Cultivation with a Conscience
In the early 1990s increased interest in St John’s Wort (Hypericum) medicines led to increased demand. Sustainable wild harvesting was becoming increasingly difficult. As Alfred Vogel’s principles required fresh organically-grown plants to be used in the production of medicines, the purchase, or importation, of dried St John’s Wort was out of the question. So research began to find the most suitable seeds to create a sustainable organic crop of these delicate plants. Only in this way could the growing need for a quality medicine be guaranteed while in no way harming the wild stocks.
There is an extraordinary variety of St John’s Wort plants to be found in dry meadows, in sparse woods and on embankments. The upright, hard, double-edged stems grow to between 30cm (1ft) and 100cm (3ft) and have small, elongated, oval leaves on which small perforations – oil glands – are visible to the naked eye. Between June and September, bunches of golden yellow blossoms appear but wild St John’s Wort can show very great fluctuations in quality.
It was necessary to identify ideal growing conditions. The so-called St John’s Wort wilt, normally controlled by fungicides and herbicides, can ruin an entire harvest. Growing the young plants can be difficult as the young shoots are very delicate and, in many cases, the plants die after the first or second year of harvest, leading to the destruction of an entire plantation.
Vogel’s gardeners began to search for the best, most productive and least delicate types, which had to meet the following requirements:
- have the greatest resistance to St John’s Wort wilt
- have as wide and varied a range of constituents as possible as the substances responsible for the antidepressive effect
- have not been completely identified
- bloom early so that the Swiss contract farmers, whose fields lie on higher ground, can work profitably
- have copious blooms
- be as easy to harvest as possible
Selecting the varieties
Twenty-four varieties of St John’s Wort were examined. Three types already on the market were compared with various wild seeds and seeds from botanic gardens in Europe and Canada. These seeds were sown at different locations and different altitudes.
Initially attention was paid to...
climate at different locations/altitudes
- differences in soil
- plant density
And later ….
the flowering period
- the bloom height – to make harvesting easier
- the yield
- the analysis of constituents
The experimental fields were watered regularly, the use of chemical aids strictly forbidden and weeding was done by hand.
After two years, few of the 24 types were unaffected by disease. Also it was clear that those grown on the plain were considerably more susceptible to the wilt than those from mountain regions.
The plants grew in quite different ways, and flowered at different times. In the first year of cultivation, the blossoms of the early flowering types planted on the plain were harvested at the beginning of July and the late flowering types 43 days later. In the second year, all the plants blossomed one month earlier although the difference in harvest times remained virtually the same. In the mountain region, harvest time was a month behind the plain and here too the two-year-old plants blossomed considerably earlier than the newly planted ones.
…. and the winner is …
Four years of research work ensued at the end of which one variety stood out from the rest as far as growth, blooming, lack of susceptibility to disease and cultivation are concerned. But how does it fare medically? Can it successfully pass all the tests? When in full bloom, the uppermost tips of the shoots of all plant types were tested for their content of ten different flavonoids, two hypericins, (hypericin and pseudohypericin) and hyperforin. The results show that the chosen variety was superior to all the others and it is this variety that is now successfully cultivated by Bioforce and its organic contract farmers to ensure that all the A.Vogel Hypericum products are sustainable and of the highest quality.