Breverton's Complete Herbal



Family Amaryllidaceae, Narcissus/Snowdrop


OTHER NAMES: Wild daffodil, Lent lily.

DESCRIPTION: This flower has variably yellow to milky white outer petals and a golden trumpet. The subspecies Tenby daffodil, Narcissus pseudonarcissus subsp. obvallaris, looks like the wild daffodil but is half the size.

PROPERTIES AND USES: Culpeper tells us: “Yellow Daffodils are under the dominion of Mars, and the roots thereof are hot and dry in the third degree. The roots boiled and taken in posset drink [a hot drink of milk curdled in wine or ale] cause vomiting and are used with good success at the appearance of approaching agues, especially the tertian ague, which is frequently caught in the springtime. A plaster made of the roots with parched barley meal dissolves hard swellings and impostumes [pus], being applied thereto; the juice mingled with honey, frankincense wine, and myrrh, and dropped into the ears is good against the corrupt and running matter of the ears, the roots made hollow and boiled in oil help raw ribbed heels; the juice of the root is good for the morphew [a scrurfy eruption] and the discolouring of the skin.” Daffodil bulbs, farmed on Welsh mountains, are now being used to manufacture cheaply the chemical galantamine, which is one of the drugs used in the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease.

HISTORY: In Ancient Greece they were a symbol of death. Romans introduced the daffodil into Britain, using the leaves to cure catarrh and the bulbs to make plasters. The daffodil is the national flower of Wales, always worn on St. David’s Day on March 1. The word daffodil dates from 1592 and is derived from the Latin asphodillus and Greek asphodelus. Narcissus dates from 1548, and comes from the Greek narke, meaning numbness from the verb narkoun, to stupefy. Plutarch (ce 46–120) referred to the narcotic effects produced by the plant, whose bulbs contain a toxic, paralyzing alkaloid.

Lullaby of Broadway

Poultry keepers thought that the daffodil was unlucky, stopping hens from laying or eggs from hatching. A single daffodil brought into the house is also said to bring bad luck. In the 1935 song “Lullaby of Broadway,” there is the refrain “The rumble of the subway trains / The rattle of the taxis / The daffodils that entertain / At Angelo’s and Maxie’s.” In this context daffodil, or daffydil is an effeminate young man, with much the same meaning as pansy (being gay).



Family Asteraceae/Compositae, Aster/Daisy


OTHER NAMES: Day’s eye (because it opens in the sun), measure of love, poet’s darling, llygad y dydd (Welsh for “eye of the day”), lawn daisy, English daisy, common daisy, bachelor’s buttons, bairnwort, billy button, boneflower, bruisewort, catposy, cockiloorie, less consound, shepherd’s daisy, children’s daisy, dicky daisy, hen and chickens, herb Margaret, March daisy, Margaret’s herb.

DESCRIPTION: The flower heads of this lowgrowing common plant are up to an inch (2.5 cm) in diameter, with white ray florets (often tipped red) and yellow disc florets. Many people think that the flower has a yellow center with white petals, but this type of flower is known as a composite flower. Each white “petal” is itself an individual flower, and the center contains many tiny yellow flowers also. Differing colors and styles of flower work together, in order to attract different insects.

PROPERTIES AND USES: In Ancient Rome, the surgeons accompanying Roman legions into battle would order their slaves to pick sacks full of daisies. Juice was extracted, bandages were soaked in this juice and would then be used to bind sword and spear cuts. It not only healed but counteracted the debility that followed injuries. Thus it always has had, in common with the oxeye daisy, a reputation as a cure for fresh wounds, used as an ointment or poultice and applied externally. Gerard mentions it as “Bruisewort,” an unfailing remedy in “all kinds of paines and aches,” besides curing fevers, inflammation of the liver and “alle the inwarde parts.” Culpeper tells us: “A decoction made of them and drank, helpeth to cure the wounds made in the hollowness of the chest. The same cureth also all ulcers and pustules in the mouth or tongue, or in the secret parts. The leaves bruised and applied to any parts that are swollen and hot, doth dissolve it, and temper the heat.” In 1771 Dr. Hill said that an infusion of the leaves was “excellent against Hectic Fevers.” The daisy was an ingredient of an ointment much used in the 14th century for wounds, gout and fevers. Dr. Compton-Burnett, a 19th-century homeopath, stated “It is a princely remedy for old labourers, especially gardeners.” The plant was also beneficial for inflammatory disorders of the liver, kidney and bladder, taken internally in the form of a distilled water of the plant. Both flowers and leaves contain oil and ammoniacal salts. Homeopaths value its healing powers to treat muscular soreness not only in the limbs, but for the muscular fibers of the blood-vessels, and the plant was used in baths in the treatment of paralysis. A salad of young daisy leaves is recommended in Germany as a spring medicine to stimulate metabolism.


