“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.” –Matthew Wood
One of the most intriguing things about herbal healing is its ability to operate beyond the physical. Plants are great for healing the body, and that alone is a wonderful gift from nature. Yet despite what our reductionist science tells us, herbal healing goes much deeper than the actions of phytochemicals upon bodily systems.
There is an element of the unseen in herbal medicine. Call it what you will: plant spirit healing, plant spirit medicine, plant spirit shamanism. I like to call it plant spirit magic, because that’s how it feels to me. Connecting and communicating with plants is definitely healing, but working with plants has other benefits as well. They show up in strange synchronicities to teach lessons; they deliver messages; they offer guidance and perspective. Reading the signs of nature is not only healing--it’s fun. It imbues a sense of magic into my life; it makes me feel like the world is speaking to me, and the sheer act of learning its language is causing me to evolve.
Traditional cultures have long viewed plants as teachers and guides. Shamans and mystics use plants for gathering information. Plants are used in divination; some can induce prophetic dreams; others stimulate visions or help one traverse alternate realms. But learning how to read the signs of nature doesn’t have to be as wild as all of that. It can simply be a matter of learning the medicinal uses for a plant from the plant itself. Some shamans have mastered the art of plant communication and can simply connect with a plant and discover how to use it for medicine. But for those of us who are still working on mastering clear communication with the plant world, nature does provide clues.
The Doctrine of Signatures
These clues are embodied by the doctrine of signatures, the concept that a plant resembles the condition or part of the body that it can heal. For example, flowers from the herb Eyebright look strikingly like human eyes, and the plant is a remedy for eye ailments like conjunctivitis. Horsetail, as its name implies, has the appearance of a thick horse’s tail, and is used to strengthen the hair. Signatures are also found through touch, smell, taste, odor, and even sound.
In the words of Matthew Wood in his book Vitalism (p. 20), “The idea is that the shape, color, appearance, environmental niche, taste, smell, etc., of a plant or medicinal agent will display the tell-tale signs, marks, or configurations indicating how that agent may be used in medicine.”
The doctrine of signatures is said to originate from the Middle Ages, when it was used by folk herbalists and wise women. Yet, it seems that no one really knows precisely when or where this concept originated; it may be that the tradition is quite ancient, and the Middle Ages was simply the time frame when it was first recorded. For example, Swiss physician Paracelsus is sometimes credited with creation of signatures, or signatum. Certainly, he was a proponent of them, writing, “Nature marks each growth… according to its curative benefit” (Doctrine of Signatures, n.d.). Wood (Vitalism, p. 20) provides a quote from Hartman, who paraphrases the concept from Paracelsus:
“The soul does not perceive the external or internal physical construction of herbs and roots, but intuitively perceives their powers and virtues, and recognizes at once their signatum…This signatum is often expressed even in the exterior forms of things, and by observing the form we may learn something in regard to their interior qualities, even without using our interior sight.”
In 1621, German Christian mystic Jacob Boehme published The Signature of All Things, a text which identifies and discusses the law of signatures as a universal, magical law. In this fascinating tome, Boehme (Chapter IX) casts such pearls of wisdom as:
“The whole outward visible world with all its being is a signature, or figure of the inward spiritual world; whatever is internally, and however its operation is, so likewise it has its character externally; like as the spirit of each creature sets forth and manifests the internal form of its birth by its body, so does the Eternal Being also.”
Or, as the Hermetic texts put it, “As without, so within.”
Thus, the doctrine of signatures is an ancient concept with roots in folk herbalism, mysticism, hermeticism, and esoteric teachings on the healing arts. It’s a fascinating and rather mystical approach to plant medicine that stands in stark contrast to modern, conventional medicine. Rather than recognizing spirits, archetypes, or signatures within plants, science reduces them to their component parts based on a strictly materialistic view of reality.
Although modern medicine rejects the doctrine of signatures, scientific research tends to validate it unintentionally. Modern science picks apart herbs and classifies them down to each chemical component present in the plant. As it turns out, Horsetail contains large amounts of silica, which is beneficial to the hair, as well as the skin, nails, and bones. In other words, it does help you grow your hair long and strong, like a beautiful horse’s tail. While scientists may inadvertently come to some of the same conclusions about plant medicine as mystics and folk healers do, their way seems a lot less fun.
The Case for Intuition
“Every time you don’t follow your inner guidance, you feel a loss of energy, loss of power, a sense of spiritual deadness.”
