"If it looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, we have at least to consider the possibility that we have a small aquatic bird of the family Anatidae on our hands." - Dirk Gently, Holistic Detective Agency.
The Doctrine of Signatures was first printed by Jacob Boehme in the mid-1600s, but had been in development from the beginning of mankind. It is a form of inductive reasoning founded in the belief that God left signs or signatures on all plants, so we could recognize their medicinal benefits.
Through millennium, through observation and intuition, healers across cultures and across the world have used these signatures. In a world where most people were illiterate, an ability to recognize the fundamental interconnectedness of all things meant alleviating suffering, and often meant the difference between life and death.
In 1972, Ben Charles Harris wrote "The Complete Herbal," where he listed the "stamp" for every medicinal herb and its healing properties. He was a Massachusetts pharmacist and a woodsman who employed both science and observation in his writing. He thought of the Doctrine of Signatures as a good memory device which helped people understand and remember the uses for each plant.
Before our modern-day pharmaceuticals, Lungwort - Pulmonaria is its proper Latin name - was used to treat pulmonary ailments because its leaves resemble the lung's tissue. Goldenrod was used as a cure for jaundice, while because of their color, Purple Iris petals were associated with bruising, and made into a soothing poultice.
Celandine, Chelidonium majus, is the only plant with greenish yellow sap. The bile made in our liver is the same color. Until 1950, Chelidonium was listed in the U.S. Pharmoacopoeia as a medicine that could be used when treating patients with liver or gall bladder problems.
Signs aren't just seeing; smell is another signature recognized by herbalists and homeopathic medicine. Centuries ago, people believed strong-smelling plants kept evil spirits away. They burned cinnamon, clove and frankincense for protection. The vapors of herbs like rosemary or juniper are still used to disinfect some European hospitals. Most aromatic herbs have antiseptic and germicidal properties and, back then, were sometimes used as antibiotics.
Sound can be a sign of a plant's usefulness. The seeds of Black Cohosh, Cimicifuga racemosa and Wild Indigo, Baptisia tinctoria, don't quack like a duck, but they do make a rattling sound and were used by Native Americans as an antidote for snake bite.
No indisputable proof that plant color, fragrance or shape has ever been established. And so today, many scientists discount the Doctrine of Signatures and see instead a doctrine of superstition.
But don't you wonder if we would have made it this far without the guidance of that philosophy and the herbalists who used it?
* "Organic Solutions to Common Vegetable Pest Problems and Using Cover Crops in Organic Gardening," Master Gardeners Dawn and Rob Custer, 6:30 p.m. March 5, 793 Monastery Road, Hollidaysburg.
Contact Teresa Futrick by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.