HISTORY: Dioscorides recommended the daisy for reducing hard swellings. Pliny tells us that it was frequently used, combined with wormwood, to make into ointments for the wounded in war. The daisy in fairy tales had the power of arresting growth and children were given daisy roots and cream to keep them from growing. If you find a place where you can stand on seven daisies at once, summer has come. Making a necklace, “a daisy chain,” is a common children’s pastime. It often represents innocence and is an emblem of Freya, the mother goddess. In the 14th century Geoffrey Chaucer mentions the daisy in the prologue to The Legend of Good Women: “That well by reason men it call may, / The daisie, or else the eye of the day / The emprise [chivalrous enterprise], and flour of floures all.”

She Loves Me, She Loves Me Not


Culpeper also refers to the “greater wild daisy,” which is the much larger ox-eye daisy, Leucanthemum vulgare. The ox-eye daisy has similar properties in treating wounds and catarrh, but was mainly used as an antispasmodic in whooping cough and asthma, and in America the root was used to check the night sweats of consumptive people. Pliny recommended this plant to be combined with mugwort in the treatment of tumors. It is sometimes known as the moonflower or moon daisy, as at dusk it seems to glow in the half-light. It is also known as the dog daisy, marguerite, baby’s pet, miss modesty and twelve disciples. In France, Germany and Holland it is associated with St. John, and in Germany was known as the storm flower (Gewitterblume), and hung around doors to ward off lightning. Girls called Margaret were often nicknamed Daisy because the French for daisy is Marguerite. The French children’s pastime of “effeuiller la marguerite” (plucking the daisy) is common across many countries. The Measure of Love is the ancient name for the daisy because it was common then, as it still is, for lovers to pull a flower to pieces to divine whether their love was reciprocated. In Britain and the United States it is known as “She (He) Loves Me, She (He) Loves Me Not.” The lover plucks off the petals alternately saying “she loves me” and “she loves me not” and the phrase spoken on picking off the last petal represents the truth.



Family Asteraceae/Compositae Daisy/Sunflower


OTHER NAMES: Named after the French dent de lion (lion’s teeth) either because the flowers are yellow, or because the leaves are jagged. Swine’s snout, blowball, cankerwort, lion’s tooth, puffball, white endive, wild endive, dant y llew (Welsh for teeth of lion), clockflower, tell-the-time, priest’s crown.

DESCRIPTION: There are more than 1000 dandelion species across Europe, with over 250 in the UK alone. There is a golden yellow flower, up to 2 inches (5 cm) across, consisting of 150 to 200 ray florets on the top of a hollow, milky stem. There is a very deep, thick, bitter root; the leaves are irregularly jagged, and the seed-head is white, globular and packed with scores of tiny parachutes ready to sail into the air.

PROPERTIES AND USES: Culpeper tells us: “It is under the dominion of Jupiter. It is of an opening and cleansing quality, and therefore very effectual for the obstructions of the liver, gall and spleen, and the diseases that arise from them, as the jaundice, and hypochondriac; it opens the passages of the urine both in young and old; powerfully cleanses impostumes [removes pus] and inward ulcers in the urinary passages, and by its drying and temperate quality doth afterwards heal them; for which purpose the decoction of the roots or leaves in white wine, or the leaves chopped as potherbs, with a few Alexanders, and boiled in their broth, are very effectual. And whoever is drawing towards a consumption, or an evil disposition of the whole body, called cachexia [wasting or weight loss], by the use hereof for some time together, shall find a wonderful help. It helps also to procure rest and sleep to bodies distempered by the heat of ague-fits, or otherwise. The distilled water is effectual to drink in pestilential fevers, and to wash the sores.” The plant’s properties are used for constipation, eczema, acne, liver problems, poor digestion, and is a natural diuretic and detoxifier. In recent studies, it was shown to have a positive effect on weight management, and its phytosterols prevent the body from accumulating cholesterols. Dandelion root makes a reasonable coffee substitute, leaves were cultivated for salads until the 20th century, and some of us remember the classic drink of dandelion and burdock.

