There is one concept that underlies all work in plant spirit shamanism, which is that nature itself will tell you what they are used for and its well-stocked medicine cabinet is right in front of us every day.
Shamans recognise the spiritual powers and qualities of plants in many ways: the colours of their 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.
Although such considerations do not play a role in modern medicine (which does not believe in these spiritual powers at all), it was not long ago that we, too, had an understanding that nature is alive and is talking to us in these ways.
The 16th century alchemist and philosopher, Aureolus Phillippus Theophrastus Bombast better known as Paracelsus – introduced this notion in his Doctrine of Signatures treatise, which proposed that the Creator has placed his seal on plants to indicate their medicinal uses. This was not just idle speculation on the part of Paracelsus; nature itself taught him the truth of it.
Seeking for truth, he wrote, I considered within myself that if there were no teachers of medicine in this world, how would I set to learn the art? Not otherwise than in the great book of nature, written with the finger of God . The light of nature, and no apothecarys lamp directed me on my way.
In his book of nature, Paracelsus noticed how the qualities of plants so often reflect 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 is used for throat and bronchial problems. By the same token, willow grows in damp places and will heal rheumatic conditions, caused by a build-up of fluid on the joints.
In fact, as Thomas Bartram remarks in his Encyclopedia of Herbal Medicine, Examples are numerous. It is a curiosity that many liver remedies have yellow flowers, those for the nerves (blue), for the spleen (orange), for the bones (white). Serpentaria (Rauwolfia) resembles a snake and is an old traditional remedy for snake-bite. Herbalism confirms the Doctrine of Signatures.
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; an idea that was echoed (some would say proved) by Dr James Lovelock, 500 years after Paracelsus, in his Gaia hypothesis on the unity of life. Gaia shows, for example, that the Earth maintains relatively constant conditions in temperature and atmosphere, etc, which defy rational observations and predictive measurements of what ought to happen. It is, rather, as if the Earth is a living organism, which consciously takes care of itself.
Because of this One Life, 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 a common concern over Genetically Modified (GM) substitutes that lack life force, or spirit.
According to Paracelsus, then, the appearance of a plant is the gateway to its spirit or consciousness.
The doctrine of signatures, per se, is not something known to many indigenous shamans, but they understand the principles behind it well enough that nature is alive, aware, and communicates with us. These principles are not regarded as fanciful at all, but practical and important enough that they can save lives.
I discovered how the doctrine of signatures operates in the Amazon, for example, during an experience with the jergon sacha plant reported by one jungle traveller, who came across this plant accidentally, when walking through the rainforest with the shaman Javier Arevalo, studying the properties of the plants.
Javier queried why I always walked around with a machete. I jokingly replied its against anacondas!
He paused for a moment then beckoned me to follow him. A few minutes later we came across this tall-stemmed plant. This was jergon sacha, he said. Javier cut a stem from it and proceeded to whip me around the body, paying most 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, on a hunch, we started to investigate this plant and discovered some amazing correspondences. Jergon sacha is widely used as an antidote to snake venom in the Amazon. Referring back to the concept of signatures, this plant is a clear demonstration of the outer form indicating the inner qualities. Its use is directly related to its physical appearance, the tall stem closely resembling the venomous pit viper known as the Jararaca or Bushmaster, which is indigenous to the Amazon. The Bushmaster, unlike most other snakes, is aggressive and will defend its territory. It can strike in the blink of an eye from 15 feet and is rightly feared and respected.
Remarkably, jergon sacha does turn out to be a highly effective antidote for the bite when its large root tuber is chopped up and immersed in cold water and then drunk, or placed in a banana leaf and used as a poultice wrapped around the wound.
Of course, the pragmatic statement here is that it is not possible to store anti-venom vaccines in the rainforest, where there is no refrigeration, so this plant has exceptional life-saving importance. This importance is recognised because the plant itself tells the shaman of its use through the markings on its stems.
Another illustration of the connection between the form and function of a plant is provided by Artiduro Aro Cardenas, a shaman who works with plant perfumes.
If the smell of a flower has the power to attract insects or birds, it can also attract luck to people, he says.
Artiduro makes fragrances which attract customers into a shop, for example (You just rub the perfume on your face and it brings in the people to your business), as well as perfumes for love, and others for flourishing growth and success. I watch what the plant does and if it is attractive [i.e. has the power to attract], I use it to attract. Plants are the forces of nature, he says. All I do is give these forces direction.
Todays system of homeopathy is also based on the principle of a sentient universe known through its signatures. Hippocrates spoke of a universal law of similia similibus curentur (like cures like), and the modern pioneer of homeopathy, Samuel Hahnemann (1755-1843), showed, through his experiments, that plants contain a healing essence or spiritual quality that has an affinity with human beings and acts on them according to the nature of the illness they are suffering from.
No-one really knows how homeopathy works, but the fact that it does seems clear. In 1836, for example, when cholera destroyed many Austrian cities and orthodox medicine was unable to stop its spread, the government turned in desperation to homeopathy and built a quick and crude hospital in which patients could be treated.
The results spoke for themselves: while orthodox hospitals reported deaths in more than 70% of cases, the homeopathic hospital recorded a death rate of just 30%.
Shamans have a simple explanation for this: the homeopathic doctors appealed to and engaged the spirit of the plants to intervene on behalf of their patients and the spirits answered their call.