THE DOCTRINE OF SIGNATURES – Dr Jillian Stansbury’s Perspectives


A STUDY IN MORPHOLOGY –The Significance of Shape and Form.
© Jillian E Stansbury ND

“Science sacrifices more and more the possibility of making ‘living’ the phenomena immediately perceptible by our senses, but only lays bare the mathematical, formal nucleus of the process” Heisenburg, 19th century physicist.

The ancient Doctrine of Signatures proposes that one may glean information from a plant just by observing its shape, color, and appearance. An enlightened eye can indeed, observe the forces of nature at work in a plant, just by learning to really see. Cultivation of the ability to observe underlying forces at play in plants, and all matter is the stepping stone to higher levels of clairvoyance and visual perception. In viewing plants, one may perceive the forces in nature that have contributed to form. For what is matter but energy that is organized in such a way as to give us the illusion of being solid? Matter is energy arranged in specific patterns, and as such, matter stores energy. Like all matter, plants store energy, and the quality of this stored energy may be observed in the patterns, shape, color, aroma, number, etc. that we may experience directly with our senses. Learning to “see” the energy that organizes and morphs matter can be accomplished by simply training one’s senses and thereby perception.

The storing of energy has been referred to as “Negentropy”, meaning a force which opposes Entropy – a prime physical law whereby all matter tends to become less ordered and less energy-dense over time. This tendency toward disorder has also been called, the arrow of time. Any concentration or organization of heat, order, or pattern, will over time, reach a state of equilibrium with its surroundings. What this fundamental principle of the universe fails to acknowledge is where the order in which we are saying must degrade into equilibrium, came from in the first place. There is an underlying assumption that there can be a state of order that the arrow of time will move towards disorder. If one of the most basic characteristics of matter throughout the entire known physical universe is a tendency toward entropy, then there must be some force that opposes entropy if subatomic particles are to condense into atoms, and for matter to form at all. If the most fundamental tendency of matter is to reach a steady state, where nothing is more or less ordered or concentrated with respect to the matter surrounding it, then why did atoms form out of the chaos of the Big Bang? And why did those atoms concentrate and organize into molecules, and patterns and life at all? As Steven Hawking once asked, “Why did the Universe go to all the bother of existing?” In Naturopathic medicine, and elsewhere in the healing and philosophical traditions, this negentropic force has been thought of as the Vital Force. Life creates itself through concentrating and organizing energy.

By noting specific patterns – which might include a study of shape and form, color and number, 4 Elements theory, aroma, tactile qualities, qualities of growth, motion, behavior, or any other quality perceptible to our senses, – we can gain the insight of a more wholistic and sensual way of perceiving plants. A sense and body-based approach to understanding plants and the craft of healing, can only enhance our more rational, empirical, biochemical and physiological ways of approaching chemistry, physiology and medicine.

The 4 elements theory, ancient and simplistic though it is, remains a useful tool in developing the ability to think and see in a metaphysical way. Some plants quickly become dense and massive (Oak, Comfrey) while others never become at all woody (Aloe, Cleavers). Some plants display great motion and sensitivity to environmental stimuli (Peas, Pulsatilla, Jewelweed). Some plants have a marked upward motion with little affinity for the earth (Passiflora, Clematis) while others have a great affinity for the earth and have only an ephemeral above ground existence (Dioscorrea). This human construct is a useful beginners’ tool to cultivate the recognition of order, pattern, polarities, and qualities of motion and character that typify life. Memorize the laws of thermodynamics, chemical constituents, and the outcome of placebo-controlled, double-blinded studies if you will, but don’t scoff the notion that the mind has many methods of perceiving information.

The earth element is typified by gross physical matter and the tendency to form mass and solids. Rocks and the mineral realm are associated with nearly pure earth energy. Mineral growth is based on accretion, where the old is added to the new, sometimes referred to as “gnomonic growth”. There is no substantial transformation of molecules, just collection and organization. The earth is the opposite of the air having a downward energy. The earth has solid, dense form, while the air is thin, etheric and nearly formless. Opposition of polar forces tends to generate spinning qualities, and gives rise to spiraling patterns, known as “archimedic growth” typical of living matter.

Plants that possess a strong Earth quality, may be those with more mass under the ground than above the ground. Earthy plants that do have a large above ground mass, such as trees, have an enormous earth quality and are able to lift earth upward into the sky. Trees develop hard, permanent, relatively unchanging trunks and branches, and the green vital leaves emerge as if out of a living rock. Earthy plants tend toward dark, earthy colors, browns, tans, grays, and black. They tend be dense and weighty, and quick to harden. Their form below ground is typically a 3 dimensional dense mass, like a rock or boulder. The above ground portion of Earthy plants will tend to be sturdy, massive, leaves high in minerals, held low to the ground, becoming permanent and horizontal over time.

The air element is typified by the gaseous state, vapors, wind, and breath. The tendency of air is motion, lightness of form and an upward quality. Both fire and air have an upward vertical character to their motion, always striving to reach a little higher, such as Hops. Plants that display a great deal of motion, thin non-woody rapid growth are typical of both air and fire, while water and especially earth display less motion.