HISTORY: Dandelions were first mentioned in China in the Tang Materia Medica of the seventh century. It was recommended to restore health by the Arabian physician, Avicenna, in the 11th century, and in the 13th century dandelions were used by the “Physicians of Myddfai” in Wales to treat jaundice, in a remedy that also contained cornflower (Centaurea cyanus), garden parsley (Petroselinum crispum)and old ale. According to the Doctrine of Signatures, dandelions had been “signed” in yellow to cure diseases with a yellow hue, such as yellow jaundice. The plant is sacred to St. Bridget and the milky white sap that comes from the stems is said to nourish lambs and calves. It is also supposed to rid a person of warts. The slang name indicating that dandelions will make one urinate in bed is common in many languages, e.g. in Spanish “piscialetto,” in France “pissenlit” and Culpeper’s piss-a-beds.

Dandelion Clock


The fluffy dandelion seedhead is like a barometer. In fine weather the ball extends fully, but when rain approaches, it shuts like an umbrella. If the weather is inclined to be showery it keeps shut all the time, only opening when the threat of rain is past. The globe of seeds is also used as a “Dandelion clock” or “Tell Time.” In folklore, the number of breaths it took to blow off all the seeds was the hour number. Alternatively, blow three times on the seed head. The number of seeds left reveals the hour. To determine how long you have left to live, blow once on the seed head. How long you have left to live is determined by the number of seeds that are left on the head. The dandelion is also called the “rustic oracle”—its flowers open about 5 a.m. and shut at 8 p.m., serving the shepherd for a clock. In the daisy tradition of “she loves me, she loves me not,” instead of picking the petals off a daisy, blow the seeds off a dandelion globe. If you can blow all the seeds off with one blow, then you are loved with a passionate intensity. If some seeds remain, then your lover has reservations about the relationship. If a lot of seeds still remain on the globe, you are not loved at all, or only very little. If separated from the object of your love, carefully pluck one of the feathery heads, wish a tender thought, turn toward the place where your loved one lives, and blow. The seedball will convey your message faithfully. If you wish to know if your beloved is thinking of you, blow again. If there is left upon the stalk a single seed, it is a proof you are not forgotten. Similarly, the dandelion oracle can be consulted as to whether a future lover lives east, west, north or south, and whether he/she is coming or not.



Family Solanaceae, Nightshade

OTHER NAMES: Belladonna, banewort, black cherry, devil’s cherries, naughty man’s cherries, devil’s herb, great morel, dwales and dwayberry.

DESCRIPTION: “The flower is bell-shaped; it hath a permanent empalement of one leaf, cut into five parts; it hath five stamina rising from the base of the petal; in the centre is situated an oval germen, which becomes a globular berry, having two cells sitting on the empalement, and filled with kidney-shaped seed. It is of a cold nature; in some it causeth sleep; in others madness, and, shortly after, death. This plant should not be suffered to grow in any places where children have been killed by eating the berries”—Culpeper.

PROPERTIES AND USES: All parts of the plant contain alkaloid poisons, and even small doses can send the taker into a coma. Compounds in the plant are narcotic and sedative, and effects include mental confusion, cramps, delirium, hallucinations and unconsciousness.

HISTORY: The scientific name refers to one of the Greek Fates, Atropos, who held the shears which cut the thread of human life. Poisoning by belladonna has the symptom of a complete loss of voice, along with continuous movements of the fingers and hands and bending of the trunk. It is supposedly the plant which poisoned Mark Antony’s troops during the Parthian Wars. Culpeper relates that Macbeth poisoned an army of Harold Harefoot’s invading Danes, using a liquor infused with deadly nightshade. It was given to the Danes during a truce, so they did not suspect poison. When they fell into a deep sleep, the Scots fell upon them and murdered them easily.

