Plants with Signs
In the olden time people did not study botany very deeply, being too
busy with other matters, and they had neither books nor pictures about
plants. But they talked of plants more than we perhaps think they did,
and had a good many ideas concerning them, showing that they kept their
eyes open to observe Nature. One of the facts noticed many centuries
ago was that some plants have curious marks on flower, leaf, stem or
root. Indeed, some persons supposed that all plants had signs by which
you could tell their use for physic, food, or whatever else it might be.
Several plants were thought to be like the human body, such as the
mandrake and the ginseng; and these, it was said, must also be good for
man. Again, amongst the orchis tribes, foreign specimens of which are
often so valuable, we find very singular marks and shapes. England has a
man orchis and a lady orchis, but neither of them really suits the name,
for their flowers have rather the appearance of a winged insect.
It is worth noting that not only the common people believed in the signs
or marks to be discovered upon plants, but learned men also supposed
that there was something told by many of these marks at least, if not by
all of them. Certainly the general look of several poisonous kinds tells
us to beware of them, such as the wild bryony, for instance, and the
We have, too, a few instances where it does seem, even if it is only an
accident, that a plant has a value which agrees with a mark or sign.
Several of the old poets praise the eyebright, or euphrasia, which has a
black pupil-like spot on the corolla; therefore, it was thought by our
ancestors to make a good eye-lotion. At the present time, it has been
proved that a medicine made from this plant will strengthen weak eyes.
The flower of an English plant called the self-heal has rather the shape
of a bill-hook; it is of a pretty colour, and was believed to cure
wounds; and it really does act in this way to some extent. Some of our
gardens have specimens of the Solomon's seal, a kind of lily. When the
root is cut across, curious marks show, a little like a seal, and so it
is called after the wisest of kings. People used the root as a remedy
for wounds and hurts. Nowadays, again, looking at a walnut, we might not
see a likeness to the human head; yet in the olden time men did, the
inside having a resemblance to the skull, and the kernel representing
the brain. Hence, walnuts were thought good for complaints of the head.
Similarly, as the cones of a species of pine-tree had the shape of
teeth, it followed that they would ease the toothache.
Shaking being one of the notable effects of that troublesome complaint,
the ague, as a safeguard the quaking grass was dried and kept in the
house; the aspen, too, by its constant trembling, was thought to be
another remedy of value. The broad, showy flowers of the moon-daisy,
suggesting pictures of the full moon, had an imaginary value, for it was
used to cure the complaints which the moon was said to cause. A
horseshoe being held a token of good fortune, a vetch with pods of that
shape was believed to have many curious properties. Bleeding could be
stopped by the herb Robert, a wild geranium of our hedges, its power
being shown by the beautiful red of its young and fading leaves. One of
the strangest ideas people had was about fern-seed; it is very tiny,
almost invisible, and so they believed those who got a particular sort
of it, could make themselves invisible when they wished!