Plants that posses a strong Air quality, are those with relatively little mass below the surface of the soil, compared to the aerial mass above ground. The roots of an “airy” plant may not penetrate very deeply into the earth and remain in the upper reaches of the soil, like runners and rhizomes. Some Airy plants may even display an above ground root system, like ivy, possessing only rootlets that anchor them to the earth. Clematis and Passiflora display airy habits. Airy plants may have little solid 3 dimensional form, but display a fine wispy habit, and be so lacking in earth energies that they require support from other plants or structures, like climbing vines.

Forms that are hollow, displaying internal chambers are also an airy quality, such as the hollow stems of Elder, Angelica and many of the Umbells. Fine feathery leaf structure with little mass and much open space in the umbels Dill and Fennel display air-like qualities. The name “Baby’s Breath” befits the plant that appears the very archetypal signature of Air.

Fire has an upward and outward tendency, and is the opposite of water having in inward and downward tendency. Fire and air together create light colorful forms that are always growing and changing. Fire and earth together have less visual show but might be perceived in the hot spicy fire stored in Horseradish roots, or the intense physiologic activity of some plant poisons. Plants displaying the colors of fire, red, yellow, and orange represent fire energy, as do those that burn the nose and eyes, or have hot, acrid and spicy flavors, such as cayenne and Allium (Garlic) species. The outward edges, the skins, the peels, and the colorful flowers bear fire energy, and are among the highest, most creative, most animal-like aspects of plants. Plants high in fire energy may lack obvious moisture, tending to be almost entirely dead, like Ocotillo, or have leaves and stems with a dry papery quality. Fiery roots do not tend toward the bulky chunky and spherical masses typical of terrestrial and watery roots. Fiery roots have sometimes been called “cosmic” roots as they look as if a lightening bolt was thrust down into the earth. The “tap” roots of Taraxicum and Horseradish are examples of cosmic roots.

Water is of course observed in H2O as well as all liquids and that which flows. Placed between earth and air, water lends life to plants and may act as the matrix in which the other energies are solvent. Water in the form of sap acts like an internal ocean current and allows the mineral realm of the earth to have a more reactive, negentropic quality. Sap also allows the hot and dissipative qualities of the fire and air to be anchored down with moisture and enables internal gasses (the O2/CO2 rhythm) in living systems. Water is a vital and unique molecule able to hold subtle energies. Water crystallizes – a beautiful and rarified form or order – readily at colder temperatures. Even in the liquid state, water acts like a semi-crystal and is believed to store information that organizes biochemical systems. Crystals are well known to share electrons and create a collective energy field. Much research is currently being conducted on the ability of water to hold subtle electromagnetic, quantum, or other vibrational resonant energies.
Plants possessing a strong water quality are those with abundant sap and mucilage or those with massive moist, long lasting roots and underground parts. Watery plants may display large succulent leaves, juicy fruits and vegetables, and exude nectar, latex, “milks”, oils, and resins. Pale green and greenish blue hues, pale, white, and clear colors may denote that the water element is strong in a particular plant. Plants possessing moist bulbs, tubers and other masses may possess strong water qualities. Potatoes, for example, form rock-like, yet very moist tubers in the soil, displaying the massive, horizontal, dense qualities typical of both earth and water energies.

From embryos to infants, from seeds to seedlings, we begin life with a substantial watery quality. Evolutionary theory proposes that life crawled out of the sea, and indeed, embryos gestate in the waters of the womb, and seeds require a moist matrix to germinate. We are most moist in our youth and become drier with age. Pathologies which are too hot and dry, stiff and hardened, would benefit from watery plants.

Of relevance to the 4 Elements concept, is the concomitant idea of 3 principles. While the 4 Elements might be seen as qualities or types of matter, the 3 Principles might be seen as qualities or types of motion related to that matter. Spoken of by the ancient alchemists, Paracelsus, and homeopaths each from their own perspective, the 3 Principles are energies that cause matter to manifest as it does. Paracelsus used the term 3 Principia, and thought that these principle energies behind matter were more real that the matter itself. Paracelsus believed that tangible matter was just a shadow, hinting at the force behind it. If the elements represent a condition of matter, not the literal elements on the periodic table, the 3 principles are forces that direct the elements to take or hold their particular condition.

The salt principle is tendency to densify and form matter – negentropy basically. Paracelsus defined salt as “That which is solid” and related it to the physical body. The ash that remains when something is burned is a salt-type of substance. Salt, ash, and minerals were believed to be the foundation of the material body, and to control the movement of fluid around a body. This is the chief characteristic of the mineral realm – forming molecular bonds and becoming dense. Plants and animals manifest the salt process in numerous ways as well, most notably in hardened dense structures like tree trunks and bones. Those elements that readily accrete, crystallize, and form solids display the salt process. In a plant, the roots and the trunks of trees most represent its salt process, as they are taking up elements, forming bonds, and creating mass and order.

