CHAPTER 16 – DOCTRINE OF SIGNATURES.
The old medical theory, which supposed that plants by their external character indicated the particular diseases for which Nature had intended them as remedies, was simply a development of the much older notion of a real connection between object and image. Thus, on this principle, it was asserted that the properties of substances were frequently denoted by their colour; hence, white was regarded as refrigerant, and red as hot. In the same way, for disorders of the blood, burnt purple, pomegranate seeds, mulberries, and other red ingredients were dissolved in the patient’s drink; and for liver complaints yellow substances were recommended. But this fanciful and erroneous notion “led to serious errors in practice,”  and was occasionally productive of the most fatal results. Although, indeed, Pliny spoke of the folly of the magicians in using the catanance (Greek: katanhankae, compulsion) for love-potions, on account of its shrinking “in drying into the shape of the claws of a dead kite,”  and so holding the patient fast; yet this primitive idea, after the lapse of centuries, was as fully credited as in the early days when it was originally started. Throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, for instance, it is noticed in most medical works, and in many cases treated with a seriousness characteristic of the backward state of medical science even at a period so comparatively recent. Crollius wrote a work on the subject; and Langham, in his “Garden of Health,” published in the year 1578, accepted the doctrine. Coles, in his “Art of Simpling” (1656), thus describes it:–
“Though sin and Satan have plunged mankind into an ocean of infirmities, yet the mercy of God, which is over all His workes, maketh grasse to growe upon the mountains and herbes for the use of men, and hath not only stamped upon them a distinct forme, but also given them particular signatures, whereby a man may read even in legible characters the use of them.”
John Ray, in his treatise on “The Wisdom of God in Creation,” was among the first to express his disbelief of this idea, and writes:–“As for the signatures of plants, or the notes impressed upon them as notices of their virtues, some lay great stress upon them, accounting them strong arguments to prove that some understanding principle is the highest original of the work of Nature, as indeed they were could it be certainly made to appear that there were such marks designedly set upon them, because all that I find mentioned by authors seem to be rather fancied by men than designed by Nature to signify, or point out, any such virtues, or qualities, as they would make us believe.” His views, however, are somewhat contradictory, inasmuch as he goes on to say that, “the noxious and malignant plants do, many of them, discover something of their nature by the sad and melancholick visage of their leaves, flowers, or fruit. And that I may not leave that head wholly untouched, one observation I shall add relating to the virtues of plants, in which I think there is something of truth–that is, that there are of the wise dispensation of Providence such species of plants produced in every country as are made proper and convenient for the meat and medicine of the men and animals that are bred and inhabit therein.” Indeed, however much many of the botanists of bygone centuries might try to discredit this popular delusion, they do not seem to have been wholly free from its influence themselves. Some estimate, also, of the prominence which the doctrine of signatures obtained may be gathered from the frequent allusions to it in the literature of the period. Thus, to take one illustration, the euphrasia or eye-bright (_Euphrasia officinalis_), which was, and is, supposed to be good for the eye, owing to a black pupil-like spot in its corolla, is noticed by Milton, who, it may be remembered, represents the archangel as clearing the vision of our first parents by its means:–
“Then purged with euphrasy and rue
His visual orbs, for he had much to see.”
Spenser speaks of it in the same strain:–
“Yet euphrasie may not be left unsung,
That gives dim eyes to wander leagues around.”
And Thomson says:–
“If she, whom I implore, Urania, deign
With euphrasy to purge away the mists,
Which, humid, dim the mirror of the mind.”
With reference to its use in modern times, Anne Pratt tells us how, “on going into a small shop in Dover, she saw a quantity of the plant suspended from the ceiling, and was informed that it was gathered and dried as being good for weak eyes;” and in many of our rural districts I learn that the same value is still attached to it by the peasantry.