Perhaps modern medicine’s dismissal of the doctrine of signatures stems from a larger societal trend that also discards intuition. Not only does modern, Western society undervalue the primal intuitive force within each of us; it out-and-out rejects all but a tiny sliver of the broad spectrum of spirituality--namely, that which falls under the precepts of organized religion. What’s more, these religions often place little value upon one’s personal experience of the divine. In fact, sometimes they actually prevent people from seeking the divine for themselves, mandating instead that the sacred is only to be reached through a human middle-man. Of course, this is not always the case, and some religious people are also very spiritual, possessing a great deal of devotion and faith. But the Western world itself is not run by devotion and faith, not by a long shot.
Modern, Western society is quite secular indeed, driven first and foremost by what we can perceive while operating within a hectic, chronically-stressed-out, coffee-fueled, goal-driven state that we have come to think of as normal. Instead of cultivating faith in the unseen, we have placed our faith in the bottom line: money. Instead of producing citizens trained to cultivate inner balance, kindness, and humility, we school people to be selfish, egotistical, and materialistic and call it “successful.”
According to the prevailing winds of our culture, the practice of going within is not hip-- unless it’s enacted by a beautiful woman in trendy clothing and then posted on social media. Cultivating intuition is not practical, unless it helps you win the lottery. Psychic ability is not a reality, because if people were truly psychic, wouldn’t they have already won the lottery? Miracles, if they ever really happened at all, must have only transpired in some far-removed, mythological past to which nobody can return.
And yet, we live in a time when many are beginning to question the long, strong hold of patriarchy that has gripped our religious, political, financial, and social systems for so long. Several spiritual teachers have said that the Divine Feminine is on the rise, despite what we may read in the papers. I see this myself; I see people waking up, protecting Mother Earth with their lives, valuing the women in their lives, and valuing the Feminine within themselves, regardless of gender.
I have often wondered what it might look like for society to start valuing the Feminine as much as it values the Masculine. And I don’t mean simply valuing women, though that would be nice, too. I mean the feminine energy that exists in both men and women. The side that values internal processes, dreams, visions, and feelings; the side that listens to an inner guidance system; the side that is receptive to messages from the invisible world.
I picture people showing up to work in the morning and sharing the previous night’s dreams around the coffee maker. I picture doctors saying, “Let’s look at the astrological influences of the next few weeks before we schedule your surgery.” I picture business meetings that include Tarot spreads; I picture politicians asking for guidance in Ayahuasca ceremonies; I picture farmers consulting the phase of the moon before planting and giving gratitude to the Earth before harvesting.
I believe that cultivating intuition is a valuable practice that benefits society as a whole. By reconnecting with the still, small voice within, we become more aligned with our highest potential. In a world so desperately in need of healing, our highest potential is what we must develop to create a better reality for all.
Reading the Signs of Nature
“Nature is alive and talking to us. This is not a metaphor.” -Terence McKenna
Of course, intuition can be cultivated in a number of ways. Learning to read the signs of nature is only one, but it’s a powerful practice. Perhaps you already do this in one form or another. Many people, for example, interpret animal sightings as portends. If a bobcat crosses our path, we look up its meaning in a book and try to determine what message it might hold for us. Because this is such a popular concept, an entire language of animal totems has been developed by key authors like Ted Andrews and Jamie Sams. We collectively understand Hawk as the messenger and Coyote as the trickster.
Plants can also be read as nature’s portends and message-bearers, although there isn’t as much literature out there regarding their meanings. This is part of why I wrote The Herbal Healing Deck--not as a definitive encyclopedia of plant meanings, but as a way of developing the conversation about plant totems. As with animal totems, plants can have different meanings for different people at different times. Thus, I don’t expect people to view my book as a static, authoritative reference; rather, my hope is that working with the deck helps people tune in with plant spirits and signatures in order to develop their own intuitive senses about plant archetypes.
The messages offered by herbs are plentiful and can be expressed and understood in a number of ways. I once got a clear message from Mint plants overtaking my garden: “Be careful of what you start, as each project can take on a life of its own.” Anyone who has dealt with the ceaseless underground runners of this plant knows what I mean. (You can read the full story on Mint Magic here.) What we will focus on below is a very specific brand of messages offered by our green allies: specifically, reading the signs of nature as expressed in medicinal plants to determine what those plants can be used for--also known as the doctrine of signatures.
