St John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum), a Eurasian perennial and herbal remedy widely established across temperate Australia.
It is impossible to tell the story of St John’s Wort in Victoria within Instagram’s character limits. Of all the spectacular weed eruptions in post-invasion Australia, the high country appearance of this plant was among the most dramatic, far reaching and quintessentially Victorian. The sickly yellow heaviness that plagued the post-gold rush Alps revealed feeble government authority, the marginal and fleeting quality of so much agricultural and grazing land, and the futility of moral, legislative and chemical responses to an invasive plant established at scale.
This story has its monomythic original sin, here an old woman who having planted the seeds in her domestic garden was the source from which all evil descended. There are famous local and state politicians (A.A. Billson! George Swinburne!), and the Government entomologist, Charles French, stuck in a Sisyphean role as Victoria’s principal St John’s Wort expert in the crisis years. And this was an infestation so injurious to agricultural efforts in the north-east that both French and many locals (including Billson, the brewer’s son) became advocates for quite literally salting the earth in order to destroy the plant, and for the state to repossess distant salt lakes to supply their efforts.
St John’s Wort tells a story of how plague exposes poorly planned and resourced divisions between central and local authority, the incapacity of razor thin economic models in the face of emergency, and the currents in our government and culture which attach blame for wicked problems on the moral failings of individuals. A touch of contemporary resonance?
Only mass pasture improvement programs, the invention of aerial seeding, and a brief respite following the introduction of Chrysolina beetles checked the plant’s hold over areas of high country Victoria, and this by replacing one invasive weed with several others (Subterranean Clover, Paspalum, Pines, &c). And despite all of this, of course it remains.