Again, it is interesting to observe how, under a variety of forms, this piece of superstition has prevailed in different parts of the world. By virtue of a similar association of ideas, for instance, the gin-seng  was said by the Chinese and North American Indians to possess certain virtues which were deduced from the shape of the root, supposed to resemble the human body –a plant with which may be compared our mandrake. The Romans of old had their rock-breaking plant called “saxifraga” or _sassafras_;  and we know in later times how the granulated roots of our white meadow saxifrage (_Saxifraga granulata_), resembling small stones, were supposed to indicate its efficacy in the cure of calculous complaints. Hence one of its names, stonebreak. The stony seeds of the gromwell were, also, used in cases of stone–a plant formerly known as lichwale, or, as in a MS. of the fifteenth century, lythewale, stone-switch. 
In accordance, also, with the same principle it was once generally believed that the seeds of ferns were of an invisible sort, and hence, by a transference of properties, it came to be admitted that the possessor of fern-seed could likewise be invisible–a notion which obtained an extensive currency on the Continent. As special good-luck was said to attend the individual who succeeded in obtaining this mystic seed, it was eagerly sought for–Midsummer Eve being one of the occasions when it could be most easily procured. Thus Grimm, in his “Teutonic Mythology,”  relates how a man in Westphalia was looking on Midsummer night for a foal he had lost, and happened to pass through a meadow just as the fern-seed was ripening, so that it fell into his shoes. In the morning he went home, walked into the sitting-room and sat down, but thought it strange that neither his wife nor any of the family took the least notice of him. “I have not found the foal,” said he. Thereupon everybody in the room started and looked alarmed, for they heard his voice but saw him not. His wife then called him, thinking he must have hid himself, but he only replied, “Why do you call me? Here I am right before you.” At last he became aware that he was invisible, and, remembering how he had walked in the meadow on the preceding evening, it struck him that he might possibly have fern-seed in his shoes. So he took them off, and as he shook them the fern-seed dropped out, and he was no longer invisible. There are numerous stories of this kind; and, according to Dr. Kuhn, one method for obtaining the fern-seed was, at the summer solstice, to shoot at the sun when it had attained its midday height. If this were done, three drops of blood would fall, which were to be gathered up and preserved–this being the fern-seed. In Bohemia,  on old St. John’s Night (July 8), one must lay a communion chalice-cloth under the fern, and collect the seed which will fall before sunrise. Among some of the scattered allusions to this piece of folk-lore in the literature of our own country, may be mentioned one by Shakespeare in “I Henry IV.” (ii. 1):–
“_Gadshill_. We have the receipt of fern-seed, we walk invisible—-
“_Chamberlain_. Nay, by my faith, I think you are more beholding to the night than to fern-seed for your walking invisible.” In Ben Jonson’s “New Inn” (i. 1), it is thus noticed:–
“I had No medicine, sir, to go invisible, No fern-seed in my pocket.”
Brand  was told by an inhabitant of Heston, in Middlesex, that when he was a young man he was often present at the ceremony of catching the fern-seed at midnight, on the eve of St. John Baptist. The attempt was frequently unsuccessful, for the seed was to fall into a plate of its own accord, and that too without shaking the plate. It is unnecessary to add further illustrations on this point, as we have had occasion to speak elsewhere of the sundry other magical properties ascribed to the fern-seed, whereby it has been prominently classed amongst the mystic plants. But, apart from the doctrine of signatures, it would seem that the fern-seed was also supposed to derive its power of making invisible from the cloud, says Mr. Kelly,  “that contained the heavenly fire from which the plant is sprung.” Whilst speaking, too, of the fern-seed’s property of making people invisible, it is of interest to note that in the Icelandic and Pomeranian myths the schamir or “raven-stone” renders its possessor invisible; and according to a North German tradition the luck-flower is enbued with the same wonderful qualities. It is essential, however, that the flower be found by accident, for he who seeks it never finds it. In Sweden hazel-nuts are reputed to have the power of making invisible, and from their reputed magical properties have been, from time immemorial, in great demand for divination. All those plants whose leaves bore a fancied resemblance to the moon were, in days of old, regarded with superstitious reverence. The moon-daisy, the type of a class of plants resembling the pictures of a full moon, were exhibited, says Dr. Prior, “in uterine complaints, and dedicated in pagan times to the goddess of the moon.” The moonwort (_Botrychium lunaria_), often confounded with the common “honesty” (_Lunaria biennis_) of our gardens, so called from the semi-lunar shape of the segments of its frond, was credited with the most curious properties, the old alchemists affirming that it was good among other things for converting quicksilver into pure silver, and unshoeing such horses as trod upon it. A similar virtue was ascribed to the horse-shoe vetch (_Hippocrepis comosa_), so called from the shape of the legumes, hence another of its mystic nicknames was “unshoe the horse.”
