Paracelsus (1493-1541) was born in Switzerland,and he was a contemporary to such inspirational Renaissance figures, as Michelangelo, Copernicus, Leonardo da Vinci, and others who questioned entrenched beliefs and searched for a new vision that shaped and introduced a new paradigm in the Arts, science, and religion.

Underlying Paracelsus’ treatise was the premise that nature was itself a living organism which must be considered an expression of “the One Life”, and that man and the universe are the same in their essential nature. Paracelsus introduced in his treatise the Doctrine of Signatures, the concept that the Creator has placed his seal on plants to indicate their medicinal uses. Paracelsus certainly took what I would call a ‘shamanic’ approach to understanding the nature of plants, even though there must have been some form of retroactive attributions to the plant’s medicinal properties, as Paracelsus was always an empiricist;

“The soul does not perceive the external or internal physical construction of herbs and roots, but it intuitively perceives their powers and virtues, and recognizes at once their Signature. This signature is a certain organic or vital activity, giving to each natural object a certain similarity with a certain condition produced by disease, and through which health may be restored in specific diseases of the diseased part.”

In this book of nature, Paracelsus noticed how the qualities of plants so often reflected their appearance – that the seeds of skullcap, for example, resemble small skulls and, it transpires, are effective at curing headache. Similarly, the hollow stalk of garlic resembles the windpipe and it is used for throat and bronchial problems. By the same token, willow grows in damp places and will heal rheumatic conditions.

Because of this, Paracelsus held that the inner nature of plants may be discovered by their outer forms or ‘signatures’. He applied this principle to food as well as medicine, remarking that “it is not in the quantity of food but in its quality that resides the Spirit of Life” – a belief familiar to those who choose to eat organic food and share the common concern over GM substitutes that they lack ‘life force’, or spirit.

According to Paracelsus, then, the appearance of a plant is the gateway to its spirit or consciousness. Shamans recognise the spiritual powers and qualities of plants in many ways: the colors of the flowers, their perfumes, the shape and form of their leaves, where they are growing and in what ways, the moods they evoke, and the wider geographical, cultural, or mythological landscapes they occupy.

The doctrine of signatures treatise is not something known by indigenous shamans, but they understand the principles behind it well enough, that nature has spirit and can communicate with us. However having said that, we must not exclude human ingenuity, discovery by trial and error, post hoc recognition to the effectiveness, and a development of a mnemonic system to recognise the healing properties of plants.

Whichever way you look at it, these principles are not regarded as far-fetched, but so important that they can save lives. I discovered how the doctrine of signatures operates in the Amazon, for example, during my experiences with the Jergon Sacha (Dracontium peruviuanum) plant

My first exposure to this plant came about quite accidentally, when one day walking through the rainforest studying the properties of the plants, the maestro Javier queried why I always walked around with a machete. I jokingly replied “it’s against anacondas! He paused in thought for a moment and beckoned for me to follow him, a few minutes later we came across this tall stemmed plant. He proceeded to cut it down and then whip me around the body paying attention to my legs and the soles of my feet.. He then said “no more problems, you are protected against snakes”. I asked him why this plant was used in this way, and he indicated the pattern on the stem which looks identical to the snakes in the forest. Later as I started to investigate this plant even more, I discovered some interesting correspondences; this is a plant which is widely used as an antidote against snake bite venom in the Amazon.

This is accordance with the ‘doctrine of signatures’ concept. This doctrine is at the heart of homeopathy, folk medicine, and plant shamanism. The underlying principle was that the healing properties of the plant are not only in the outer ‘physical’ form, but also in their inner or spiritual nature. The Doctrine of Signatures holds that this inner nature can be revealed by its outer physical form or signatures. This plant is a clear demonstration of the outer form indicating the inner qualities. It’s use is directly related to it’s physical appearance, the patterns on the tall stem closely resembles the skin patterns of the highly venomous pit viper known as ‘Bushmaster’ which is indigenous to the Amazon.

The large tuber of the plant is a well known and highly effective antidote for the bite of venomous snakes. The tuber is chopped up, and immersed in cold water and then drunk. Also the chopped tuber is placed in a banana leaf and used as a poultice which is wrapped around the bite area. These procedures are repeated every few hours. Of course the pragmatic issue here is that it works, and as it not possible to store anti-venom vaccines in the rainforest without refrigeration, this plant has exceptional life-saving importance.

Taking a look at a plant and fruit that we are all familiar with, the Strawberry, from a Signature perspective it reminds me immediately of the heart by the association of its outer form, namely shape and color. So it was of great interest to review some of the new research on the medicinal properties of the strawberry.

StrawberriesHeart Disease: Many red fruits and berries have now been shown to be valuable for heart health, but strawberry is beginning to emerge as uniquely beneficial to cardiovascular health. Strawberry powder has been shown to improve the lipid profile and oxidative stress markers, and markers of atherosclerosis, in women with metabolic syndrome. Strawberry extract has also been shown to relax the lining of the blood vessels, which may reduce high blood pressure and dis-burden the heart muscle from over-exertion. Even the strawberry leaf extract has been shown to increase coronary artery blood flow in a manner similar to hawthorn extract.

Even today although the Doctrine of Signatures does not play a role in modern medicine and in fact is regarded as superstition, Paracelsus, is still a source of inspiration to all those who work with the healing properties of herbs, and the plants.

One of the great revelations that we can experience in working with the plant spirit or consciousness is that we are not separate from the natural world. The plants can show you that this way of being is an illusion and that we are all connected, we and everything else is a discrete element in the great universal field of consciousness or spirit.

Author's Bio: 

Howard G. Charing: is an accomplished international workshop leader on Shamanism. He has worked some of the most respected and extraordinary shamans & healers in the Andes, the Amazon Rainforest, and the Philippines. He organises specialist retreats to the Amazon Rainforest. He is co-author of the best-selling book, ‘Plant Spirit Shamanism’ (Destiny Books USA) 2006. He co-authored the ‘Ayahuasca Visions of Pablo Amaringo’ (Inner Traditions USA) 2011.