The Doctrine of Signatures


Herbalist Matthew Wood gives an in-depth discussion of the Doctrine of Signatures.

The Signatures likewise are taken notice of, they being as it were the Books out of which the Ancients first learned the Vertues of Herbes; Nature or rather the God of nature, having stamped on divers of them legible Characters to discover their uses. –  William Coles, Adam in Eden (1657)

The doctrine of signatures is used around the world in pre-modern cultures where thought-by-association is accepted as a valid means of obtaining knowledge of the world.  The idea is that a plant that looks like the disease, organ, or person it will heal.  For instance, celandine (Chelidonium majus) has yellow/orange sap.  Horsetail (Equisetum arvensis) looks like horse hair, so it is good for the hair.  It also grows on wet sands, so it is a remedy for the kidneys.  Thus, the shape, color, and habitat all can be used to determine the uses of a plant.

In addition to the appearance, the taste, smell, touch or texture can also provide signatures.  Thus, the putrid smell and bad taste of figwort (Scrophularia spp.) indicate that it is a remedy for putrefaction. Since it has gland-like or hemorrhoids-like flowers, it is also called figwort or pilewort and marked as a lymphatic remedy and a hemorrhoid remedy.

Even sound can provide a signature.  Black cohosh (Cimicifuga racemosa) and wild indigo (Baptisia tinctoria) have been pointed out to me as Snake Medicines by American Indians because the seeds in the seedpod produce a rattling sound.  Samuel Thomson, the popularizer of herbal medicine in early nineteenth century North America, used rattlesnake oil to cure a case of ‘the rattles’ or croup.

Most often it is the appearance, shape, color, or habitat that implies the relationship.  Usually Snake medicines look snake-like.  The long flower raceme of black cohosh looks like a spine or snake.  Baptisia, on the other hand, personifies necrosis: the leaves and pods, when injured, turn black like necrotic, poisoned tissue. Here is an example of Snake Medicine used by Amazonian Indians, as recorded by Jeremy Narby (1998, 29):

On two separate occasions, Carlos and Abelardo showed me a plant that cured the potentially mortal bite of the jergon (fer-de-lance) snake.  I looked at the plant closely, thinking that it might come in useful at some point.  They both pointed out the pair of white hooks resembling snake fangs, so that I would remember it.  I asked Carlos how the virtues of the jergon plant had been discovered. We know this thanks to these hooks, because that is the sign that nature gives.”

The doctrine of signatures has been rejected by conventional science as an example of thinking that is ‘magical’ and therefore naive and superstitious.  Yet, reasoning by analogy can lead to fruitful results. Signatures provide the backbone of an intuitive approach to knowledge. This mode of thinking stretches all the way back to Plato, who taught thinking from the eidos (idea, primal form, essence, archetype).  It was advocated by Aristotle, for whom ‘formal logic’ signified thought from the form, idea, eidos or eidea.

Magical Similarity or Rational Analogy?

The doctrine of signatures is based on thought-by-association, hence by similarity and analogy.  Paracelsus and Frances Bacon both advocated this kind of thought, but had opposite views about it.

Paracelsus accepted as legitimate only associations that were purely ‘magical,’  that is, where the similarity had no rational explanation or causal relationship.  Thus, for instance, treatment by cow liver to human liver was not true to the doctrine of signatures or the law of similars.  Rather, it was the correspondent of liver in the creation, in the yellow, bile-like sap of celandine, which treated the liver in the human being.  Paracelsus based his entire system upon this type of similarity or signature and called it magia naturale, or natural magic.  Bacon, on the other hand, rejected the ‘magical’ or superstitious methods of the “natural magicians,” emphasizing associations that were easily demonstrated to have a rational relationship based on cause-and-effect.

