Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Doctrine of Signatures

For years I used the scientific names of plants, eschewing the common names. This year, however, as I enjoy the spring ephemerals bursting in the woods, I am also enjoying the stories behind their common names, specifically the Doctrine of Signatures. This 16th century medical doctrine is based on the belief that God marked plants with his signature so we would know the purpose of the plant.

Today, I found the first blooms of trout lily, but the older common name is adder's tongue lily. According to the Doctrine of Signatures (DoS), this plant will heal snake bites because it looks like a snake's tongue.

Another spring wildflower is cut-leaf toothwort, whose roots were thought to resemble teeth, so this plant was used to treat tooth trouble. Even the genus name,Dentaria, reflects the DoS.

One of the most beautiful spring flowers is hepatica or liverwort. "God's mark on Hepatica was that its leaves turned liver-colored in winter and by a stretch of the imagination looked like little slabs of chicken livers."

On a sunny early spring day, the white blooms of bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) are charming. The roots produce a red dye, so this plant was thought to cure blood disorders.

The may-apples in my woods are just starting to unfurl their umbrellas leaves. Although not related to the Eurasian mandrake, its roots are similar and was called mandrake in the New World. Mandrake is suppose to promote sexual passion in females due to the shape of its roots.

The lungworts (Pulmonaria) are blooming in my cultivated garden, Their spotted oval leaves looked like spotty diseased lungs to someone, thus the common and scientific name. It was used to treat pulmonary infections.

The maidenhair fern will be emerging soon in the woods of Indiana. Of course, because of its fine fronds, it was used to cure baldness when the Doctrine of Signatures was the source of medical treatment.

There are many other examples of the Doctrine of Signatures, but these are blooming now in case you want to try some superstitious medicine.


Gail said...

This is new to me and quite fascinating~I didn't know adders tongue was another name for trout lily...So glad you shares this with the WW crowd! gail

Rose said...

This was so interesting! I had never heard of the Doctrine of Signatures before and often wondered how plants acquired some of these strange names. Thanks for such an informative WW post!

Anonymous said...

What an interesting and educational post. Thanks! :)