Hardy Climbing Vines Ivies
Berries And Small Fruits
Requisites Of The Home Vegetable Garden
Plants And The Calendar.
The Rose: Its General Care And Culture
Planning The Garden
The Wild Garden A Plea For Our Native Plants
Planting The Lawn
Plants For Special Purposes
The Winter Garden
Iv. Crops That May Follow Others
The Hardy Border
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
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:--
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
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
"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.
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,
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.
Next: PLANTS AND THE CALENDAR.
Previous: FABULOUS PLANTS.