Bacon introduced reductionist science, in which the whole is reduced to the parts.  This is now the basis of modern scientific study.  However, he also taught that it was necessary to think holistically, to put the pieces back together.  The way to do this, he taught, was to think by analogy, for causal, rational similarities could trace out relationships in nature.  For instance, he said, there must be a developmental relationship between the womb and the scrotum, due to similar shape.  Actually, this method is unconsciously used in science.  Darwin, for instance, reasoned from the morphological similarities in birds on the Galapagos to arrive at the Theory of Evolution.

Goethe tred to establish a science based on analogical thought.  He was the first to observe that the flower structures were modified leaves or the cranium modified vertebra. Rudolf Steiner has attempted to perpetuate Goethe’s approach.

Within the traditional use of similarity and signature we find tendencies in both directions.  Sometimes the signature can be accounted for only by a leap of the imagination. Calendula, with its bright orange flower, looks like ‘herbal sunshine.’ It does not have structures that resemble glands but I was taught by herbalist Chris Hafner that it was the remedy for ‘places where the sun doesn’t shine.’ That places its regional affinities in the ‘collection’ areas of the body, under the chin, arms, breasts, and groin. These are the areas where the lymphatic network is strongly woven and calendula will cleanse in these areas.  It is also a remedy for vaginitis — where the sun doesn’t shine.

Many kidney remedies have a signature that is quite rational.  They live in areas where there is a balance between water and solid.  They are sensitive to this elemental edge in the natural world and act on the kidneys, which serve to balance water and solid in the organism.  Such is the case of horsetail, living in wet sands, gravel root (Eupatorium maculatum), living on the very edge of land and water, smartweed (Polygonum hydropiper), living where the water kills all the plants in the spring but leaves an empty depression in the corn field in summer, and hydrangea (Hydrangea spp.), growing on the eroded creeksides, roots keeping the soil from washing away.

Signatures, Intuition and Spirituality

The first book published on signatures in English is William Coles’  Adam in Eden (1657).  The title refers to the commonly held belief in the ancient and Renaissance era, that when Adam was in Eden naming the creatures that he was in fact recognizing their archetypal properties and giving them the appropriate names reflecting their true nature.  Furthermore, Adam himself is taken to be the comprehensive archetype who embraces within himself all of these creatures.  Thus, the human archetype contains within it the archetype of all the animals and plants.  Throughout this the archetype, i.e. Adam, can name all the creatures.  This doctrine is quite ancient and was maintained by the Rabbis, who called the androgynous human archetype, before the appearance of Eve (organic life), Adam Kadmon.

I’ve read the original account in Hebrew and it is hard to construe the story any other way, though if a person has never heard of the idea of archetypes or correspondences, or that around the world names are associated with identifying the essence, one would miss the point of the story. Genesis is written in archetypes that are frequently pointed out by wordplays.

For myself, I experience the recognition of an archetype in a signature or the true nature of a plant or creature as a beautiful experience, which harkens my spirit back to paradise before the fall, before the human archetype decided that he was a god.  Yet, we are more complex beings than were Adam and Eve in Eden before the fall — the Hebrew terms here mean “Humanity” and “Life.” There is more for us to learn because we have become differentiated into sexes and taken on bodies of flesh, and substituted our idea of good and evil for intuition of the archetype.  Thus, we have to overcome egotism, self-generated morality, and choose the right path, both to actualize our purpose in the universe (our personal archetype) and to remove from self-will and egotism to Divine government.

The archetypal realm lies above morality, and through it we can glimpse paradise.  It provides one kind of spiritual wisdom — this is why the medieval church did not condemn ‘natural magic’ but accepted it.  However, this wisdom does not answer all the questions of human nature.  There is also a kind of wisdom that can only come from living in the human body, ‘in this valley of happiness and sorrow mixt’ (Blake), unknown to the purely archetypal realm.

The law of similarity and the doctrine of signatures are built into the fabric of the universe.  Jacob Boehme associated similars and signatures with the Son aspect of the trinity, which accepts all beings, brings all together, and returns them to a harmonious existence.  On the mundane level it will not disappoint us herbalists.  Not only does it cure, but it works from principles that are spiritually constructive.  In my own work I strive not only to see the signature in the plant, but the constitution of the person and the pattern of the disease.