To my mind, the doctrine of signature is like an intricate system of winks and nods from Mother Nature herself. (In fact, the word signature is a mix between the words “sign” and “nature.”) Gaia knows exactly how immersed in 3-D reality we are most of the time. She understands that we might need an occasional nudge in the direction of our intuition. From the beginning, Nature has wanted us to understand how to use her abundant medicines to stay healthy and happy in a dynamic and shifting world. So, she has left a trail of breadcrumbs--a map, a blueprint, a signature within the physical form of each of her medicines to help us mere mortals along our rocky paths through life.
Reading the Signatures
“If we struggle with the uncertainties of imagination and intuition, after some time we may begin to feel that there is indeed a hidden logic with Mother Nature. Images, similars, signs, correspondences, and coincidences infer a different way to look at the world; they give rise to a different kind of knowledge.” -Matthew Wood
Matthew Wood, an American herbalist, author, and teacher is known for his attention to the doctrine of signatures and the archetypes of plants. As he points out, the more specifically you can match the archetype of a healing plant to a patient’s condition, the deeper the healing can be. Wood tends to use much lower doses of herbal medicines than most practitioners. His books were among the first I read while beginning my herbalism journey a decade ago, and for a long while I believed that a few drops of tincture was considered a normal dose. This was before I understood the true genius of Wood’s system: the more precise the remedy, the deeper the healing, and the less physical plant matter you need.
This aligns with the concept in shamanic herbalism that you don’t necessarily need a plant’s physical presence to invoke its healing effects. In the words of seminal plant spirit medicine teacher and author Eliot Cowan:
“There is only one active ingredient in plant medicines--friendship.”
Using intuition as a guide for discovering herbal remedies allows the herbalist to sustain a sense of magic and mysticism in his or her practice. It is both exciting and deeply fulfilling to get to know herbal allies, and it is a blessing and an honor for those who practice this work. While intuition plays a leading role in discerning signatum, many signatures have already been discovered and tested. This gives us a wonderful starting point and a reference for learning about individual plants and their uses.
However, it is also helpful to study the methods of perceiving signatures, in order to develop a vocabulary for this intuitive sense and learn how to discover signatures for ourselves. In The Book of Herbal Wisdom, Wood outlines several types of signatures to look for in herbs:
One has to do with the environment or habitat in which the plant grows. For example, many kidney remedies grow in wet areas. Returning to the example of Horsetail, this plant grows along streams and creeks, and it is also very good for the urinary tract. It has been used to treat kidney stones and urinary tract infections. Nettle is another plant that likes to grow in wet areas, and it has an affinity for the waterways of the body, such as the blood and urinary tract. Meanwhile, plants that thrive in full sunshine often possess sunny qualities. Think of such cheerful, warm remedies like St. John’s Wort, which can ease seasonal affective disorder or wintertime blues, or Calendula, which can soothe dry and irritated skin caused by winter weather.
Also notable is the color of a plant, as different colors of berries, leaves, roots, and flowers can point to their work on different bodily systems. Herbs with a dark red color, like Sumac berries and Beet root, are associated with building the blood. Plants with white flowers, such as Boneset and Comfrey, are associated with healing broken bones. The color of a decoction or tincture made from an herb can also be a signature. For example, the blood-red color of a St. John’s Wort extracts has lead some herbalists to consider it a protective herb for women during their moon cycles, which can otherwise be an emotionally vulnerable time. Colors can also correspond to the chakras; for example, goldenseal’s bright yellow root is a signature for its action on the solar plexus, including the digestive organs.
Wood points out that a plant’s shape or physical form was one of the first associations made in modern records of the doctrine of signatures. If a plant looked like a human organ, it was thought to act on that organ. Walnuts, which look strikingly like a human brain, are in fact very good for brain health. They are high in DHA, an Omega-3 fatty acid which has been shown to improve cognitive function and prevent age-related cognitive decline. Wood writes about using Black Walnut for treating scalp conditions, showing another affinity that this plant has for the head. Boneset has leaves conjoined at the stem, so it looks like the stem pokes through the center of a single leaf. This appearance of fused leaves points to its use as a means of helping to heal broken bones. St. John’s Wort has tiny perforations on the surface of its leaves that glow with light when held up to the sunshine. Likewise, St. John’s Wort can let the light into one’s heart and mind during times of seasonal affective disorder or depression.
