The doctrine of signatures, a concept developed by physician and botanist Paracelsus in the 15th century, claims that herbs that resemble various parts of the body can be used by medical herbalists to treat ailments of that part of the body.
Paracelsus was also known as a revolutionary for insisting on using observations of nature, rather than looking to ancient texts, in open defiance of the medical practice of his day.
As his philosophy spread, the church justified his reasoning by stating that the resemblance of plants to parts of the body was the Almighty’s way of helping cure disease.
Whether right or wrong, concepts similar to the doctrine of signatures are found in indigenous medicines around the world.
The simplest way of expressing the idea is by studying a walnut. When opened, it looks like a miniature brain with a left and right hemisphere. We know that walnuts are rich in omega-3 fats and vitamin E which both contribute to brain function.
The aptly named herb, eyebright, has the Latin name Euphrasis officinalis and its flowers look remarkably like the human eye complete with eye lashes. The French name is Casse-lunette and the German name is Augentrost which loosely translates to consolation of the eyes.
Eyebright can be used to promote healthy eyes especially when there is any sign of infection or irritation. The aerial parts (any part of the plant above ground) of this tiny plant are both astringent and anti-inflammatory, and decrease the hypersensitive response of the mucous membranes in the eyes, nose, throat, and ears.
The doctrine of signatures could also be applied to the environment in which the plant or herb grows.
Plants belonging to the Saxifragaceae family – known as saxifrages – are small and whose leaves grow close to the ground, often in a rosette form, and are popular in rock gardens.
The word ‘saxifrage’ originally meant a plant whose roots dig into rock and pries it apart, the perfect signature for a stone-breaking remedy.
Gravel root is still used by medical herbalists today to treat kidney, gall bladder and even salivary stones. Its common names are gravel weed, kidney root and Joe-pye weed after the legendary Cherokee healer Jopi (often referred to as Joe Pye) cured an outbreak of disease – thought to by typhoid fever – in the New England region.
Many stories flourish around gravel root and it was a custom of many native American tribes that a young brave could enhance his chances of success with the woman of his choice if he approached her after having nibbled on the plant.
Gravel root contains the solvent euparin, an oleoresin which research has shown can assist the breaking down and passage of small stones from the kidneys and also help prevent the formation of new stones.
The best way to start your own journey into the herb world is to start walking. And looking. We have many native plants that can be turned into teas, creams, tonics, essential oils and hydrosols if you know what you are looking for.