When I began the practice of herbalism I wanted to practice in a way that uplifted me every time I participated in a healing event, not just the client.  Otherwise it would be a lopsided relationship, even a prostitution of sorts, as I would be paid in money only.  Spiritual upliftment is possible when I use my intuition to see the pattern, the archetype, the spiritual level, in the client, the disease, and the herbs. Also, I am not prostituting the plants, using and conceiving of them for purely material pursues.

William Coles (1657) had the same feeling I have, for he writes in his foreword to Adam in Eden:

To make thee truly sensible of that happinesse which Mankind lost by the Fall of Adam, is to render thee an exact Botanick, by the knowledge of so incomparable a Science as the Art of Simpling, to re-instate thee in another Eden, or, A Garden of Paradise: For if We rightly consider the Addresses of this Divine Contemplation of Herbs and Plants, with what alluring Steps and Paces the Study of them directs Us to an admiration of the Supream Wisdome, we cannot even from these inferiour things arrive somewhat near unto a heavenly Contentment; a contentment indeed next to that Blessednesse of Fruition, which is onely in the other World; for all our Pleasures here having but the fading Aids of Sense are beholding, or rather subjected to our human Frailties, so that they must in respect of our Expectations in some kind or other ever fall short.      

‘Simpling’ is the use of a single plant.  The doctrine of signatures makes the use of an herb so clear, sometimes, that we can use it confidently by itself, not in a formula.  Signatures, similars, and simpling were recognized by Galen, the organizer of Greek medicine, as the basis of the ’empiric’ or experience-based school of medicine.  He did not approve of it, because it was associated with peasants and people close to the land rather than trained, educated, upper class practitioners.  Eventually these principles became the basis of homeopathy, which also added the doctrine of the dimunition of the dose.

The excesses of the English Civil War and the reformation of science as a part of the greater Reformation, led to the demise of intuitive and archetypal science, based on the criticism that it was the product of ‘enthusiasm,’ i.e., a religious notion, and therefore somewhat dangerous.  Alchemy, astrology, and the doctrine of signatures were increasingly forgotten in Britain and America.

In the early nineteenth century, the principles of empirical medicine were revived by Samuel Hahnemann, the founder of homeopathy, but he made them into a rigid system, rather than an empirical practice originating close to the earth.  In the nineteenth century J. G. Rademacher in Germany, and John M. Scudder in the United States, built systems of medicine using herbs based on empiricism and specificity which contribute to our knowledge of simpling, but which did not use signatures and similars.

In the early nineteenth century the German poet J. W. Goethe attempted to resuscitate science based on a more intuitive and imaginative approach.  He utilized the doctrine of signatures, as the following quotation from his analysis of arnica will show.  Later his work was picked up by Rudolf Steiner and comes down to us as Goethean and Anthroposophical science.

Goethe and Steiner

Goethe proposed that science be based upon the use of the imagination and intuition.  He used analogies very much as Frances Bacon had intended: to understand the underlying linkages and principles of Nature.  Thus, for instance, he discovered the principles of developmental morphology.  He realized that each vertebra was a variation on the same structural theme and that the skull in itself was a modified vertebra.  He also saw that the basic structural or morphological unit of the plant was the ‘leaf/stem,’ and that through modification the leat/stem became the petals, sepals, and flower parts.

Goethe may have applied the doctrine of signatures as it was traditionally used to understand the medicinal properties of plants, but I have discovered only one surviving eyewitness account of him doing so.  This is translated by Wilhelm Pelikan (1997, 257), who will be mentioned further on.

On February 24, 1823, the German writer Eckermann, who helped Goethe prepare the final edition of his works, wrote in his dairy:

‘It has been a worry day, for by midday Goethe showed none of the improvement we had seen yesterday.  Feeling a sudden weakness he said to his daughter-in-law: “I can sense that the moment has come when the struggle between life and death begins within me.”