An herb’s texture is another signature. Furry plants are sometimes used for organs that are covered with hair-like cilia, such as the lungs and intestines. Mullein is a plant whose broad leaves are covered with soft fur, and indeed, Mullein is a used to heal the lungs. Comfrey leaves have cells that resemble a microscopic view of human skin, complete with hairs, and the plant is one of the best skin healers. Meanwhile, thorny plants are often used as pain relievers, “not by sedating it but by striking at the root cause of it,” according to Ellen Evert Hopman (2016, “Overall Shape and Formations” section, para. 6). For example, Wild Lettuce is a prickly plant that is used to treat physical pain. This can also extend beyond physical pain and into emotional pain. For example, Hawthorn is a thorn-bearing tree that can heal emotional pain of the heart.
Scent is another element to consider within the doctrine of signatures. Think, for instance, of the smell of Eucalyptus, and your nose will recall an intense opening experience. Highly aromatic herbs contain large amounts of essential oils, which exit the body via the breath, helping to open the lungs and nasal passages. Another example is the stimulating and cooling aroma of Peppermint, which exactly mirrors its cooling and stimulating actions on the body.
Even the sound that plants make can be a signature. Wood cites the rattling sound of Black Cohosh seedpods as a signature of the plant’s use among Native Americans for snakebites. Wood calls this a “spirit signature,” the Native American idea that if a plant calls to mind a certain animal, or if it attracts a certain animal, then the plant possesses the medicine of this animal.
Thus, we have come full circle back to animal totems, which really aren’t so different from plant spirit totems. To my mind, one of the biggest differences is that plant totems are more subtle--they don’t jump out in front of your car or scratch at your door. Thus, we must keep our eyes open to the quiet urgings and messages of the plants. Yet, plants can occasionally speak to us in more dramatic terms: a Pine tree falls across your driveway, Mint takes over your garden, or you get a Poison Ivy rash. These may not be signatures, but they can certainly clue you in that a plant is trying to tell you something!
Enjoying the Journey
Using the doctrine of signatures is a way to deepen your practice of herbal medicine. But more than that, it’s a way of communing with nature. Observing a plant and attempting to discern its uses based on signatures a valuable thing to study, even if you never plan to start your own clinical herbalism practice. It’s a way to start reading the signs of nature and allowing your intuitive self to open up to the messages of plants. Plants have many messages for us, if we only pause to listen.
Signatures can go beyond physical uses for plant medicines and into the realm of energetic uses, messages, and lessons. One example I gave above was Hawthorn’s thorns being a signature for its ability to relieve emotional pain. Another example is the yellow color of Daffodil blooms, which can be made into a flower essence for boosting the solar plexus, the yellow chakra. Daffodil helps with solar-plexus-related issues such as self-worth, confidence, and the recognition of one’s gifts and talents.
Don’t be afraid to open your mind and use your imagination when looking for signatures. I encourage people to open up to nature with a sense of childlike wonder and awe. Children often talk to animals and plants before society programs them into believing that such things are silly. It’s time to take back our innocence and start talking with the plants again! Even Matthew Wood admits that some of the signatures he perceives can be silly or even cartoonish at times--but they still work. Imagination is just another level of intuition. So, the next time you’re playing in the garden or hiking through the woods and find yourself drawn to particular plant, ask yourself: What does this plant remind me of?
Of course, it takes patience to work with plants--their signs, signatures, and spirits. In the same way it takes several years for a single American Ginseng root to develop into a mature, medicine-ripe specimen, the plants often share their teachings bit by bit, over the course of months or even years. Synchronicities will often line up to confirm something I’ve learned by intuition, and sometimes this process happens in slow-motion. Just when I think I have understood a plant’s message, it evolves into something new as more information comes to light. It’s a process, a journey that is well worth the effort, even if it never leads to an exact destination. Working with plant signatures is much like a hike through the forest. It’s such an enjoyable experience of exercise and expansion unto itself; does it even matter where you end up?
Boehme, J. (1621). Signatura rerum or The signature of all things. Retrieved from http://sacred-texts.com/eso/sat/index.htm
Doctrine of signatures. (n.d.) Science museum website. Retrieved from http://www.sciencemuseum.org.uk/broughttolife/techniques/doctrine
Hopman, E.E. (2016). The signature of plants: Learning nature’s alphabet. Retrieved from http://realitysandwich.com/319608/the-signatures-of-plants-learning-natures-alphabet/
Wood, M. (1992). Vitalism: The history of herbalism, homeopathy, and flower essences. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.
Wood, M. (1997). The book of herbal wisdom: Using plants as medicines. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.