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Homeopathy Papers

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.

Harris (1972, 42) recommends that the first signature one look for is the habitat of an herb:

Plants that grow in turgid brooks, wet lowlands, and swamps are associated with diseases of wetness: rheumatic disorders, feverish colds, and coughs.  These plants include the willow, water pepper, mints, verbena, sweet flag, elder, boneset, jack-in-the-pulpit, and skunk cabbage.

Mucky soil signifies mucous excretions.  When mucous excretions are excessive, an inflammation occurs along the membranes of the repiratory and genito-urinary passages which often develops into a diseased condition.  The eucalyptus and sunflower are often cultivated in swampy areas to rid the places of foul, miasmatic conditions, and are similarly employed to cleanse out the “swampy” areas of the body.

Herbs and shrubs found growing on the banks of clear ponds and fast-moving brooks are mostly indicated as diuretics, such as horsetail, bedstraw, assorted aromatic mints, smartweed, black alder, water agrimony, and hydrangea.  These plants can help to cleanse the urinary system of its waste and stone-forming deposits.

Herbs inhabiting gravelly places may also be found growing over large rock formations or completely covering sandy, barren areas.  Such plants can help cleanse and remove from the mucous linings and from their associated areas — i.e., the alimentary and bronchial systems — the harmful stone-forming and catarrhal accumulations.  An inflammation may be reduced and disease be prevented by the use of the following: bearberry, horsetail, peppergrass, parsley, parsley piert, shepherd’s purse, juniper, may flower, gromwell, and the two “stone-breakers,” sassafras and saxifrage.

The word ‘saxifrage’ originally meant a plant whose roots dug into rock and pried it apart — a perfect signature for a stone-breaking or kidney gravel remedy.  Another perfect signature is when a plant grows at the boundary of water and soil.  This is found in gravel root — I have seen it grow at the edge of Lake Superior, the roots keeping the waves from beating apart the soil.  It is also found in hydrangea, which grows on the sides of stream beds in Appalachia — holding the soil against erosion.  Water pepper or smartweed has the same signature.  It grows in the field where the puddle forms in the spring.  The corn or crop dies and by late summer the ‘hole’ in the field is filled with smartweed.


“The color of the plant’s flower, fruit, or decoction from root or stem may also be a signature,” writes Harris.  While I agreed with the pharmacist in principle, my correspondences in color are a little different, and I will give mine, not necessarily his.

The color may be seen in any part of the plant, not just the flower, fruit, or decoction, but it is less often seen in the leaves and stems.  Remember, the purpose of the leaf/stem unit of the plant is simple growth, the flower and fruit parts represent profound adaptive changes to the environment.

In Western herbalism the color yellow is associated with the bile, hence with the liver and gallbladder.  A large number of the yellow plants are also bitter, which fits in with their use, because the bitter flavor acts strongly on the liver and gallbladder, as well as the digestive tract in general.  In the old days these organs were particularly affected by malarial fevers, which are accompanied by chills, so that the autonomic nervous system was highly deranged.  The yellow and bitter plants reestablished the right tension and balance in the autonomic and straightened out the discharges of bile and the timing of the digestive tract.  In traditional Chinese medicine the color yellow is associated with the stomach and spleen, i.e., with digestion, assimilation, and nourishment.  This is closely related to the Western idea, which revolves around the liver and gallbladder.  Plants demonstrating these properties include dandelion, gentian, tansy, butternut bark, yellow dock root, rhubarb root, chelidonium, fringe tree, goldenseal, barberry root, Oregon grape root, and mandrake.  Some of them are also purgatives, due to the presence of the yellow anthroquinones.

As the color changes to yellow-orange there is still a strong relationship to the same area of the body but there is usually more warming.  Calendula is an excellent example of an orange flower that warms the digestive tract and lymphatics — the stomach and spleen of TCM.  It is also cleansing to the liver and useful in hepatitis.

The color red, as in rose petals, raspberry fruit, stems, and leaves, strawberries, red clover, and the sour red berries of barberry, is usually associated with cooling and reducing fever — yellow with fever and chills.  As the color tends more towards the blue or purple side it becomes more of a blood purifier or detoxifier, acting on fever and inflammation arising out of impurities in the blood and fluids that need to be burned up.  Various shades of purple show up in the stems of burdock, dandelion, and plantain.  Strongly purple or indigo plants, such as wild indigo, true indigo (woad), and echinacea, are remedies for deep inflammatory processes where there are tendencies to putrefaction, necrosis, and tissue death — black being the ultimate color signature for tissue death.  It it seen in the way the leaves die back suddenly to black in wild indigo, from the marks of black on leaves, like in lady’s thumb (Polygonum persicaria), in the black roots of black cohosh.

Burgundy red is the color associated with the blood-builders: rehmannia root, beet root, sumach berry, and yellow dock root — the latter is more a rusty red.  As we move into brown-reds we have the color of tannins, as Harris points out, seen in the decoctions of sumach and oak.  There is no more beautiful red decoction than sumach berry: it is cooling as well as astringent and blood-building.  The reds, burgundy reds, and brown reds perfectly explain the plant.