But referring to the doctrine of signatures in folk-medicine, a favourite garden flower is Solomon’s seal (_Polygonatum multiflorum_). On cutting the roots transversely, some marks are apparent not unlike the characters of a seal, which to the old herbalists indicated its use as a seal for wounds.  Gerarde, describing it, tells us how, “the root of Solomon’s seal stamped, while it is fresh and greene, and applied, taketh away in one night, or two at the most, any bruise, black or blue spots, gotten by falls, or women’s wilfulness in stumbling upon their hasty husbands’ fists.” For the same reason it was called by the French herbalists “l’herbe de la rupture.” The specific name of the tutsan  (_Hypericum androsoemum_), derived from the two Greek words signifying man and blood, in reference to the dark red juice which exudes from the capsules when bruised, was once applied to external wounds, and hence it was called “balm of the warrior’s wound,” or “all-heal.” Gerarde says, “The leaves laid upon broken skins and scabbed legs heal them, and many other hurts and griefs, whereof it took its name ‘toute-saine’ of healing all things.” The pretty plant, herb-robert (_Geranium robertianum_), was supposed to possess similar virtues, its power to arrest bleeding being indicated by the beautiful red hue assumed by the fading leaves, on account of which property it was styled “a stauncher of blood.” The garden Jerusalem cowslip (_Pulmonaria offinalis_) owes its English name, lungwort, to the spotting of the leaves, which were said to indicate that they would be efficacious in healing diseases of the lungs. Then there is the water-soldier (_Stratiotes aloides_), which from its sword-shaped leaves was reckoned among the appliances for gun-shot wounds. Another familiar plant which has long had a reputation as a vulnerary is the self-heal, or carpenter’s herb (_Prunella vulgaris_), on account of its corolla being shaped like a bill-hook.
Again, presumably on the doctrine of signatures, the connection between roses and blood is very curious. Thus in France, Germany, and Italy it is a popular notion that if one is desirous of having ruddy cheeks, he must bury a drop of his blood under a rose-bush.  As a charm against haemorrhage of every kind, the rose has long been a favourite remedy in Germany, and in Westphalia the following formula is employed: “Abek, Wabek, Fabek; in Christ’s garden stand three red roses–one for the good God, the other for God’s blood, the third for the angel Gabriel: blood, I pray you, cease to flow.” Another version of this charm is the following :–“On the head of our Lord God there bloom three roses: the first is His virtue, the second is His youth, the third is His will. Blood, stand thou in the wound still, so that thou neither sore nor abscess givest.”