The process of crystallization is greatly supported by water, and hence salt has an affinity with water as well as the earth. Salts are odorless, non-colorful, and not volatile, evidencing less affinity with the Air and Fire elements, than Water or especially Earth. Salts, rocks, and minerals are not highly flammable, evidencing little affinity with fire. Because of its association with water and minerals, the kidneys are an organ involved with “salt” processes. The term “tartarus” refers to the waste products or residues of salt metabolism. Renal calculi, gout, and tophi are salt pathologies where plants that act as renal tonics will help in better organizing and metabolizing earthy materials.

Where salt is the tendency to densify, form material bonds, and organize into matter, Sulphur is the propensity to break molecular bonds, dissipate energy, and sublime matter. Paracelsus referred to Sulfur as “That which burns” and stated that burning of a material releases its sulfur principles. He stated that materials that are highly combustible and burned with a lot of heat and smoke were high in sulfur principles. He claimed the sulfur processes were centered in the abdomen and yielded “resin” upon combustion.
Sulfur represents a force causing matter to move, free up energy and information. Metabolism, where foodstuffs are burned and energy is released and reordered is a sulfuric process. Combustive processes seen in biochemistry represent the sulfur principle. Sulfuric metabolic combustive phenomena are uncommon in inorganic chemical phenomenon of the mineral realm, where the plant and especially animal realm display sulfur processes, more readily. Substances that readily combust, generate heat, and promote motion display a sulfuric quality. Since animals hold their own internal heat, have more complex metabolic systems, and certainly display more motion, animals display more intense sulfur processes, than do plants, and plants more than rocks. The flowers, colors, and aromas of plants most represent their sulfuric qualities as the elements ordered and concentrated by the roots are released in thin ethereal color, volatile oils, and sensual expressions.
Metabolism and combustion can be tightly controlled to allow for willful action by an animal. Even plants seem to “will” the transformation of elements from the air and mineral realm into sweet or spicy substances, or colorful and fragrant forms. The flowers of a plant, are a highly intelligent and creative expression of the life force, and most represent its sulfur process. This may be what led Paracelsus to claim that sulfur represented the soul of an organism.

If salt is the process of crystallization and taking form, and sulfur is the process of combustion and the releasing of form, then the mercurial process is the rhythm between the two. What would cause two polar opposites – crystallization and combustion – to exist in the same organism at all? Mercury is a force that binds together polar opposites allowing them to coexist simultaneously: binding together and breaking apart, crystallizing and combusting, forming and moving, oxidation and reduction, inspiration and expiration, in an alternating back and forth rhythm that typifies the mercurial principle. Mercurial processes organize and control dissolution of solids (the sulfuric principle), yet anchor the dispersive energies (the salt principle). As water is a solvent for both dissolving and interacting, mercurial processes have an affinity for water. The cycle between liquefaction and vaporization is a mercurial rhythm seen in the respiratory system, and mercurial processes also have an affinity with the air as well as water. The most obvious rhythms seen in animals are the breath and the heartbeat, both involved with the transport of air. Water and gases are taken in and “crystallized” by salt processes into form (Hemoglobin has a crystalline form), and then combusted, transformed and released by sulfur processes, and a polar rhythm between inspiration and expiration, liquefaction and vaporization is evidenced.
The part of a plant most associated with mercurial processes would be the leaf. The leaf emerges and then fades in an alternating rhythm, as well as being the site of respiration. The leaves also create the “middle” between the salt processes in the root, and the sulfur processes of the flowers, colors, fruits, and seeds.
Paracelsus defined Mercury as “That which evaporates, putrefies”, and in alchemy Mercury is said to be the mother of all metals. In this tradition, Mercury represents pure substance, spirit, that which is immaterial, or pre-material, a primordial substance. Mercury was said to be a type of physical matter in which all impurities had been removed – i.e. no earth, air, fire or water. Mercury is more of a motion, a quality, an idea, a pattern, a rhythm.
The phenomena of sensation are indeed all about recognition of rhythm and pattern. The ears recognize the rhythm of sound (pressure) waves, the eyes recognize the frequency of the photons, the nose and tongue interpret vibrations from the atomic patterns of particular molecules and so on. A patterned arrangement of pressure waves provides the sensation of sound, music, and harmony. Recognition of patterns within the maelstrom of photons impacting our retina provides the sensation of vision, color, and beauty. Our sense of beauty, harmony and other sensations capable of evoking emotional responses, relate to our ability to interpret pattern. It is understandable then, that in anthroposophy the mercurial principle is referred to as the “rhythmical system” and associates it with sensation, feeling and emotional intelligence.

Through the use of these simple ideas: awareness of form, density, color, taste, aroma, quality of motion and so on as discussed in this brief document, one may perceive energetic qualities in plants. And since these elements also lend human beings physical and behavioral tendencies, reading the signature of both plants and human pathologies can improve a clinician’s prescribing finesse. Using these simple beginning steps, one can continue to the point of seeing Nitrogen, Silica, or Calcium in a plant simply through observing its form. Seeing a emotional pattern, an affinity for a body organ or chakra, and its medicinal applications can all be perceived by a trained eye.

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