Rounding the corner of the color spectrum into blue, we find that this color is the antispasmodic.  Dimsah, the great color therapist who was persecuted by the FDA through the forties and fifties, used blue light to relax spasm.  We see this in blue vervain, lobelia, skullcap, blue cohosh (which together formed an antispasmodic remedy put together by Dr. Christopher), wood betony, and lavender.  Wild iris, which is blue, slightly purple, and yellow, is generally considered a blood-purifier.  However, it is an emetic, like blue vervain and lobelia, so it does end up relaxing the muscles after clenching them up.

We look for green in leaves that are intensely green, like spinach, nettle, horsetail, and comfrey.  These plants are high in minerals and bitters that cleanse the blood and liver.  Plants that are blue-green are generally beautiful and relaxing, like blue cohosh and white pine.

White is a color associated with bone-healing, as in the white roots of true Solomon’s seal, comfrey, black cohosh, and boneset.  Sometimes there is a black covering over the white roots, but these are all bone-healers in one way or another.

The colors were often keys to the association of the plants with the planets.  Thus, yellow, orange, and red were associated with the warm planets — Jupiter, Mars, and the Sun.  Brown-red astringence and black belong to the dry, cold, malefic Saturn, white (the color of sugar and carbohydrates) to the nutritive Moon, and relaxing blue, blue-green, and green for Venus.


The old teaching at the core of the doctrine of signatures was that the resemblance of a plant part to a human organ indicated medicinal relationship.  This is the basis of ‘natural magic’ and seems like nonsense to the modern scientist, but Nature is ruthless and every shape is associated like white-on-rice to a function.  To some extent, shape is function.  Therefore, the similarity between shapes in different kingdoms of Nature may have significance.

The patterns of growth taken by vines associates them with conditions of the nervous and blood systems, which of course take a similar form within the body.  We can find the word “vine” in “vein,” another mnemonic device.  These herbs have been much employed as alteratives (blood purifiers) and as nervines or antispasmodics (Harris, 1972, 44).

Woody perennial vines such as sarsaparilla (Smilax), yellow parilla (Menispermum), bittersweet vine (Celastrus), and Virginia creeper (Ampelopsis) were all very important blood purifiers in the nineteenth century, although some of them are less commonly used today.  Today most of our important alteratives (burdock, dandelion, nettle, yellow dock root, and red clover) are distinguished by the fact that they are common agricultural weeds.  Such survivors of chemical agriculture are, indeed, entitled to be thought of as blood purifiers.

Viney annual growth seem to have more to do with the nervous system.  This includes hops, cinquefoil, and many of the mints.  An extra indication for nerve-relaxing properties is the presence of a square or sharp-sided stem.  This is found in the mint family and blue vervain.

Long, tubular structures are, however, also signatures for the urinary tract.  Dorothy Hall (1988) points out the relationship between the long cleavers stalk and the male urethra.  The same may be said for corn silk, the long, slender rhizome of couchgrass and the long, trailing stems of the procumbent uva-ursi.

Trees grow in spirals, but conifers grow generally clockwise, while hardwoods grow generally in the opposite direction.  Elm grows both ways, which is why it is knarly.  Some trees switch during their life time.  Another difference is that conifers, in order to turn upright will push on the side needing extension, while hardwoods pull to get upright.

The ancients, who had a very limited knowledge of anatomy, considered deeply lobular leaves to be a signature for the liver.  Thus, celandine and American mayapple act powerfully on liver and gallbladder.  The former has orange-yellow sap and the latter has a sallow, yellow appearance, signatures for the bile.  Indeed, the small mayapple fruit hanging down under the leaves of the American mandrake or mayapple look like a gallbladder under a liver.  Another lobular liver remedy is hepatica, although it is not now used in herbal medicine.  Spleen remedies, for the ancients, were marked by a repetitive pattern in the notching along the leaves, like we see in spleenwort or sweetfern (Comptonia) and several of the true ferns.

Generally, yellowness and bitterness are the best signatures for the liver, while yellowness and sweetness are indicators for the spleen.

Kidney remedies sometimes look like kidneys.  Bean pod is an excellent food-tonic for the kidneys.  Opposite leaves, the look like the two kidneys opposite each other, are also a signature, as seen in ground ivy.

Small round, gland-like structures are an excellent indicator for the lymphatics.  Scrophularia, a very powerful lymphatic alterative, has little round gland-like flowers that are purple and smell bad (a signature for putridity).  Red root has nodules on the roots which quickly dry up and disappear after the plant is pulled from the ground.  Red clover, a legume, also has nodules and lymphatic uses.

Heart remedies are indicated by rhythmic, repetitive structures, like the beautiful billowing flowers of digitalis that look like a heartbeat caught at its height, or the alternating flowers of motherwort, or the evenly distributed hanging bells of lily-of-the-valley.