Turning to some of the numerous plants which on the doctrine of signatures were formerly used as specifics from a fancied resemblance, in the shape of the root, leaf, or fruit, to any particular part of the human body, we are confronted with a list adapted for most of the ills to which the flesh is heir.  Thus, the walnut was regarded as clearly good for mental cases from its bearing the signature of the whole head; the outward green cortex answering to the pericranium, the harder shell within representing the skull, and the kernel in its figure resembling the cover of the brain. On this account the outside shell was considered good for wounds of the head, whilst the bark of the tree was regarded as a sovereign remedy for the ringworm.  Its leaves, too, when bruised and moistened with vinegar were used for ear-ache. For scrofulous glands, the knotty tubers attached to the kernel-wort (_Scrophularia nodosa_) have been considered efficacious. The pith of the elder, when pressed with the fingers, “doth pit and receive the impress of them thereon, as the legs and feet of dropsical persons do,” Therefore the juice of this tree was reckoned a cure for dropsy. Our Lady’s thistle (_Cardmis Marianus_), from its numerous prickles, was recommended for stitches of the side; and nettle-tea is still a common remedy with many of our peasantry for nettle-rash. The leaves of the wood-sorrel (_Oxalis acetosella_) were believed to preserve the heart from many diseases, from their being “broad at the ends, cut in the middle, and sharp towards the stalk.” Similarly the heart-trefoil, or clover (_Medicago maculata_), was so called, because, says Coles in his “Art of Simpling,” “not only is the leaf triangular like the heart of a man, but also because each leaf contains the perfect image of an heart, and that in its proper colour–a flesh colour. It defendeth the heart against the noisome vapour of the spleen.” Another plant which, on the same principle, was reckoned as a curative for heart-disease, is the heart’s-ease, a term meaning a _cordial_, as in Sir Walter Scott’s “Antiquary” (chap, xi.), “try a dram to be eilding and claise, and a supper and heart’s-ease into the bargain.” The knot-grass (_Polygonum aviculare_), with its reddish-white flowers and trailing pointed stems, was probably so called “from some unrecorded character by the doctrine of signatures,” Suggests Mr. Ellacombe,  that it would stop the growth of children. Thus Shakespeare, in his “Midsummer Night’s Dream” (Act iii. sc. 2), alludes to it as the “hindering knot-grass,” and in Beaumont and Fletcher’s “Coxcomb” (Act ii. sc. 2) it is further mentioned:–
“We want a boy extremely for this function,
Kept under for a year with milk and knot-grass.”
According to Crollius, the woody scales of which the cones of the pine-tree are composed “resemble the fore-teeth;” hence pine-leaves boiled in vinegar were used as a garlic for the relief of toothache. White-coral, from its resemblance to the teeth, was also in requisition, because “it keepeth children to heed their teeth, their gums being rubbed therewith.” For improving the complexion, an ointment made of cowslip-flowers was once recommended, because, as an old writer observes, it “taketh away the spots and wrinkles of the skin, and adds beauty exceedingly.” Mr. Burgess, in his handy little volume on “English Wild Flowers” (1868, 47), referring to the cowslip, says, “the village damsels use it as a cosmetic, and we know it adds to the beauty of the complexion of the town-immured lassie when she searches for and gathers it herself in the early spring morning.” Some of the old herbalists speak of moss gathered from a skull as useful for disorders of the head, and hence it was gathered and preserved.
The rupture-wort (_Herniaria glabra_) was so called from its fancied remedial powers, and the scabious in allusion to the scaly pappus of its seeds, which led to its use in leprous diseases. The well-known fern, spleen-wort (_Asplenium_), had this name applied to it from the lobular form of the leaf, which suggested it as a remedy for diseases of the spleen. Another of its nicknames is miltwaste, because:–
“The finger-ferne, which being given to swine,
It makes their milt to melt away in fine–“
A superstition which seems to have originated in a curious statement made by Vitruvius, that in certain localities in the island of Crete the flocks and herds were found without spleen from their browsing on this plant, whereas in those districts in which it did not grow the reverse was the case. 
The yellow bark of the berberry-tree (_Berberis vulgaris_),  when taken as a decoction in ale, or white wine, is said to be a purgative, and to have proved highly efficacious in the case of jaundice, hence in some parts of the country it is known as the “jaundice-berry.” Turmeric, too, was formerly prescribed–a plant used for making a yellow dye;  and celandine, with its yellow juice, was once equally in repute. Similar remedies we find recommended on the Continent, and in Westphalia an apple mixed with saffron is a popular curative against jaundice.  Rhubarb, too, we are told, by the doctrine of signatures, was the “life, soul, heart, and treacle of the liver.” Mr. Folkard  mentions a curious superstition which exists in the neighbourhood of Orleans, where a seventh son without a daughter intervening is called a Marcon. It is believed that, “the Marcon’s body is marked somewhere with a Fleur-de-Lis, and that if a patient suffering under king’s-evil touch this Fleur-de-Lis, or if the Marcon breathe upon him, the malady will be sure to disappear.”
