The Doctrine of Signatures – Mnemonic or Message?

There has always been a mystical relationship between man and plants

As part of the living system of the earth we are intimately connected with plants.  Man has been living on this planet for a mere 200 000 years, whilst plants have been here for 475 million years, and vascular plants for 350 million years.  It is not surprising that we rely on them for life itself.  You could say that the nature of plants is hardwired into our systems.

There has always been a mystical relationship between man and plants, developed out of respect and awe for the effects they have on our bodies.  The development of Western herbal medicine has been greatly influenced by ‘The Doctrine of Signatures’.  This is a philosophy which was originally spread by a shoemaker Jakob Böhme of Görlitz in Germany who had a profound vision as a young man.  A deeply religious man, his vision showed him that the relationship between the Divine and man was signalled in all things. He wrote ‘Signatura Rerum’ in 1621, and this was translated into English as ‘The Signature of all Things’.  The message behind this work was that the medicinal uses of a plant can be inferred from close observation of the plant and how it grows.

Modern science has relegated this doctrine to superstition and a mnemonic, but perhaps that is hasty.  The shapes and growth habits of plants reflect the difficulties and opportunities that they have encountered in the course of their development.  Stresses caused by waterlogging, drought, wind, predation, shade or sunlight have all given rise to different plant forms, constituents, healing properties and energetic characteristics.

Eastern systems of healing developed a sophisticated understanding of the role of tastes and potencies in the actions of herbs.  We link the constituents of a plant with its taste and actions, and these constituents arise in individual plants to help them thrive in their own environmental niche.  The appearance of a plant is shaped by its need to survive and the conditions it has to live in.  Perhaps then it is not so far fetched to say that the way plants have overcome their environmental challenges can help us overcome our own internal imbalances.

Traditionally the Doctrine of Signatures is illustrated by the leaves of Pulmonaria officinalis (Lungwort) which are said to resemble diseased lungs, and the knobbly tubers of Ranunculus ficaria (Pilewort) resemble a rather nasty case of piles.  I have to admit that I don’t tend to use Pulmonaria in my practice but I do use Ranunculus ficaria to make a cream and many patients can attest to its remarkable ability to soothe and shrink painfully inflamed haemorrhoids.

I don’t think that The Doctrine of Signatures is something which should be learnt by rote though.  That misses the point.  This system is all about contemplative study.  It is a way of connecting with the herbs that we use and understanding their actions on a deeper level.  The beauty of this is that if we spare the time to listen to the messages from the plants they will reward us with an enhanced ability to work with them for the benefit of our patients.

Take Symphytum officinalis (Comfrey)  for example.  If you have ever harvested the roots you will have noticed their uncanny resemblance to bones and joints.  Comfrey has earned its common name of ‘Knitbone’ with good reason, containing a substance called allantoin which stimulates cell proliferation and supports wound and fracture healing.  It is such a shame that fears over the presence of pyrrolizidine alkaloids have pressured herbalists into agreeing a voluntary ban on its internal use – but that is another story.

Another fascinating body mirroring image is brought to us courtesy of Mormordica charantia (Karela).  This is the bitter gourd used in Indian traditional cooking.  It is very bitter, but when cooked as part of a spicy dish it is delicious.  There is a lot of evidence to show that Mormordica charantia can help to support the pancreas,  treating insulin resistance and Type II Diabetes.  Next time you get a chance to bring a fresh Karela fruit home I recommend that you cut it in half to reveal its beautiful cross section and then compare it to cross sections of the pancreas on line.

It doesn’t have to be all about direct body images though.  The subtleties of the messages from plants are there for us to discover if we take the time to be with them.

Filipendula ulmaria (Meadowsweet) growing on wet ground near the river

Filipendula ulmaria or Meadowsweet is a very effective anti-inflammatory and antacid particularly useful in gastric inflammatory conditions.  It is also a good anti-rheumatic herb reducing the tendency to inflammation and acidity in the joints.   It grows on damp ground.  I find it close to the river where it forms clouds of sweet smelling cream coloured candy floss tops in early summer.

Meadowsweet has a characteristic slightly pungent aroma which comes from the presence of salicylates.   Salix alba (Willow) and Populus tremuloides (Quaking Aspen) also contain salicylates which help to reduce inflammation, fever and pain.  Interestingly all  three of these plants have their roots in damp ground but their aerial parts are not particularly wet and boggy, if anything the leaves are tough and a little dry.  This to me indicates that they have the ability to work with soft, soggy inflamed tissues, drying them and toning them.

Galium aparine (Cleavers) an excellent lymphatic tonic

Galium aparine or Cleavers is an excellent lymphatic tonic which I gather in large quantities each spring.  The long trailing succulent stems do not have a particularly rigid structure of their own, but they use other vegetation as support, winding through hedges reaching great lengths, often over six foot where I gather it.  Pulling it is easy as it has its roots in wet soil, often a ditch, and you have to be impressed at how efficiently water is moved long distances by this plant.  As a medicine Cleavers moves water into the lymphatic system and transports it to the kidneys where it can be removed.  It is an excellent remedy for resolving lymphoedema and for enlivening a sluggish, infection prone lymphatic system.  Cleavers has traditionally been used as a filter and you could say that this mirrors the filtering action of the lymphatic system in the body.

So these examples are a taste of my own musings, each herbalist comes to their own insights and understandings. Gathering herbs is a peaceful activity and one can’t help but be open to the messages that they have for us.  I am not suggesting that we throw away the advances in herbal medicine which have come through scientific investigation, but I do think that the Doctrine of Signatures is worth incorporating into our personal herbal journey.

For more information about Myrobalan Clinic visit 

About myrobalanclinic

I am a registered medical herbalist who uses a unique approach combining Tibetan Medicine with Western Herbal Medicine. I love my job - it is so rewarding seeing people taking control of their health and feeling healthier and more positive. I like to think that I help people get more out of life.
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2 Responses to The Doctrine of Signatures – Mnemonic or Message?

  1. Sharon says:

    This is very interesting. I’ve read about the doctrine of signatures but passed it off as far beyond my present study of herbology. But it’s cropping up again…just last week, I read about a new course, Herb Energetics, it sounds like the same idea. If you’re interested, here’s the link I have…Herb Energetics
    Do you have any books you’d recommend?

  2. Hi Sharon I am glad you found it interesting. I think that the Doctrine of Signatures should be a personal reflection but I find Matthew Wood’s ‘The Book of Herbal Wisdom’ very inspiring and I would heartily recommend it and his other works. I have always been interested in the energetics of herbs, especially since this a fundamental aspect of Tibetan Medicine, and I incorporate energetic principles into my practice. I wish you good luck and freedom from obstacles with your studies!

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