Large leaves are a signature for the skin and the lungs, because the vegetative process of breathing, called transpiration, needs a large surface area and this is analogous to the large surface area of the skin needed for perspiration (similar to transpiration) or of the lungs, for breathing.  Thus, mullein, coltsfoot, burdock, comfrey, and horseradish are used for the skin and/or lungs.  Lungwort has a peculiar signature for the lungs: it looks like someone has expectorated gobs of mucus on it.  The rhizome of pleurisy root looks exceptionally like the terminal buds of the alveoli, the terminal buds of the bronchial tubes.  Lobelia seeds have air inside them — giving them an uncanny feel — indicating a relationship to trapped air (asthma).  Onion and garlic have hollow tubes, like the bronchial tubes, while calamus looks like a trachea and is a great remedy for tracheitis.

A number of plants look like the open mouth and throat, like the flower of self heal.  This was considered a signature for sore throats, for which this plant is used.  An American Indian healer pointed out another signature with this, however.  “The flower of self heal looks like a mouth and lips, reminding us of one of our most powerful Indian doctors, the sucking doctor,” who pulls things out of people through the skin, by sucking.  And self heal is one of the great drawing agents in herbalism.

Bone remedies are usually white and sometimes look like bones.  Comfrey roots are coated black, but underneath they have a calcium-white like color.  Another name for comfrey is knitbone.  However, I prefer boneset, which has a bone-white flower.  True Solomon’s seal has roots that look like vertebra, knuckles, joints, sockets, and bones of all kinds, while the leaves attach on the stalks like muscles attaching to bones — this is an excellent remedy for tendons, ligaments, joints, and probably for bones as well.  It works well on bone spurs.  Older elecampane roots look like rotted-out bones and indeed, this remedy has been useful in infection of the jawbones from bad teeth.

A few herbs manage to look like the cranial bones.  Peony buds look like a cranium, complete with sutures.  The root is an excellent remedy for some head injuries — also try calamus root and its cousin black cohosh.  The dried seedpods of snapdragon look like little skulls or craniums.  The flower essence is used for TMJ (in snappish people) and I have used it also for cranial adjustments.

There are, of course, a few remedies that look like the hair on the head.  Horsetail contains silica in organic solution in its joints and is an excellent remedy for connective tissue, joints, skin, nails, and hair.  Burdock heads reflect the use of the plant in hair loss from unhealthy scalp problems.  Agrimony looks like it has hair-standing-on-end: here the signature is for tension, though it is an important remedy in alopecia.

Other plants have small hairs resembling the hair on the skin, or the hairs on the mucosa of lung and intestine.

Skin remedies are known in several ways.

The signature of the following herbs is their thin, thread-like stems and root, suggesting the sewing up of skin lesions: bedstraw, cleavers, septfoil, cinquefoil, and gold thread.  (Spider webs are also considered useful for this purpose).  Lenticels (openings in the outer layer of cork and tissues of stems) also represent skin lesions.  White birth, elder, cherry, and sumac are indicated [as well as tag alder] (Harris, 1972, 45).


Harris also writes about the texture of the plant.

Adhesiveness.  A ground herb that clings to itself will cling to and remove the hardening mucus or irritating catarrh of the inner systems.  Outstanding examples are sage, coltsfoot, hoarhound, everlasting, and mallow (Harris, 1972, 44).

I remember, when I first read this I thought it was utterly ridiculous, but after nearly a decade working in an herb store I came to recognize, from pure experience, that there were plants with leaves that stuck together, when the vast majority did not.  I would put coltsfoot at the head of the que — and it is a good remedy for tenacious mucus.

Plants whose leaves are soft in texture are to be used to ease the pain of a diseased or painful area.  Mallow, malva species, hoarhound, hollyhock, and mullein are examples.  No herb mixture intended for internal use is ever complete or satisfactory without one such emollient ingredient.  The downy leaves of mullein, hoarhound, hollyhock, and woundwort were once used as a lint substitute for dressing wounds.

Another signature for adhering to mucus and bringing it up is the presence of resin in a plant.  I remember Michael Tierra, many years ago, saying that resins went down into the lungs, clung to the mucus, and helped bring it up.  Here we think of balm of gilead, white pine, and eucalyptus.

Another thing about hirsute (hairy, furry, hoary — like a hoarfrost) plants is that they are more resistant to cold.  The first plant of the spring, pasqueflower (Anemone wolfgangiana), is covered with fur.  One can kick the snow off a mullein plant in the winter and find it still juicy in its downy leaf.  (This is not the case if there is a lack of snow on the ground).  These plants are not warming, but ‘insulating,’ i.e., they build up the strength of the perimeter against cold invasion.

Hairy or furry plants often are beneficial for the intestines and lungs, where the mucosa are covered with a downy velvet.  In fact, a resonate, velvety voice, indicating inflammation in the surface of the lungs, is a good indicator for mullein.