Bright Pupils

In Italian, belladonna means “fair lady,” and the active ingredients atropine and hyoscyamine in its juice dilate the pupils, for which reason they are used in eye examinations. It was especially popular as a female beauty enhancer in 16th century Venice and throughout history, as enlarged pupils are thought to be attractive.




Family Umbelliferae/Apiaceae, Carrot


OTHER NAMES: Dillweed, dilly, aneton, garden dill, llys y gwewyr (herb of anguish, Welsh).

DESCRIPTION: It has small umbels with numerous yellow flowers, grows 2–3 feet (60–90 cm) in height, with graceful, highly aromatic, dark green feathery leaves.

PROPERTIES AND USES: Culpeper writes: “…it strengthens the brain. The dill being boiled and drank, is good to ease swellings and pains; it also stayeth the belly and stomach from casting. The decoction therefore helpeth women that are troubled with the pains and windiness of the mother, if they sit therein…The Seed is…used in Medicines that serve to expel Wind and the pains proceeding therefrom. The Seed being toasted or fried and used in Oils or Plasters, dissolves the Impostumes [pustular sores] in the Fundament [posterior], and dries up all moist Ulcers (especially in the secret parts.) The Oil made of Dill is effectual to warm, to resolve Humours and Impostumes, to ease pains and to procure rest. The Decoction of Dill be it Herb or Seed (only if you boil the Seed you must bruise it) in white Wine, being drunk is a gallant expeller of Wind and provoker of the Terms[periods].” It is a carminative, easing dyspepsia, flatulence, bloating and unsettled stomachs. Dill water (gripe water) is an effective remedy for colic in babies and is mildly antibacterial. Its leaves (dill weed), flower heads and seeds are used as a seasoning, the fresh, feather-like leaves for eggs, fish, dressings, sauces and salads. Flower heads are used for pickling. Cucumbers pickled in dill vinegar are known as dill pickles in the USA. Scandinavians use it in gravadlax, marinating fresh salmon with salt, sugar, pepper and finely chopped dill leaves. Dill is also used in sauerkraut and coleslaw.

HISTORY: In the Bible, dill was used to pay taxes and the Greeks regarded dill as a sign of wealth. Dill’s strong aroma caused ancient peoples, such as the Scythians, to use it to embalm their dead. Twigs of dill were found in the tomb of Pharaoh Amenhotep. In the Middle Ages, if someone believed they had been bewitched, they would drink a mixture containing dill leaves to seek protection from the curse. Dill was used in monasteries to chase off the Bublteufel (incubus or devil of temptation), and was also used to help suppress fertility.

Sacred Herbs

Dill is one of the “nine sacred herbs” of pagan festivals which was later consecrated to Mary. The flowering herbs found in Mary’s grave are dill, yarrow, mugwort, arnica, calendula, valerian, tansy, lovage and sage.


c.40–90 CE

This Greek physician, surgeon, pharmacologist and botanist was born in Anazarbus (later Caesarea) in Anatolia, Cilicia, Asia Minor. It was part of the Roman empire and is now Turkey. As a surgeon in the Roman army, Dioscorides traveled across the known world of North Africa and Europe, and he deliberately sought out new medicinal plants and minerals to tend to the troops. Between 50 and 70 ce, he wrote a five-volume encyclopedia about herbal medicine and related medicinal substances, De Materia Medica (Regarding Medical Materials in five volumes). The work focused not only upon the preparation and properties of drugs, but upon their testing, and it was the most important pharmacological work in Europe and the Middle East for 1600 years. This precursor to all modern pharmacopeias was circulated in Latin, Greek and Arabic. Some of the most important Greek manuscripts survive in Mount Athos monasteries. The most famous manuscript is the superb “Vienna Dioscorides” produced in Constantinople around 512–13, and now in the Austrian National Library. This oldest and most valuable work in the history of botany and pharmacology was illustrated by a Byzantine artist for presentation to Juliana Anicia, the daughter of the Roman Emperor Anicius Olybrius.