By evening the patient had fully regained his mental faculties and was indeed in high spirits and able to joke.  “You are too cautious with your remedies,” he said to Rehbein, “I am tougher than you think.  With a patient like myself you will have to be somewhat Napoleonic.”

Then he took a cupful of a decoction of Arnica.  This had given a positive turn during the crisis when administered by Huschke the day before.  Goethe proceeded to give a charming description of the plant, lauding its energetic powers to the skies.’

Arnica is a somewhat toxic plant. In old time Western medicine it was principally used externally, on bruises and contusions.  In homeopathy it was used for this, internally and externally; also for fevers where the blood was disordered and there was bleeding and bruising.  It is considered a ‘counter-irritant’ in the old medicine, meaning that it irritates the skin and brings blood to the area.  In this way it keeps circulation going in a bruised area, which repairs much quicker.  Arnica is really an extraordinary remedy in a bruise, strain, or sprain, as many can attest from personal experience — myself included.  Here it was probably being used in an elderly patient to stir up the circulation.

Referring to the above passage, someone once asked the author what Goethe’s description might have sounded like, and he then wrote the following, putting it the way Goethe might have put it.

“Note  well,” exclaimed the patient, “that this magnificent plant is at home in the open heights, on primitive rock; that it stands by the steps leading to the thrones of the gods.  It is rooted in the moist freshness of alpine meadows, and utterly belongs to spring and early summer, to the pure atmosphere and the forces of morning.  Golden green is the basal rosette of leaves, the first circle of life, foretokening a second one, the calyx; and swiftly the plant starts to prepare for the third, the corona of the flower.  The delicate shaft rises straight upwards, no thought now of the leaf spirals, of foliage unfolding; just a single pair of small leaves may be carried aloft; soon the flower bud at the top bursts from confinement, and orange-yellow whirls of fire appear in the light of the St. John’s Tide sun.  Ah, the fragrance of it!  What is it that lived already in the leaf and has now reached perfection in the flower?  The elements of grandeur that reign in those regions find in the plant a form of life that is in accord with them, formed wholly out of them, receiving them in the way that is possible for plants, and giving expression to them at a higher level, in color and scent.  That fragrance, how do I put it into words?  Healing power I shall call it.  May there soon come a man of inspiration,” Goethe continued thoughtfully, “who will express in more well-defined words the sensual and moral action, who will perform for the world ot scents and aromas what I have attempted to do for color, and interpret for us whatever it is that brings plant nature to reveal itself thus in the airy element.

“Energy is squeezed into the arnica plant in every possible way.  Merely to think of it pours rivers of fire around my heart.  Yet power here is paired with delicacy of form.  Nothing brittle or hard resists the in-forming power of heaven; the plant chosen by the sun god is young and vital.  Behold the flower, how it melts into light, into the blaze of the sun.  The mountain breeze comes to be the sower into whose hands the flower puts its feathery seeds.  And the wind broadcasts the seed over the springy turf.  Thus sparks of light follow Persephone into the earth’s womb in autumn.  But the sun’s warmth penetrates, warming the dark moist soil; the root of our herb sense the incoming life, begins to sprout and grow, and whereas in the first  half of the year the plant unfolded in the sphere of the sun, it follows paths in the second that the sun takes within earthly spheres.

“Thus I assign arnica to Helios among the gods.  And among men?  To the follower of Asclepias who wanders among the lonely heights.  Here we have a plant of rapid healing, of firm decision.  If you suffer violence and injury, from fist, cudgel or blade, wondrous healing is nigh in this herb.  The vital energies are flowing, the pulse grows stronger, the heart takes courage; if the blood has lost its way in a bruise or an effusion, arnica will remind it of its proper courses.  Muscles and sinews grow firm; the body form, having suffered insult and injury, is restored, and so is the nervous system where it is so difficult to achieve healing.  The organic revolt at injury sustained — we call it pain — lessens and passes.  Truly Napoleonic is the style in which illness is met, grandiose the way in which a decision is forced.  When life and death began their struggle within me, I sense the hosts of life, this flower on their standard, forced the issue, and the stagnating forces of the enemy, the deathly oppressive powers, met their Waterloo.  Rejuvenated in my recovery I praise this herb most highly, yet in truth it is nature who praises herself, she who is truly inexhaustible, who creates this flower with its healing powers, and in doing so once more proclaims herself to be eternally procreative.”