Those herbs with sharp thorns or prickles signify their application in cases of pain.  The herbs are not anodynes or pain relievers, but they are a most suitable means to strike at the causes of the pain.  Hawthorn performs a dual function, acting as a diuretic and as a tonic for the heart.  Stramonium [datura], an antispasmodic and relaxant in bronchial spasms of asthma, is better known as an anodyne and narcotic, with properties similar to those of hyoscyamus and belladonna.  Prickly lettuce is a pain reliever and sedative in coughs.  Motherwort is especially indicated as an antispasmodic and nervine in female disorders and amenorrhea.  Thistle is a stimulating tonic to the inner organs, helping greatly to relieve the pain and afflication of diseased liver and spleen.  Raspberry, strawberry, and blackberry, by virtue of their acid constituents (malic and citric), act upon the tartar formations that lead to kidney and gallstones, thus relieving pain and discomfort.

A very fine pain-reliever not mentioned here is prickly ash (Xanthoxylum americanum).  This is not emphasized enough in traditional herbal literature.  In my experience, this is the remedy for the most extreme, unbearable pain, the pain of torture, where people writhe in agony from lack of relief.  It has barbs on it that are sharp and nasty, making blackberry bramble look like Disneyland.  It is impossible to pick without pricking oneself.

The epidermal hairs (trichomes) of plants such as nettles, sumac, mullein, currant, primula, hops, and sundew suggest the use of these hairy herbs in various painful internal disorders, especially for conditions known as “a stitch in the side” or “pins-and-needles.” Of the latter two herbs, hops is credited with calmative and anodyne properties whereas sundew, whose most sensitive hairs catch all insects which alight on them, has served well to stop the hurtful irritation and suffering caused by whooping cough or chronic bronchitis.


Smell is another signature.  I remember walking down a trail, coming into the sphere of smell of a grove of balm of gilead trees (Populus candicans).  One could smell them fifty feet before they appeared along the path.  The lungs immediately felt soothed — this is an excellent remedy for hot infections in the lungs with rasping coughs and irritated tissue.

The ancients believed that strong-smelling plants would drive away evil spirits and so employed these aromatics as fumigants: cinnamon, clove, arbor vitae, frankincense, [and myrrh].

The herbals of the ancient Egyptians are dominated by these scented-herbs, almost to the exclusion of any other plants.

Many pleasant smelling herbs such as thyme, rosemary, and juniper are still employed as disinfectants and deodorizers, and are the herbs included in the incensier method of disinfecting rooms employed even today in French hospitals.  Aromatics such as marjoram, mint, rosemary, and anise were employed in Elizabethean days to counteract mouth odors, halitosis, and body odors.  The active principles of most aromatic herbs are highly antiseptic or germicidal and contain valuable antibiotic principles.  Included in this category are the aforementioned herbs plus tansy, pennyroyal, sage, savory, fennel, and other food-seasoning herbs. 

David Winston has pointed out that the vermifuges, as a group, are fragrant bitters — wormwood, wormseed, sweet Annie, chamomilla, black walnut, elecampane, etc.

The putrid smell, as we have in scrophularia, indicates affinity for low, putrid states.

Let us end with one of my favorite signatures — the sound of the wind blowing (‘wuthering’) through the tops of the white pine trees.  At the end of canoe trip it is lovely to lie and rest under the white pine and listen to this sound.  It seems to rejuvenate and refreshen.  Perhaps it even opens up the inner ear and imagination.  Certainly, it is easy to sit and daydream there under the white pines.

Spirit Signatures

When a plant resembles an animal body or part, or is especially used by an animal for food or medicine, then it is pointed out to us as a specially powerful and important medicine.  This is called a ‘spirit signatures,’  because there is extra medicine power or spirit in the signature and in the plant.

This concept was taught to me by a very wise American Indian herbalist, Karyn Sanders, who now lives in northern California.  The second I heard the word ‘spirit signature’ I knew that a whole way of looking at plants which I had not been able to grasp, but which I had sensed intuitively for years, had been revealed to me.  I always had known that the most powerful way to arrange and understand herbs was by their association with animals.  I don’t know how I knew this, but it is true — at least it is true in American Indian herbalism and we see some vestiges of it in European and Chinese herbalism as well.

When a person dreams of an animal they gain special insight, which is called ‘medicine.’ They now have a special skill that helps the community in some way, sometimes through healing.  Thus, when a plant looks like an animal or is strongly associated with an animal — especially if the latter uses it as a medicine — then the plant has extra powers.  These are the very powerful plants of our Turtle Island continent — North America.  White pharmacologists and ethnobotanists look for what they consider to be power, based on their knowledge of organic chemistry.  However, drugs, poisons, and hallucinogens are not necessarily as powerful as simple plants marked with ‘spirit signatures,’ because these have true spiritual power — medicine.  This is a virtue to which white academia is blind.

Here are some of the most common ‘spirit signatures:’

Bear –  Brown, furry roots, high in oils, spicy and warming, that the bears like to eat in the spring: angelica, osha root, bear root (Lomatium), balsam root (Balsamorrhiza sagitatta), spikenard (Aralia racemosa), and sunflower (Helianthus annus).  Some times it is the seedpod that is brown and furry: American licorice (Glycerrhiza).  Burdock (Arctium lappa) is an Old World native which is a bear medicine — root brown, oily, and warm, seedpod brown and furry.  These remedies act on the adrenal cortex, to fatten up, or strengthen the parasympathetic, to relax and dream.

