Failed Oil Infusion of St. John's Wort

Failed Oil Infusion of St. John's Wort

This is...in so many ways, a recipe for disaster. Oil + water equals bacteria. Oil + water + light + heat equals bacterial explosion!
— April Graham (@She Is Of The Woods), YouTube

Nearly one month ago I harvested St. John's Wort to make an oil infusion. I gathered flowers in late-morning, laid them out on a tray to wilt a bit and later that same evening, I placed them in a small bottle and covered them with light extra virgin olive oil.

This was my first attempt at making a St. John's Wort infusion - and while I believed I understood the method (as it's quite simple!) - I also have learned that how-to manuals and too many tutorials leave out the little extra bits that mean the difference between success and failure.  

One such tidbit? The mold issue. 

As I always tell Benjamin...mistakes are our very best teachers. Since my failure, I have learned quite a bit. My first mistake was my choice of bottle. I chose what is essentially, a vintage spice jar. While I intended to make a very small batch of oil - for use only by my own family - the bottle itself was not at all ideal. Its glass cap did not fit tightly - despite its plastic-lined glass stopper and more importantly, it did not permit me to fill the bottle to its rim with oil (quite necessary if I am going to properly infuse plant material).

Speaking of not being permitted to fill the bottle to its rim, I also failed to thoroughly wilt my plant material. If I am being honest, I probably used material which had sat undisturbed for only a single afternoon. I should have let her flowers rest (at least) overnight. Why? Moisture. Moisture in whole plant material (versus using dried matter) creates the perfect environment for a mold bloom.

I did not know that...now, I do.

According to herbalist James Greene, "Decomposition and the resulting rancidity of fats and oils are due to exposure to heat, air, moisture, and/or light." I read these wise words days after making my oil infusion (which I allowed to sit in the sun). I watched April Graham's tutorial only a few days ago! Needless to say, I was already on the path to "bacterial explosion."

So why did I have my not-filled-to-the-top, not-entirely-dry, oil infusion steeping on a windowsill? 

On the day I learned about making an oil infusion of St. John's Wort, I read these words:

While the flower buds are infusing, I place the jar in the sun...some herbalists think that placing an oil in the sun increases its degradation, but while that rationally makes sense, I have always done St. John’s Wort oil like this and have never experienced problems. In researching this article, I read that King’s American Dispensatory [1854] even recommends the solar infusion method.

The author of the infusion tutorial, Rosalee de la Forêt, is Education Director at Learning Herbs, a well-known online herbal community (and makers of the popular boardgame, Wildcraft!). I had no reason to question the method - so I sat my bottle on the windowsill. A few days later...I read that I should store it in a cool, dark place...the refrigerator (once infused and strained) is suggested by some herbalists for long-term storage.

I am guessing that my not-fully-wilted plant material + a bottle with an ill-fitting stopper + a few days on a hot windowsill = my wispy, cloudy mold bloom in a lovely red-tinted oil infusion. Drat.

Not to mention...like an imbecile, I also opened it and stirred it occasionally! I suppose I was still in a haze from making my wildly successful dandelion tincture...and failed to recognize I was using an entirely different solvent (oil, not alcohol) and my stirring introduced air (while gentle agitation of my sealed jar of alcohol + dandelion did not!). Perhaps I was simply overwhelmed by the herbal information streaming into my brain during what seemed like weeks of downpours and excessive heat?

The rain showers and humidity continue and, the St. John's Wort is thriving. Maybe I will have the opportunity to attempt another oil infusion this year - properly. Did I mention the plantain infusion is growing mold, too? Yea. I see it. I blame the bottle with an ill-fitting stopper + not filling it to the rim with oil. I understand now. "Try. Try, again." ♥

Jessica Allen explores the fields and forests of Pennsylvania with her artist-husband, Michael Allen, and their son, Benjamin. She shares her observations through words and pictures of everyday magic and beauty she sees in her world.