De Materia Medica is the premier historical source of information about the medicines used by the Greeks, Romans, and other cultures of antiquity. The work presents about 600 plants in all, but some of the botanical identifications remain uncertain. The Chinese separately had developed their own materia medica, with one dating from 168 BCE being rediscovered sealed in a tomb. In the Islamic world, other materia medica expanded lists of other useful plants to over 1300 species. In Europe, Avicenna’s The Canon of Medicine (1025) is another early pharmacopeia which lists 800 drugs, plants and minerals. The origins of clinical pharmacology are said to date back to Avicenna’s works, Peter of Spain’s Commentary on Isaac, and John of St. Amand’s Commentary on the Antedotary of Nicholas. In particular, Avicenna introduced clinical trials, randomized controlled trials and efficacy tests. During the Middle Ages and into the modern era, the body of knowledge termed materia medica was slowly transformed by the methods and expanding knowledge of medicinal chemistry into the modern scientific discipline of pharmacology. Around 1600, there was a flowering of scientific thought, and Dioscorides’s message that investigation and experimentation were crucial to pharmacology began to emerge and modern research into medicines began. While Culpeper used his extensive knowledge of Dioscorides’s work, he does not slavishly accept everything, judging each plant by his personal knowledge of it and in the light of later works.



Family Brassicaceae, Mustard/Cabbage

OTHER NAMES: Pepperwort, pepper-weed, garden ginger, poor-man’s pepper, dittany, peppergrass, broadleaved pepperweed, tall whitetop.

DESCRIPTION: A perennial growing around 4 feet (1.2 m) high, with long and broad bluish-green leaves and small white flowers which are held in large terminal heads. It is often found growing in salt marshes. Culpeper always tried to tell people where they could obtain herbs for nothing, e.g. here he writes: “It grows naturally in many places of this Land, as at Clare in Essex, near also unto Exeter in Devonshire, upon Rochester common in Kent; in Lancashire and divers other places; but is usually kept in Gardens.

PROPERTIES AND USES: Culpeper says: “The herb is under the direction of Mars. Pliny and Paulus Aeginetus say that Pepper-Wort is very effectual for the Sciatica, or any other Gout or pain in the Joints, or any other inveterate grief; the Leaves hereof to be bruised and mixed with old Hogs grease and applied to the place; and to continue thereon four hours in Men, and two hours in women, the place being afterwards bathed with Wine and Oil mixed together, and then wrapped with Wool or Skins after they have sweat a little. It also amends the Deformities or discolouring of the Skin, and helps to take away Marks, Scars, and Scabs, or the foul marks of burning with fire or iron. The Juice hereof is in some places used to be given in Ale to drink to women with child, to procure them a speedy delivery in Travail.” Other herbalists also recommend it for gout, joint pains, scars, skin discoloration and child delivery.

HISTORY: Culpeper tells us: “The Root is slender running much under ground, and shooting up again in many places; and both Leaves and Root, are very hot and sharp of taste like Pepper, for which cause it took the name[pepperwort].” All parts of the plant, including the root, are hot and spicy to eat and the young leaves taste of creamy horseradish sauce. Dittander’s flavor is hot and peppery, recalling mustard, watercress and nasturtium, and it was used as a hot condiment before the introduction of horseradish. The German name for dittander, Pfefferkraut, also indicates its use as a flavoring before pepper became widely available.

Leper Hospitals

Often we can learn about the use of a herb from its Latin name. Lepidium latifolium was cultivated for use in treating leprous sores, and can sometimes be found growing near old hospital sites. Lepidium is a genus of plants which includes about 175 species found worldwide, including cress and pepperweed.




Family Labiatae, Mint

OTHER NAMES: Dictanum of Candie, Cretan oregano, Crete dittany, dittany of Candie, hop marjoram, Spanish hops, hop plant, eronda, diktamo.

DESCRIPTION: It grows up to 6 inches (15 cm) tall with a 16 inch (41 cm) spread, and has tiny pink flowers on tubular gray-green bracts which mature to purple. The gray-green leaves are aromatic and covered in white down.