The second kind of Bear medicines are found in midsummer, when Bear needs to cool off and reduce blood sugar levels.  They are the berries: raspberry, blackberry, huckleberry, blueberry, strawberry, bearberry, elderberry.

Badger  –  Considered the littlest of the Bear family, but very tough and dangerous.  Badger is the only animal that will attack a Grizzly Bear.  Medicines that make the digestate go downwards in the GI tract, and that look like like badgers or people: yellow dock root, rhubarb, goldenseal, American ginseng.  Strengthens the autonomic nervous system to create a ‘powerful stomach.’

Turtle –  Plants that grow at the edge of water and solid personify the lesson of Grandfather Turtle, who raised up the first Earth in the beginning of time.  Gravel root (Eupatorium spp.)

Elk  –  Antler-like structures indicate Elk medicines.  These usually act on the kidneys and balance male hormones.  Staghorn sumach (Rhus typhina), Florida dogwood (Cornus florida), sweet leaf (Monarda fistulosa), and blue vervain (Verbena hastata).

Deer  –  A subdivision of the above.  Both elk and deer medicines are ‘love medicine.’ Deer medicines are sweet-scented so that Deer like to sleep in them so that they don’t smell like Deer.  Cleavers (Galium aparine), Hay-scented fern, and sweet leaf (Monarda fistulosa).

Rabbit  –  Called “Deer’s little brother,” Rabbit is also lean and quick, but more nervous and needs nourishment.  A trickster medicine.  Starvation medicine.  Wild yam, nettle, bittersweet vine (Celastrus), ground pine (Lycopodium).

Panther –  Medicines that induce parasympathetic relaxation (eat, sleep, dream, relax), so that one relaxes like a big cat.  Valerian, catnip, hops, crampbark.

Wolf  –  Medicines that have a right angle in them, showing that total change is possible, like from Wolf to Dog.  Wolf medicine acts on the gallbladder, tendons, ligaments, and joints, and intermittent chills and fever.  True Solomon’s seal, Werewolf root (Apocynum androsaemifolium), agrimony, boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum), St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum), and gentian (Gentiana spp.).  Sometimes the remedy has five fingers like cinquefoil.

Underwater Panther –  This medicine animal is either a myth like Behemoth, Leviathan, or Sea Monster, or a terrible powerful but usually invisible spirit.  Watersnake or Underwater Panther medicine supports the water in the body.  These are sumptuous, fat, watery roots that grow the big river valleys of the central part of Turtle Island.  True Solomon’s seal, False Solomon’s seal (Smilicina; prefers to be called ‘dragon root’), Jack in the Pulpit, white water lily, yellow water lily.

Cloud  –  Medicines with a cloud-like structure; they help the particles to slip through the holes and especially assist the endocrine system.  Tobacco, rabbit tobacco, lead plant, pasqueflower, vitex.

Spider –  Long, leggy medicines that stimulate the sympathetic nervous system like wood betony and lavender.

Snake –  These medicines usually look like Snake and antidote poisons: plantain (snakeweed), Canada snake root, Kansas snake root, Aristolochia, black snake root, viper’s bugloss, bistort, rattlesnake master, rattlesnake plantain, etc.

Raven, Crow, Buzzard –  This is not the traditional interpretation of Raven medicine in American Indian medicine, but follows the southern Afro-American tradition.  Antidotes to poisons that are marked with a black spot or turn black quickly after death: wild indigo, lady’s thumb (Polygonum persicaria), black cohosh, black medic.

There are others.

The Four Elements

Steiner systematized Goethe’s poetic vision.  He defined the organic processes of growth, healing, and disease in relationship to the four elements and the three alchemical substances more clearly than did Goethe.  He drew upon the traditional literature of alchemy and philosophy which had long been used to define energetic relationships.  Steiner particularly used the four elements and the three alchemical substances to explain patterns of growth and the resulting signatures.

Steinter adopted Goethe’s vision of the urpflanze or primordial plant (leaf/stem) but drew and association between it and the four elements.  As Goethe observed, the leaf/stem is the primal unit of the plant.  It keeps on replicating unit after unit, unstoppable, until the plant begins to feel the need to reproduce.  Then the leaf/stem units start to grow smaller, pull together, and eventually metamorphose into flower parts.  First is the corona, or wreath around the flower, then the petals, and then the sexual parts.  As Steiner pointed out, the creation of the flower represents a force operating against the leaf/stem replication, slowing it and morphing it into something new and different.  In turn, the flower is superceded by the seed or fruit, which carries the genetic foundation for another plant to grow. Meanwhile, there is a downwards reflection of the leat/stem unit in the root.  This provides four basic plant parts that Steiner associated with the four elements.  Steiner associated the ‘leaf/stem’ with water, but a later anthroposophist, Maria Thun, has shown that the stem is truly associated with the air element (and thus with the nervous system); the leaf remains with water. This agrees with Harris, above, who associates viney growth with the nervous system.  The place of the flower, with its relationship to sexual reproduction, should also be associated with air.  Thus:

            Fire               Fruit or Seed

            Air                Stem and Flower

            Water           Leaf

            Earth            Root

The relationship between these different plant parts is further explained by Steiner’s correspondence of the four elements with the four kingdoms:

            Human       Fire

            Animal        Air

            Plant           Water

            Mineral       Earth

Steiner also showed that here are processes within the body which are mineral, plant-like, animal-like, or fully human.

