, and may do more than just divert lightning: the medicinal herb Rhodiola rosea (aka Sedum rhodiola) is a close relative, and loves shallow, rocky exposures (including, perhaps, roofs). This plant’s roots are the source of an excellent adaptogenic remedy that can help us handle the stress of late summer in all of its fullness.*
While the weather has always been a concern, we work with plants in many other ways too. Walking from the Hypericum at the border between meadow and garden, or out of the ferns at the forest edge, we make our way towards more “tame” garden beds, and find the bees furiously active. They have been gathering nectar, pollen and resins for the last two months and now, under this peak summer sun, have an incredible selection of flowers. Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis, also known simply as “balm”) is one of their favorites. Maybe it is the nectar, or the calming aromatics this plant contains, but it has long had an association with honey (“mel” in Greek) and bees. To calm a swarm, one could gather armfuls of lemon balm along with savory or lavender and rub the hives with the fragrant herbs. This practice was recorded by the poet Virgil (in the Georgics, over 2,000 years ago), who wrote about dark swarms of bees circling in the sky. That was the time, he remarked,
“… to scatter fragrant flowers.
Bruis’d balm, and vulgar savory spread around”
to bring the cloud of bees down safely home. We keep lemon balm in the garden for the bees, but its leaves make a satisfying tea that’s gently calming and helps us settle in to the afternoon.*
Closer to home (though there are plenty out in the wild, too), we might find low bushes with ripening fruit. There are many kinds--Aronia, Hippophae, and the entire Vaccinium genus, to name a small selection. Of the Vaccinium group, I am most fond of V. myrtillus, the bilberry or European blueberry. I remember retreating to the shade of conifers during hot summer days to find small clearings thick with bushes that were loaded down with berries. You can cultivate these if you keep your soil acidic enough, along with many other species that are more commonly found in the garden. They all produce abundantly this time of year. And though my memories come from the mountains, all the species of Vaccinium like it best close to the sea, finding an easy niche on the edge of the brackish tidal marshes, in soil sour from pine.
In the time when the Olympians walked among us, a king had taken on young Myrtilus, son of Hermes, as his squire. The boy was eager and bright but, as his father, had a changeable nature. One day a suitor from a neighboring city-state came, asking to marry into the family. The king replied that to do so, the suitor would have to defeat him in a chariot race. The two agreed, and preparations were made for the race. While they were waiting, the suitor approached Myrtilus and offered him rich rewards if he were to remove the pin from the axle of the king’s chariot right before the race. He may have been conflicted, but in the end, Myrtilus slid the pin out right after walking the king up to his chariot and replaced it with a clay fake. The king never finished the race: he was thrown when the wheel flew off, and mortally wounded. With his last breath, he implored the suitor to avenge his death--and he, obligingly, threw Myrtilus off a cliff.
After a few days, his body washed up onto a far beach, carried there by his father. Hermes took the boy’s body and rooted it just beyond the sand, close to the seaside, transmuting it into the blueberry bush. From there, Myrtilus spread all the way to our gardens. And a good thing, too: these berries, along with so many others that ripen as summer turns golden, are some of our most important tonics for the heart and blood vessels. What’s even better is that the leaves of plants in the Vaccinium genus may help support the cardiovascular system, too --so you can brew them in hot water (just off the boil) right along with some crushed berries.* The fruit pectins soften the astringency of the leaves, and with a touch of honey, you can toast the unlucky--though somewhat criminal--Myrtilus.
Along all garden paths, and city streets, and in general wherever there are humans to be found, you’ll also find the mustards and cresses. This broad and diverse family counts broccoli amongst its own, though the wild Brassicaceae are a tougher and spicier breed. Brassica, Thlapsi, Capsella, Nasturtium (mustard, pennycress, shepherd’s purse, watercress) all have similar chemistry and that characteristic pungency. During the times of chariot-races, warriors would eat bread stuffed full of assorted mustardy cresses, as these were believed to increase focus and willpower. That might still make a delicious sandwich with some tomato and olive oil (though these days the plant used might be arugula). But however you consume them, these cresses deliver beneficial bioflavonoids and a unique class of sulfur-bearing compounds good for liver health and normal cellular housekeeping.* You can leave some between the rows, or even plant a few well-behaved varietals: having mustards and cresses as your friends will make your salads more lively and help your garden’s soil and pest ecology.
Coming back from the forest, through the meadow and the wilder side of the garden, into the kitchen garden with berries and fragrant herbs, we finally arrive at an open door. The space by the front door of a human home has always been a special place. Lights, vases, signs and greetings: we cross our thresholds so many times, that they become an intimate and personal domain while at the same time being the home’s most public spot. Many herbalists choose special plants for this place, sometimes drawing from an established herbal tradition (like big pots of tulsi, Ocimum sanctum/gratissimum, also known as holy basil), other times just following their intuition. You’ll often see sunflowers by that open door, and now, at long last, they are in full bloom. The seeds, laid in spiral patterns across broad heads, are surrounded by a corona of petals. These flowers do indeed find and follow the sun, and we imagine their devotion to our life-giving star, or perhaps just their sheer joy as they bask in the hot, intense rays. But remarkably, after sunset, the sunflower does not rest: slowly, it traces back its path so that, come dawn, it is ready and facing the rising sun. Botanists point to structures called cryptochromes, similar to the light-sensitive pigments in our eyes, that help coordinate a plant’s circadian rhythm and instill a memory of day and night 1. This memory takes the flower back to where it wants to be: catching the first light, feeling the first warmth rise above the cool ground, following it into the inescapable heat of an August afternoon.
You do not need a country garden to live the stories of the plants. Hypericum is fussy, and hard to tame, though luckily you can often find it even in dense urban landscapes. But the rest--the ferns, the Sedums, Melissa and the berries, all do well in pots and planter boxes (provided you give the berries some pine bark and moss). Mustards and cresses can be eaten as sprouts, or planted on short rotations in two or three containers so you can enjoy them when they are tender and crunchy. Tulsi loves windowsill containers, and if you have enough light, a sunflower or two can bring the essence of peak summer into your city room: though life is finite, and the sun has been dealt a fatal blow, still the nights are short and warm and fragrant, and the days alive and full of fruit.
- Cashmore, Anthony R. "Cryptochromes: enabling plants and animals to determine circadian time." Cell 114.5 (2003): 537-543.