PROPERTIES AND USES: Culpeper described dittany as a treatment for poisoned wounds, to draw out splinters and broken bones, and to drive away “venomous beasts.” Gerard wrote: “It prevaileth much against all wounds, and especially those made with invenomed weapons, arrows…it draweth forth also splinters of wood, bones, or such like.” The herb has been utilized to heal wounds, soothe pain and ease childbirth. The root has been used in a salve to treat sciatica, and as a remedy against gastric or stomach ailments and rheumatism. As a tea its aromatic healing properties can be used as an anticonvulsive and a menstrual tonic. It is said to strengthen the heart muscles and arteries. Adding cinnamon and honey it soothes coughs. The leaves have been used for flavoring salads and vermouth. It has a pleasant aromatic flavor, especially when mixed with parsley, thyme, garlic, salt and pepper. It was often combined with more herbs such as rue and parsley to make a pepper sauce for fish or omelets. Its chartreuse and pink flowers are still used in Crete to make tea.

Healing for Wild Goats

In ancient times dittany of Crete was famous for of expelling weapons embedded in soldiers. Wild goats were reputed to seek out the plant after being struck by arrows; the goats were thought to eat the plant, and the arrows would fall out immediately. Shepherds saw this and would then ingest and later make compresses of the leaves to heal open wounds. The legend may predate the story in Virgil’s Aeneid (c.29–19 BCE), the epic of the Trojan Wars. The hero Aeneas was severely wounded by a deeply embedded arrow that could not be extricated. His mother, the goddess Aphrodite (the Roman Venus), traveled to Mount Ida on the island of Crete and retrieved some dittany of Crete, which was applied to the wound, causing the arrow to drop out and the wound to cure immediately. Aphrodite’s sister, the goddess Artemis, also has connections with dittany of Crete, and her statues in temples were often crowned with a wreath of dittany to honor her. There are rivers, mountains, gorges and bays on Crete all named after an earlier Minoan goddess, Diktynna, who is also associated with the herb.


Highly Prized

Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love, is also linked to dittany of Crete as she used it to treat her wounded son Aeneas during the Trojan Wars. Possibly because of this link with Aphrodite/Venus, dittany of Crete has reputed aphrodisiac qualities, and Cretans called it eronda, which means love. Young men, called “erondades,” were often given the task of harvesting dittany from steep cliffs as a proof of devotion. They worked like rock climbers in teams with ropes and long sticks. The Venetians during their occupation of Crete tried to transport the plant back to Italy but it would not thrive there, so Crete remained the only source of the herb. At one time dittany could command a price as high as gold and high demand threatened its eradication. It is gathered while in bloom, and exported for use in pharmaceuticals, perfumery and to flavor drinks such as absinthe, with the bulk of exports going to Italy as one of the ingredients in vermouth.

HISTORY: The Minoans in Crete used it for curing ailments and beautifying their skin and hair. Hippocrates recommended it for stomach and digestive system diseases, rheumatism, arthritis, and used it to regulate menses and to tone and heal. Dittany is mentioned in Charlemagne’s list of herbs. In Saxon kitchens it was an ingredient of a sauce to be used with fish. In ancient times it was believed that a snake would allow itself to be burned to death, rather than cross the path of dittany of Crete. Juice of dittany was commonly drunk in wine to treat snakebite, and the compressed leaves used as a poultice on wounds and bruises. A dittany compress was also believed to help expel foreign substances from the body. Dittany was believed to induce abortions in early pregnancy, to ease the pain of childbirth, and to reduce the severity of menstrual cramps.

Gift From Zeus

Origanum is a blend of the Greek words for joy and mountains. The word dictamnus is also a blending of two words. The first part refers to Dikti, the mountain where Zeus was born and thamnos means shrub. The rare endemic plant which is known as diktamo grows in the birthplace of Zeus—the Diktaeon Andron cave on Mount Dikti on the Greek island of Crete. Zeus, ruler of the Olympian gods, was born in the cave and in thanks for his upbringing on Crete gave the pink colored and healing aromatic plant to the Greek island.