The Earth element represents the completely dense level of consolidation and physical structure without movement, and therefore without life.  Earthly processes are slow and grounded.  They provide the primal bedrock on which life is to be built. Thus, the Indian people called the Stone nation the ‘grandfathers’ and ‘grandmothers.’ The root is the Earth element part of the plant because it goes downwards, into the ground, and it interacts with the mineral realm.  Thus, plants that have large roots, heavy, thick barks, and powerful structure are Earth plants, like the oak tree.  The oak sends down a huge root system which is usually about twice the circumference of the above-ground canopy of the plant.  Above the earth it produces powerful, thick, strong wood covered with a heavy, strong bark.  Barks are usually associated with tannins, the puckering agents that provide our astringents in herbalism.  Hence, oak is a powerful astringent.  It is puckering, contracting, strengthening, and consolidating like the Earth element.

The Water element provided the primordial swamp or urschliem out of which life arose in the beginning of time, when the spirit blew like a wind over the waters.  Thus, simple cellular life, plant life, and organisms which do not have a nervous system are associated with the Water element.  Their functions are simple, with a basic emphasis on sustenance and reproduction.  The leaf is the organ of feeding for the plant and it is reproduced again and again to create the bigger plant. Consequently, plants with large leaves that grow without discipline in abundance, like comfrey, are Water plants.  Yet, comfrey also has powerful, large roots and has Earthy qualities as well.  What it does not have is Airy or Fiery qualities — the flowers are little, hard to pollinate, and seldom bear viable seed.  Comfrey grows largely by asexual reproduction: a root cut off and stuck in the ground will grow a new plant.  Another Water plant would be plantain, which indeed appears to be nothing but a leaf/stem through much of the summer.

Earth and Water are heavy elements with a downward or stationary tendency, while Air and Fire are light, with a stationary to outward movement.  Thus, they represent energies which are quite contrary to Earth and Water.

The Air element represents a force that opposes and brings to an end the constant replication and reproduction of the leaves of the plant.  Thus, Steiner associated it with the nervous system in animals, the next development beyond the plant level.  The nervous system allows for movement, which is associated with animals, not plants.  The root of the word animal means that which moves.  It also allows for intellectual movement, for animals do think.  According to the Greek and Arabic philosophers, animals think but they cannot reflect on what they are thinking.  That property belongs only to humanity.

A plant family in which the Air element is evident, and which has a powerful influence on the nervous system is the Lamiaceae (mint).  They contain numerous nervines (melissa, skullcap, lycopus, rosemary, lavender, wild bergamot, peppermint, spearmint, etc.)  They also have beautiful, billowy, well-developed flowers.  Thus, they represent Air through their flowers.  Another family that represents the Air element in a slightly different way is the carrot or Apiaceae.  They also produce some billowy flowers, but not many.  Their Airiness is apparent in the ‘stemishness.’ Numerous long stems form to give these plants an Airy, windblown look.  And indeed, many of them contain volatile oils which relax the nervous system, especially of the digestive tract.

Steiner went on to observe that in certain plants the non-plant like animal qualities inherent in the Air element not only stopped the development of the leaf/stem unit of the plant, the Watery vegetative part, but actually invaded that area of the plant.  This resulted in the production of powerful drugs and poisons that act on the nervous system, particularly the alkaloids.

The Fire element is associated with upward movement towards the heavens, and therefore with the spiritual aspirations within people for the heavenly realms.  Thus, the Fire element is associated specifically with people, as opposed to animals, plants, or minerals.  In the plant world it appears in the seed and fruit.  The rose family, with its innumerable fruits such as strawberry, raspberry, apple, peach, pear, rosehip, etc., is a perfect representative of the Fire element.  Interestingly, it provides some of the best cooling remedies in the herbal material medica; plants that cool and control fire.  The rose is a symbol of higher love — with specially human thoughs.  But we would also have to include under the Fire element the hot, warming plants like cayenne, sassafras, and turmeric.  Fire stimulates the nerves and awakens consciousness.

One analogy Steiner did not make, which I would like to introduce, is that between the elements and the four psychological functions of Dr. Carl G. Jung.  These would be:

              Fire         Intuition

              Air           Thinking

              Water       Feeling

              Earth        Physical Sensation

Earth corresponds to the physical body, and thus to physical sensation.  Some people perceive the world through physical experience largely, learning form observation and experience.  Water corresponds to the emotional realm, to connections with others, to feeling connected and a part of something greater than oneself.  Some people analyze the world through their feeling primarily.  Air is associated with cutting (as in the growth patterns mentioned above) and limiting, in fact, cutting off from the greater world without, so that the individual can have his or her boundaries.  Thus, it is associated with the faculty that is cutting, separating, and reductionistic, thinking.  Fire corresponds to the searching, reaching out faculty of the mind, which search for new terrain and meanings.  This faculty jumps ahead, intuitively grasping new concepts and situations — the intuition.

