There is something uncommon about the common names of things. Each plant or animal seemingly has an etymology that is rarely logical and hardly ever obvious. Some names entered the lexicon of English botany from other languages, like the Dandelion which comes from the French “Dents du Lion,” meaning teeth of the lion in reference to the serrated leaves. Others are mythological, like the iris, whose vibrant colors evoke the Greek goddess of the rainbow. But the most esoteric of the lot are those that are named after body parts, like toothworts, liverworts and maidenhairs.
In the shrouded mists of prehistory, when the flat earth was born by a turtle swimming in an endless ocean at the center of the universe, science gave way to superstition and the gods of nature reigned supreme. Over eons of time, mankind gradually came to understand the workings of the world through a process of trial and error, hypotheses posed and observations noted. The first elements were Aristotle’s earth, air, water and fire and the atomism of Democritus was largely ignored. It was not until the 19th Century that Baron Ernest Rutherford posited the existence of the nucleus and Dmitri Ivanovitch Mendeleev organized the periodic table that the true nature of matter became manifest.
Of all the unknowns, the operation of the human body and its malfunction were among the most compelling and confusing. Blood-letting was a purported panacea, as the bad humors that were alleged to be responsible for all maladies were encouraged to flow out. In light of this prevailing ignorance of the causes of disease coupled with the profound belief in the supernatural that defined medieval society, a theory that plants were put on earth by divine intent with a “signature” appearance is not all that preposterous. And it is this notion that we know as the Doctrine of Signatures; that every living thing is marked with a sign and that this signature gives an indication as to its intended use. The Doctrine has an interesting history.
Though there is evidence that the ancient Chinese and the Romans may have correlated a plant’s appearance to its potential medicinal properties, the story of the Doctrine of Signatures does not really begin until after the Dark Ages in the 16th Century. Phillippus Aureolus was born in Einsiedeln, Switzerland in 1493 and went to Austria as a youth where he learned the art and science of metal ore smelting as a student at the Bergschule, an institution established to train analysts for mining operations. Taking the name Theophrastus Bombastus Von Hohenheim, he received a baccalaureate in medicine from the University of Vienna in 1510, where he reached the then radical conclusion that the prevailing medical view of the human body as being governed by astrology was specious. For the next ten years, he traveled throughout Europe and North Africa in to seek out “…old wives, gypsies, sorcerers, wandering tribes, old robbers, and such outlaws and take lessons from them” to learn the true nature of human health. He adopted the name Paracelsus (by which he is known historically) from “para-Celsus,” beyond Celsus, the noted 1st Century Roman physician, to suggest the egotistical view that he was the greater of the two.
The theory that he evolved and for which he is justly considered the Martin Luther of medicine was that the healing power of nature could be brought to bear in the treatment of disease. Among his many medical achievements, he developed the first viable clinical description of syphilis and devised a treatment regime that incorporated the administration of small doses of mercury. He explained the so-called “miner’s disease (silicosis)” as due to the inhalation of metal vapors, and not due to the sins of the miner, as had been the prevailing belief. He treated plague patients by giving them pills containing minute amounts of their own excrement He is considered the father of homeopathy, the field of medicine in which small doses of what would cause a disease are used to treat it. In broad terms, Paracelsus believed that natural magic existed in all things, and that the power imparted to the plant or animal came directly from God.
Jacob Boehme (1575-1624) was an autodidact German cobbler with no formal education. In 1600, he had a religious vision that inspired a series of philosophical treatises on the nature of God. He had a profound effect on both contemporary Protestantism (his Behmenist followers merged with the Quakers) and on German Romanticism through the writings of Hegel and von Schelling. Influenced by the works of Paracelsus, he believed that God must have revealed himself in the things that he created on earth since this was the only way that he could have any knowledge of His true being. He published his ideas in De Signatura Rerum, The Signature of All Things, establishing therein that “the greatest understanding lies in the signature, wherein man … may learn to know the essence of all essences; for by the external form of all creatures … the hidden spirit is known; for nature has given to everything its language according to its essence and form.”
In the 17th Century, the doctrine of signatures suggested by Paracelsus and codified by Boehme gripped the imagination of early apothecaries and herbalists, resulting in provocative declarations as to the medicinal efficacy of likely looking plants. William Cole was perhaps the strongest exponent of the doctrine in the books The Art of Simpling (1656) and Adam in Eden (1657). He proposed that a decoction made from the twigs of the thorny hawthorn tree could be used “so that the thorn gives medicine to its own prickling” and that the lily of the valley “cureth apoplexy by Signature; for as that disease is caused by a drooping of humours into the principal ventricles of the brain: so the flowers of this lily hanging on the plants as if they were drops, are of wonderful use herein”. Not surprisingly, he found that walnuts were a perfect signature of the head: “The Kernel hath the very figure of the Brain, and therefore it is very profitable for the Brain, and resists poysons; for if the Kernel be bruised, and moystned with quintessence of Wine, and laid upon a Crown of the Head, it comforts the brain and head mightily.” In modern parlance this might be to go soak your head in a wine vat full of walnuts.
Over time, general rules were established that provided a sort of field guide to the neophyte herbalist. Red and bitter indicated that a plant was good for the blood and the heart, yellow and sweet was good for the spleen and as a treatment for jaundice (jaune is French for yellow – the color of the skin and eyes when bile builds up in the blood) and black and salty was good for the lungs. Since it was believed by some that all things had a signature, the search for that sign eventually went beyond color and obvious external features to extend to the overall taxonomy of the plant. For example, the segmented, ivory colored rhizome (horizontal underground stem) of the cut-leaved toothwort has tooth-like knobs along its length, an obvious signature for a toothache (wort is derived from the Old English wyrt meaning root, its use evolving into a general suffix for any medicinal). The liverwort or hepatica (from the Greek hepar meaning liver) has three-lobed leaves that turn liver-colored in the fall (the flower ranges in color from lavender to blue) and was hence used to treat liver disorders. The maidenhair fern has fine, “maiden-like” hairs on its roots, an obvious sign for a baldness medication, or, as evinced by John Gerard, another 17th Century English herbalist, “… it maketh the haire of the head and the beard to grow that is fallen and pulled off.”
The healing power of natural plants is the purview of the modern herbalist, though the field lacks credence due to a paucity of rigorous scientific testing. However, there is compelling evidence that many plants are viable medicines, as ancient cultures were able to treat disease with apparent efficacy. Ginseng is a case in point. It has been used as an herbal tonic in China for millennia to treat a variety of mental and physical disorders. Human trials have been conducted that demonstrate its effectiveness in promoting antibodies in the blood that destroy invading microorganisms. It should be noted that there is some hyperbole in its healing properties; ginseng has been extolled as the panacean pharmaceutical for everything from deficient sexuality to a lack of vigor. Although the U. S. Food and Drug Administration lists ginseng only as a “generally recognized and safe food (GRAS),” it is regularly consumed by about six million Americans for its alleged curative powers. What is interesting from the Doctrine of Signatures standpoint is that ginseng is derived from the Chinese jen-shen which means image of man. This is because ginseng has a homomorphic root, its wrinkled stubs calling to mind the arms and legs of the human body. So, maybe there is something to the Doctrine after all. Now, all we have to figure out is what a watermelon looks like.