The poet fell silent; his majestic eye, having regained its old, sun-like power, roamed thoughtfully, in contemplation, as though over distant fields where it beheld what cannot be expressed in words.’

Ah, to be a poet. One sees here a profound and deep contemplation on the powers and attributes of a plant.  Goethe does not just pigeonhole the plant under an astrological symbol, as do so many of the astrological and alchemical physicians.  He thinks of the plant more poetically in terms of its relationship to the sun, heights, and the elements fire and air.

Goethe’s method was inspiring to Rudolf Steiner, the founder of the Anthroposophical Society.  He adopted the same approach: the analysis of the plant or organism through its stages of development, its affinities to the old gods or planetary emblems, which were used, age after age, not to express belief in the gods necessarily, but as symbols or archetypes of different powers.  Steiner had been instructed by an old herbalist he met on the train in Austria; from whom he learned the properties of plant and the traditions of folk-medicine.

Steiner’s most important publication, in his own eyes, was The Philosophy of Freedom (1896), which was also his first major publication.  In it he argued that the four major psychological faculties of the human organism known at this time in German philosophy, perception (or physical observation), feeling, thinking, and intuition, had important different uses.  The former three cut the world into pieces, so that it could be digested and understood by a person, but the latter served to unit all perception by providing an overview of the whole situation — an holistic perspective, so to speak.  The intuition perceived the whole or innate self in another person, it reflected the same in oneself, and it’s use promoted the integration of the self and the sense of a higher spiritual purpose in the self.  It was particularly effective at times when a person was choosing between two different paths.  One would appeal more to the mind (don’t take the risk, the money’s good, the marriage is ok), the other to the intuition (there’s something here I have to do, a path to follow).  One is reminded of Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock, a representation of an intuitive and a rational thinker.

Through the use of the intuition the sense of a spiritual self with higher motives than those of the material world would develop and the more one became a ‘free spirit’ grounded in this higher perspective, the more one would be self-governing and inwardly free, hence: The Philosophy of Freedom.  Steiner argued that the true self was not bad or greedy or self-possessed, but innately virtuous because of it’s spiritual grounding.  Hence, Steiner taught a doctrine of spiritual growth through the use of the intuition.  The centennial edition of this book was thus reissued under the title Intuitive Thinking as a Spiritual Path (1996).

Thus, both the old philosophers and the new saw great importance in the use of signatures, archetypes, and intuition in human endevour, not only because of the facts learned, but the way of learning them, which encouraged an aspect of spiritual life.

Signatures in Renaissance Herbalism

Very few books have been written based on the doctrine of signatures. Paracelsus’ works are based on signatures but he was more interested in those relating to minerals than plants, so we do not gain a lot of practical knowledge from his works, just the philosophy of signatures.  The first practical books appear in Latin in the seventeenth century, including Giambattista della Porta’s Phytonomincon and a work by Oswald Crollius.  The first book in English on signatures is Adam in Eden, by William Coles, published in London, “at the Angel in Cornhil,” in 1657.

Coles explains the method by which he intends to “acquaint all sorts of people with the very Pith and Marrow of Herbarism,” namely:

I have made an Anatomicall application throughout the Series of the whole work, by appropriating to every part of the Body (from the Crown of the Head, with which I begin; and proceed till I come to the Soul of the Foot) such Herbs and Plants, whose grand uses and virtues do most specifically, and by Signature, thereunto belong; not only for strengthening the Same, but also for curing the evill Affects whereunto they are subjected.