The four elements also correspond to the four qualities. Plato taught the following correspondences:

              Fire               Hot

              Air                Dry

              Water           Damp

            Earth            Cold

These correspondences were perpetuated by Antiochus, who wrote the first comprehensive guide to astrology in Greek.  It is possible that he was identical to Antiochus of Ascalon, an important Middle Platonist who reviewed the intuitive approach of Plato.  (This identification was made by Roman authors, later by Francis Cumont, and recently strengthened by Robert Schmidt, of Project Hindsight, Cumberland, MD).

This is the way the elements are still interpreted in astrology.  However, medicine followed Aristotle, who had a different interpretation.  He associated the qualities with the elements as follows: Fire (hot and dry), Air (hot and damp), Water (cold and damp), Earth (cold and dry).  Nine hundred years latter, Proclus, the second to the last Archon of the Academy founded by Plato (the first Archon), showed that Aristotle had misunderstood Plato’s discussion of elements and qualities, and that in fact Aristotle’s logic was wrong.  So the Platonists and the Aristotelians had different interpretations — I adhere to the former group.

Using Steiner’s model of the four elements we can learn to see and detect underlying relationships between plants and the body and psyche of humanity.  Thus, for instance, the mint and parsley family are airy and billowy, but the former is more warming (rosemary, thyme, marjoram, wild bergamot), while the latter is more moist and earthy (lovage, carrot, parsley).  There are of course exceptions within families, but these often prove the rules because the plant so longer looks like the fiery or earthy prototype of the entire clan, but strikes out on a path of its own.

Steiner also introduces a threefold system of correspondence.  His presentation is rather wordy.  I would simplify matters by explaining that he is talking about what we would today call the three embryological tissues and the constitutions related to each.  These are dealt with elsewhere in our studies.

For more information about Steiner’s approach, developed in great detail by a remarkable author, see Wilhelm Pelikan, Healing Plants, Insights Through Spiritual Science (1997).

William Coles’  Table of Appropriations

The word ‘appropriation’ was used by Galen to represent a plant that was specially appropriated by an organ.  This is William Coles’ “Table of Appropriations, shewing what Part every Plant is chiefly medicinable throughout the whole Body of Man; beginning with the Head.”  Note that it does not repeat herbs in different categories, rather it seeks to put them where Coles thought their ultimate nature set them.

Brain.  Wood Betony, Sage, Rosemary, Lavender, Primrose, Cowslip, and Bear’s Ears, Lily of the Valley, Mistletoe

Head. Walnut, Peony, Poppy, Squilla, Larch Tree its Agarick (mushroom)

      Hair.  Quince, Mosses, Maidenhair Fern

Eyes.  Fennel, Vervain, Rose, Celandine, Rue, Eyebright, Clary Sage (“Clear Eye Sage”), Hawkweed

Ears. Wild Ginger, Ground Ivy, Ivy, Poplar Tree, Nightshade, Sow Fennel, Sow Thistle

Nose. Wake-Robin (Arum), Fleur-de-luce (Iris), Horsetail, Shepherd’s Purse, Willow, Bistort, Tormentil, Cinquefoil, Sowbread

Mouth.  Medlar, Mulberry, Mint, Purslane, Goldenrod

Dry Mouth.  Fleawort

Teeth.  Pine, Pomegranate, Mastick, Masterwort, Coral, Coralwort, Restharrow, Henbane, Wild Tansy

Scurvy. Scurvy Grass, Small Houseleek, Aloe or Sea Houseleek, Fumitory, Cress

Throat.  Throatwort, Date Palm, Wintergreen, Horsetongue, Figwort, Archangel, Foxglove, Orpine, Pellitory of the Wall, Wheat, Barley, Garlic, Liquorice, Fig Tree, Hyssop, Ragwort, Plantain, Columbine, Cudweed, Jew’s Ears (Elder mushroom)

Lungs. Hoarhound, Lungwort, Tobacco, Sundew, Hedge Mustard, Coltsfoot, Woodbine, Mullein, Cowslips of Jerusalem, Sanicle, Polypody Fern, Whortleberry (Huckleberry), Sweet Cicely

Lungs (Shortness of breath, coughs, hoarseness, expectoration).  Elecampane, Almond, Vine, Reeds and Sugar Cane, Jujube, Scabiosa, Colewort (Kale), Nettles, Turnips

