Our ancestors have always treated the botanical world as nature’s medicine cabinet; happily rifling through fruits, roots, petals and leaves as if they were brightly coloured pills. For hundreds if not thousands of years this natural lore was transmitted through a so called ‘Doctrine of Signatures’, which is the idea that you can read a plant’s use just from the way it looks. Basically, plants do what they say on the tin.
Although a belief in natural signatures can be found in many world cultures and was expanded upon by the Ancient Greek physician Galen, it was during the European Middle Ages that the Doctrine really took hold and evolved. This was powered by the belief that a benevolent God would not abandon his sinful children, and had instead provided in nature everything they would need to survive and treat their ailments – if they only knew where to look.
In many ways, the Doctrine of Signatures was the precursor to ‘there’s an app for that’. Eyesight on the blink? Try using a tincture of Eyebright (Euphrasia), whose long white petals were thought to look like eyelashes. Nasty cough? You should use Lungwort (Pulmonaria) with its tear-shaped, mottled leaves resembling a diseased lung. Toothache? Well that would be Lathraea (aka Toothwort), identified by its flowers that grow in denture-like rows.
Unsurprisingly, the idea that God had ‘signed’ particular plants for use in particular ways did not always lead to a swift recovery in the patient; what is perhaps more surprising is the fact that it sometimes did. Looking back at the Doctrine of Signatures from today’s perspective, it seems that it wasn't used to discover cures in nature so much as to transmit the knowledge of effective folk cures throughout generations. Just as fairy tales encode moral lessons that prepare children for the expectations of society, botanical signatures helped to steer people towards tried and tested natural remedies.
We now largely live as a species set apart from nature. Our clothing, architecture, and technology – everything that we surround ourselves with as humans – is designed to pacify and dull the impact nature can have on our bodies. Nature has become something separate from ourselves: at worst, to be used as a resource and exploited, at best, to be protected and patronised. We are surrounded by black boxes that cannot be unpacked, and that we wouldn't know how to fix if they were broken: from our iPhones to our cars and even our own health. The pills, potions and creams that we use on our bodies are made from ingredients that we very rarely have a close connection to, or would know how to recreate if we needed to.
This knowledge does live on in thriving areas such as Chinese Medicine however, which combines traditional lore with modern efficacy. And it's showing signs of filtering back into our mainstream consumption habits too. The luxury conglomerate LVMH recently launched a new beauty line called Cha Ling that aims to harness the anti-oxidising properties of rare Pu’er tea grown in the forests of Xishuangbanna, working with a single family of local producers and expanding the range into skincare, fragrances and toiletries. Numerous other beauty and health brands are popping up today that make a direct link between specific botanicals and particular effects.
The incredible advancements in human knowledge and technology that we’ve seen in the last century has improved the lives of countless millions of people and that must be celebrated, but it’s also important to take stock of what was lost in this march of progress. The ability to read signatures in nature – not from God perhaps, but from our human ancestors – is a skillset worth recovering.
Photo credits: Flickr
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