One time I read in Adam and Eden that sage was good for skin conditions that looked like wrinkled like sage leaf.  “Oh, ridiculous,” I thought to myself.  Six months latter I had a case just like that and couldn’t think of anything except sage.  Presto, it worked perfectly, and has always worked on what is called ‘lichenification’ in dermatology — the skin looks like a sage leaf.  This is particularly common in woman and sometimes men, in the decline of life, from the fifties onwards, when the vital juices are drying out.  That is where sage is most remedial.

Signatures in Modern Herbalism

One of the few late twentieth century authors who utilized the doctrine of signatures was Ben Charles Harris, a pharmacist in Wooster, Massachusetts, who passed away several decades ago.  In The Compleat Herbal (1972) he gives a signature for each use of each plant.  Some of them are magical and some are rational.  Although he was a scientist — a pharmacist — Harris was a New England woodsman who knew what the plants looked like, where they grew, and the general validity of the doctrine of signatures.

Again and again we do find countless examples of medicinal herbs on which are “stamped” an indication of their healing properties.  The inquisitive novice herbalist need only apply his powers of observation to evaluate clues to the herbs’ therapeutic powers, the remedial qualities, or the diseases for which these qualities are indicated.  If at times the examples of correspondences throughout this work appear far-fetched, let me offer as warrants of the doctrine’s usefulness some fifty-five years of living with and experiencing the healing herbs, as well as close to four decades of professional pharmacy and teaching of herbalism (Harris, 1972, 36).

Harris (1972, 37) also stresses that the doctrine of signatures is a good memory device.

Instead of tedious memorization of the various uses of a plant, the doctrine of signatures offers in many (though not all) cases a reliable system of connecting the herb with its remedial use through symbolic association.

In traditional herbalism, especially before the advent of writing, herbal knowledge was often passed on by the use of signatures, to help the student understand the logic of the plant and remember its use.

Guide to Using Signatures

In using the doctrine of signatures we should choose our place on the continuum between ‘natural magic’ and ‘analogical science,’  between Paracelsus and Bacon.  Having placed oneself in this way, one can use the following guidelines as one chooses.  Harris (1972, 41) writes:

The signatures or hints given by certain characteristics of plants can be easily broken down into categories.  Groups of plants sharing the same signature would probably be indicated for similar ailments or application to the same general area of the body.  A variety of aspects of an individual plant can give us clues to its use: we should examine its habitat, its color, its shape, its texture, its ordor, and its internal properties.

Even the sound an herb makes is used as a signature in American Indian medicine.

Habitat, Environmental Niche

Changes in the environment of a plant will change its chemistry and thus its medicinal properties.  For example, plants that are stressed by shade will extend their roots and stretch their leaves.  A plant hormone called auxin accumulates in the outer cells of the  plant, due to changing levels of protein tansport proteinssd.sllls.  These changes alter the chemistry of the plant and modify the medicinal properties.  Over the ages a new plant species with a nes environment and constituents will be created.

About the author

Matthew Wood

Matthew Wood

Matthew Wood (MS, AHG) spent the first two years of his life on a remote Indian reservation in the Florida Everglades. Matthew began practicing herbalism in 1982 and has been in private practice since 1990. "I remember what it was like before our field was invaded by all these know-it-all scientists and doctors who have never used herbs and began to tell us how herbs worked. That was before the very fabric of herbalism was warped by modern commerce." In 2003 he completed a Master's Degree in Herbal Medicine at the Scottish School of Herbal Medicine. From 1992-2005 Matthew lived at Sunnyfield Herb Farm in Minnetrista, Minnesota, seventeen acres dedicated to herbs and herbal teaching. Matthew Wood is the author of six books on herbal medicine and is a professional member of the American Herbalists Guild.

1 Comment

  • Thank you ,loved this article takes me back to my studies pre homeopathics .
    Signature of plants =important messages from all the medicinal plants that grow all around us.
    walnuts=good for the brain
    tomatoe=good for the heart
    carrot= good for eyes
    avocado=good for ovary

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