From the very beginning of time humans have sought out recognizable patterns in nature and have tried to decode their hidden meanings. As natural creatures, that is, having evolved from the same elements and in the same environment as the flowers, trees, and stars, we contain the same natural wisdom as every other creature and plant that lives in this world. This natural intelligence has led us to not only follow very basic patterns of living on the earth and following the cycles of day and night but also a deep desire to sync up and understand patterns inherent in other  beings, plants, and animals.

We are not sure when humans first began to see the similarity of patterns found in plants and rightly compared them to the patterns found in their own bodies. We can speculate that many of plant names like lungwort, stoneroot, mandrake, and eyebright were chosen because of the similarity of the look and shape of the plant to its medicinal use.

This intelligent awareness of seeing patterns in plants led our early ancestors to associate plants with body parts they looked like and seeing the shapes and colors or flowers as containing sacred information that would lead us to decoding its special powers and medicinal uses. These signatures were mentioned in the early Green texts written by Dioscorides (40-90 AD) and Galen (129-200 AD) when it was common belief that in the shape and character of natural objects there are symbols that by association can lead to an understanding of their use. Paracelsus, a Greek astronomer, botanist, chemist, and herbalist was thought to be the first person to coin the phrase “Doctrine of Signatures” in 1537 and used the term arcana to describe the spirit by which we can decode these great mysteries.

This model of understanding and studying plants is now resurging after many years of condemnation by the church and scientific communities. The idea that imagination, analogy, and essence is just as much a part of learning and healing process is coming back in a big way as many herbalists are desiring to blend the magical with the mundane. The doctrine of signatures provides a practical method for tapping back into our imaginal and natural intelligence to understand the basic essence and possible uses of plant medicines.

So, how do we DO this? How can we tap back into that primal way of viewing ourselves as natural creatures who are connected and innately designed to decode the natural world?

Here are a few ways to get started:

  • Open Your Senses – Each day go outside and walk around. Walk as if you are not just an observer of the natural world but are a living participant. If a plant moves and catches your eye, walk up to it. Study its movements, the shape of its leaves, the color of the flowers, the way it grows and where it grows. Does it resemble any body organs or make you think of a body system like the circulatory system or a knobby joint? Gently squeeze a leaf between your fingers and notice its smell. Is it grassy, aromatic, does it remind you of something else? Listen to the plant, the sounds of its leaves in the breeze any rattling or moaning. What do these sounds have to say? Notice the plant’s texture, its leaves, flowers and stem. Does it have thorns or does it have a fullness or succulence? What might that mean? Lastly, if you have properly identified the plant, have a taste, what does your body tell you about this taste?
  • Think Like a Plant – When you find a plant that you wish to study give yourself time to think like that plant. Where is it growing? Why is it growing where it is growing? Why might it choose to live there? What adaptations would this plant have to make in order to thrive under its current conditions? How might this translate into a medicinal teaching for humans?
  •  Learn to Listen to your Intuition – For many of us this is the hardest part. We see a plant and we think back to what we have learned from books or teachers or expect the plant to come right out and tell us what it is. Learning the subtle ways of pattern observation and deep listening is a skill that must be developed just like developing our rational mind to do math and to drive a car. I find that sitting with a plant and taking deep breaths while dropping into an almost trance-like state is the easiest way to access our intuitive body. Once we are relaxed and open we can tap into a curious and child-like space where we start to see patterns, magic, and sometimes we can even hear the plants as our awareness of the living essence of the plant opens up before us. Don’t get discouraged. Keep trying.  Try talking to your houseplants while you are watering them, sing to your garden flowers, and sit beside trees and try to feel into who they are.
  • Look it up in a Reputable Source! Once you’ve sat with a plant and have gathered some ideas from your senses about what they may mean, look it up! I like to use the Peterson’s Field Guides and Botany in a Day by T. Elpel for my botanical identification and then look up the signatures in a wonderful book on the doctrine of signatures called The Language of Plants by Julia Graves.

Using this method of learning about the plants will help you not in your recollection of these medicinal uses but will also deepen your connection to the essence of each plant.  As natural creatures living in a natural world why not study herbs in a way that honors both the magical and material parts of our ancestral past.


Main Photo by Ferran Jorda 

Ashley Litecky Elenbaas

As a Registered Herbalist (RH) with the American Herbalists Guild, I’ve been working with clients to achieve their wellness goals for more than 15 years—and I truly love what I do. I co-founded Sky House Yoga in 2011 with my husband Adam Elenbaas. Since opening those sweet doors, I’ve leaned more and more into my calling with the plants. In 2019, Sky House Herb School & Apothecary emerged as a place dedicated to helping people unlock a world of health, medicine, and magic. When I’m not consulting with clients, I teach classes in clinical herbal medicine, medicine making, field botany, western energetics, and custom herbal formulations. I also serve as a board member on the American Herbalists Guild.

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