Breasts (Toning after Lactation).  Lady’s Mantle, Sanders

Breeding Milk. Anise, Nigella, Mallow, Dill, Ramps, Periwinkle, Lettuce

Breasts (Swollen). Giant Fennel, Gourd, Basil, Bean, Lentil, Madonna Lily

Nipples (Sore). Dock Cress

Heart, Qualms, Faintness. Angelica, Saffron, Borage, Violet, Strawberry, Wood Sorrel, Lemon Balm, Marigold (Calendula), Swallowort, Goats Rue, Viper’s Grass, Pome Citron, Gentian, Scordium, Salad Burnet, Avens, Cloves, Carnation, Aloe Wood, Cinnaomn, Viper’s Bugloss

Stomach (Cooling and strengthening).  Apple, Pear, Peach, Apricot, Plum, Cherry, Gooseberry, Barberry, Currants

Stomach (Purging).  Wormwood, Mirabolane, Groundsell, Radish, Black Alder (Alnus), Oily Nut Bean, Senna, Daffodills, White Hellebore, Purging Coffia

Gas.  Caraway, Cumin, Camels Hay, Ginger, Galangal, Cardamom, Pepper, Nutmeg, Coriander, Orange

      Stiches and Pains in the Sides.  Blessed Thistle, Milk Thistle, Chamomile, Red Clover, Melilot, Oat, Valerian, Stitchwort, Flaxseed

Liver.  Rhubarb, Turmeric, Agrimony, Liverwort, Succory, Alecost, Yellow Dock, Sheep Sorrel, Beet, Smallage (Celery), Cleavers, Chickweed

Spleen.  Dodder, Black Hellebore, Tamarind, Spleenwort Fern, Hartstongue Fern, Fern, Capers, Tamarisk, Germander, Calamint, Mountain Mint, Lupine

      Kidneys and Bladder.  Asparagus, Parsley, Marshmallow, Goat’s Thorn, Spikenard, Sweet Smelling Flag (Acorus), Cyperus, Hops, Knot Grass, Parsley Piert, Saxifrage, Dropwort, Gromwell, Onion, Winter Cherry, Dogs Grass (Couch Grass), Butcher’s Broom, Chervil, Brooklime, Hawthorn, Lemon, Cypress, Kidneywort, Kidney Bean, Oak, Buckshorn Plantain, Sampire, Fraxinella, All Heal

Dropsy (Diuretics and Hydrogogues).  Elder, Soldanella, Briony, Jalap, Broom, Ash, Sassafras, Castor Oil, Glasswort, Spurge Laurel, Toad Flax, Oregano

      Colic. Bay, Holly, Juniper, Olive, Colocynth, Bindweed

      Worms. Centaury, Lovage, Tansey, Lavender, Carrots and Parsnips, Spignell, Bishopsweed, English Wormseed, Leeks, Horseradish

Diarrhea and Dysentery. Sumach, Myrtle, Rock Rose, Black Horn, Bramble, Teasel, Rice, Fluxweed, Pilewort, Water Betony

Lust (to Provoke). Artichoke, Sea Holly, Potato, Skirry, Peas, Rocket, Mustard, Cotton, Fisteck Nut, Chestnut, Chocolate, Cypripedium, Draganse

      Lust (to abate).  Hemp, Water Lily, Hemlock, Camphire, Tutsin

Menses (to Provoak).  Mugwort, Pennyroyal, Southernwood, Savory, Thyme, Alexanders, Anemone

Menses and the Whites (to Stop). Mouse Ear, Yarrow, Meadowsweet, Adder’s Tongue, Lunaria, Trefoil, Moneywort, Darnell, Flowergentle and Blite, Dragon Tree, Beech, Hazel Nut Tree

Uterus.  Motherwort, Feverfew, Catnip, Burdock, Butterbur, Orach, Asafoetida, Cow Parsnip

Expediting Childbirth. Birthwort, Mercury, Madder, Dittany, Dittander or Pepperwort, Holm Oak

Expelling the Placenta.  Ground Pine, Savine, Birth Tree

      Hernia.  Rupturewort, Thoroughwax, Solomon’s Seal, Balsam Apple (Momordica), Dovesfoot or Cranesbill, Elm

Syphilis.  Guaicum, Quinine. Sarsaparilla

Groin (Swellings).  Starwort, Herb Paris

Wounds and Ulcers.  St. John’s Wort, Clown’s  Woundwort, Arsmart, Bugle, Self Heal, Goldenrod, Loosestrife, Daisy, Speedwell

For Drawing out Splinters.  Pimpernell

For Felons.  Woody Nightshade

For Tired Feet.  Lady’s Bedstraw


William Coles.  Adam in Eden: or, Natures Paradise, The History of Plants, Fruits, Herbs and Flowers.  London:  Printed by J. Streater, for Nathaniel Brooke at the Angel in Cornhil, near the Royal Exchange, 1657.

Ben Charles Harris.  The Compleat Herbal.  Barre, MA: Barre Publishers, 1972.

Jeremy Narby.  The Cosmic Serpent.  1998.

Wilhelm Pelikan.  Healing Plants, Insights Through Spiritual Science.  English Translation of the 1988 German edition (v. 1).  Spring Valley, NY: Mercury Press, 1997.

Rudolf Steiner.  Spiritual Science and Medicine.  London: Rudolf Steiner Press, 1975.

About the author

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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