This idea stems from the theory that God has marked everything that he created with a sign. This “signature” was his indication of the reason why the living thing was created. The doctrine had been followed by apothecaries and herbalists for centuries, and there are allusions to this sort of idea in the writings of the Roman physician Galen (131–200 CE). However, it did not become part of mainstream medical thinking until the writings of Jakob Böhme (Jacob Boehme, 1575–1624). He was a master shoemaker in Görlitz, Germany, who when aged 25 had a mystical vision in which he saw the relationship between God and man. Amongst his voluminous Christian writings was De Signatura Rerum; or The Signature of All Things (1621). The Swiss physician Paracelsus (Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, 1493–1541), an important advocate of the Doctrine of Signatures, stated that “Nature marks each growth…according to its curative benefit.” Greatly influenced by the works of Paracelsus, Böhme believed that God must have revealed himself in the things that he created on Earth, since this was the only way that that man could have any knowledge of his true being. In the book, Böhme asserted “the greatest understanding lies in the signature, wherein man…may learn to know the essence of all essences; for by the external form of all creatures…the hidden spirit is known; for nature has given to everything its language according to its essence and form.” The book stated a spiritual philosophy, but was quickly adopted for its medical applications. Paracelsus is considered by modern scholars to be the father of modern chemistry, and he did much in his lifetime to popularize the Doctrine of Signatures in its medical application. As an example, Paracelsus observed that Christmas rose (Helleborus niger) bloomed in winter, and concluded that it had rejuvenative powers. He introduced the plant into the pharmacopoeia of the time and recommended it for people over 50 years old. It was later found that this plant did have a beneficial effect on arteriosclerosis.

Windy Solution

The ultimate assertion of the usefulness of the Doctrine was probably that proposed by Thomas Hill in 1577. As lentils caused flatulence, he advised that they should be sowed in exposed gardens to reduce wind damage to other plants.

The Doctrine states that, by observation, one can determine from the color of the flowers or roots, the shape of the leaves and roots, the place of growing, or other “signatures,” what the plant’s purpose was in God’s plan. Thus the liverwort, Hepatica acutiloba, has a three-lobed leaf that supposedly bears a resemblance to the liver, and the herbalist would not only name it, but prescribe the plant for liver ailments. The shape, color, smell and markings of plants were thought to indicate their usefulness in medicine. Pulmonaria has heart-shaped leaves spotted with silver, resembling a diseased lung, so was prescribed for consumption, and came to be called lungwort, or lung-plant. The fine hairs of quince were an indicator that it could cure baldness, and red roses cured nosebleeds, as plants with a red signature were used for blood disorders. The petals of the iris were commonly used as a poultice for bruising because of the signature of color, the petals resembling in hue the bruise they were to alleviate. Plants with yellow flowers or roots, such as goldenrod were believed to cure conditions of jaundice by the signature of color.


John Gerard states in his herbal when speaking of St. John’s Wort, “The leaves, flowers and seeds stamped, and put into a glass with oile of olive, and set in the hot sunne for certaine weeks togather and then strained from those herbes, and the like quantity of new put in, and sunned in like manner, doth make an oile of the colour of blood, which is a most precious remedy for deep wounds…” Here, the doctrine demands that the preparation be made before the signature evidences itself, an early type of preventative medicine. Eyebright, a plant whose flower looks like bright blue eyes, was used to treat eye diseases. The use of eyebright for this purpose was still common in the 1800s. The Doctrine was taken up universally by medieval alchemists, apothecaries and herbalists across Europe, but similar beliefs were held by Native Americans, Middle Eastern and Asian cultures. Folk healers in Christian and Muslim countries claimed that God, or Allah, deliberately made plants to resemble the parts of the body they could cure, a concept easy to accept by the common people. Today the idea of “like cures like” is at the heart of modern homeopathy.

Chinese Medicine

The Chinese extend the Doctrine whereby the color and taste of a food is considered to be a reflection of its medicinal importance. It is believed that yellow and sweet foods relate to the spleen; red and bitter foods relate to the heart; green and sour foods relate to the liver; and black and salty foods relate to the lungs. Herbs were also categorized as hot, dry, cold or damp—and this is still an important aspect of herbal healing in different parts of the world.