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," [1] 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," [2] 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[3] 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 [4]

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 [5]--a plant with which may be compared our

mandrake. The Romans of old had their rock-breaking plant called

"saxifraga" or _sassafras_; [6] 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. [7]

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," [8] 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, [9] 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----[10]

"_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 [11] 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, [12] "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. [13] 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 [14] (_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. [15] 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 [16]:--"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. [17] 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. [18] 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, [19] 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. [20]

The yellow bark of the berberry-tree (_Berberis vulgaris_), [21] 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; [22]

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. [23]

Rhubarb, too, we are told, by the doctrine of signatures, was the "life,

soul, heart, and treacle of the liver." Mr. Folkard [24] 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.[25] 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,

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.

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