Plants with Signs

by Unknown

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 nightshades.

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!