As shaking is one of the chief characteristics of that tedious and obstinate complaint ague, so there was a prevalent notion that the quaking-grass (_Briza media_), when dried and kept in the house, acted as a most powerful deterrent. For the same reason, the aspen, from its constant trembling, has been held a specific for this disease. The lesser celandine (_Ranunculus ficaria_) is known in many country places as the pilewort, because its peculiar tuberous root was long thought to be efficacious as a remedial agent. And Coles, in his “Art of Simpling,” speaks of the purple marsh-wort (_Comarum palustre_) as “an excellent remedy against the purples.” The common tormentil (_Tormentilla officinalis_), from the red colour of its root, was nicknamed the “blood-root,” and was said to be efficacious in dysentery; while the bullock’s-lungwort derives its name from the resemblance of its leaf to a dewlap, and was on this account held as a remedy for the pneumonia of bullocks. Such is the curious old folk-lore doctrine of signatures, which in olden times was regarded with so much favour, and for a very long time was recognised, without any questioning, as worthy of men’s acceptation. It is one of those popular delusions which scientific research has scattered to the winds, having in its place discovered the true medicinal properties of plants, by the aid of chemical analysis.
- The Folklore of Plants – Index
- Continue to Chapter 17, Plants and the Calendar
1. Pettigrew’s “Medical Superstitions,” 1844, p. 18.
2. Tylor’s “Researches into the Early History of Mankind,” 1865, p. 123; Chapiel’s “La Doctrine des Signatures,” Paris, 1866.
3. “Flowering Plants of Great Britain,” iv. 109; see Dr. Prior’s “Popular Names of British Plants,” 1870-72.
4. Tylor’s “Researches into the Early History of Mankind,” p. 123.
5. See Porter Smith’s “Chinese Materia Medica,” p. 103; Lockhart, “Medical Missionary in China,” 2nd edition, p. 107; “Reports on Trade at the Treaty Ports of China,” 1868, p. 63.
6. Fiske, “Myths and Mythmakers,” 1873, p. 43.
7. Dr. Prior’s “Popular Names of British Plants,” p. 134.
8. See Kelly’s “Indo-European Tradition Folk-lore,” 1863, pp. 193-198; Ralston’s “Russian Folk-Songs,” 1872, p. 98.
9. “Mystic Trees and Flowers,” Mr. D. Conway, _Frasers Magazine_, Nov. 1870, p. 608.
10. The “receipt,” so called, was the formula of magic words to be employed during the process. See Grindon’s “Shakspere Flora,” 1883, p. 242.
11. “Popular Antiquities,” 1849, i. 315.
12. “Indo-European Tradition and Folk-lore,” p. 197.
13. See Dr. Prior’s “Popular Names of British Plants,” p. 130; Phillips’ “Flora Historica,” i. 163.
14. See Sowerby’s “English Botany,” 1864, i., p. 144.
15. See “Folk-lore of British Plants,” _Dublin University Magazine_, September 1873, p. 318.
15. See Thorpe’s “Northern Mythology,” 1852, iii. 168.
17. “Sketches of Imposture, Deception, and Credulity,” 1837, p. 300.
18. See Phillips’ “Pomarium Britannicum,” 1821, p. 351.
19. “Plant-lore of Shakespeare,” 1878, p. 101.
20. See Dr. Prior’s “Popular Names of British Plants,” p. 154.
21. Hogg’s “Vegetable Kingdom,” p. 34.
22. See Friend’s “Flowers and Flower-lore,” ii. 355.
23. “Mystic Trees and Flowers,” _Fraser’s Magazine_, November 1870, p. 591.
24. “Plant Lore Legends and Lyrics,” p. 341.
25. _Ibid_., pp, 150-160.