The Doctrine of Signatures, li, and botanical gnosis

Doctrine of Signatures

Sometimes a banana is just a banana…but sometimes it’s a signature.

If you’re interested in herbology and have done any reading on the theory and practice of herbalism, you will doubtless have run across the concept of the Doctrine of Signatures (I’m going to save myself some keystrokes here by calling it the DoS), which basically says that features of a plant’s appearance or behavior or how it makes us feel correspond to what it acts upon in the body or how it cures. When I was an herbal newbie, I am ashamed to say I pooh-poohed the idea. Even though I have experienced many spiritual and/or paranormal and/or supernatural and/or divine things, and knew the reality of them, I accepted the notion that the DoS was an example of medieval/early modern pseudoscience.

I now realize that I didn’t understand the DoS at all.

This post is not about definiting the DoS, it’s about working with it. Consider it one person’s relationship with the Doctrine and the gifts it offers.


Science is a great way to investigate the materiality of the universe. But I have experienced what I believe to be immaterial aspects of the universe as well. My experiences are subjective (unique and personal to me) but they are also empirical. There’s nothing wrong about a scientific-materialist worldview per se, but it is very limited, and in the 21st-century West it has become “habitus”–a system in which we are so embedded that we generally don’t question it, and many can’t question it. I think that’s an impoverished state of mind.

But I have to admit that this is how I used to view the DoS. I thought, for example, we know that plants evolved colorful flowers for purposes such as attracting pollinators. That has nothing to do with my liver. How do I reconcile my understanding of evolution with the Doctrine of Signatures?

Li 理

FIrst we have to understand that the origins of the DoS lie in a time when analogical reasoning prevailed. There was no scientific materialism. When two things bore some resemblance to one another, the similarity (“analogy”) was perceived as a relationship between the two. Not always a causative relationship, but nevertheless meaningful. Analogical reasoning is more concerned with the connecting principle between similar things than with the individual forms. Archaeologist Nicholas Saunders has shown how in Maya cosmology, obsidian, shells, mirrors, pearls, copper, water, jaguar eyes, and bird feathers were all seen as meaningfully related–the connecting principle was shininess.

Obviously, none of those things can be linked scientifically or in terms of evolution. Some are organic, some are inorganic. Some are natural, some are man-made. But none of that was as important as the shininess that they all shared. So if we apply that to plants, we could say that although the yellow color of bile and the yellow of a flower evolved for completely different reasons, the fact that both are yellow is meaningful.

In medieval times, signatures were explained as having been deliberately created by God for the purpose of communicating a plant’s usefulness to humans. But you can see indications of the DoS going back much further in history, to Dioscordes and Galen, and I suspect its ultimate roots lie deep in prehistory. According to Matthew Wood, there is a similar concept in Native American herbology (The Book of Herbal Wisdom, 1997).


Blood vessels, roots, coral, or canyons? This is li.

Chinese philosophers recognized a connecting principle that unites many things in nature, which they called li (which doesn’t translate exactly but means something like “reason” or “principle”). Here is Alan Watts’ explanation of li (from an essay called Taoism):

“…when you look at a plant it is perfectly obvious that the plant has order. We recognize at once that is not a mess, but it is not symmetrical and it is not geometrical looking. The plant looks like a Chinese drawing, because they appreciated this kind of non-symmetrical order so much that it became an integral aspect of their painting. In the Chinese language this is called li, and the character for li means the markings in jade. It also means the grain in wood and the fiber in muscle. We could say, too, that clouds have li, marble has li, the human body has li. We all recognize it, and the artist copies it whether he is a landscape painter, a portrait painter, an abstract painter, or a non-objective painter. They all are trying to express the essence of li. The interesting thing is, that although we all know what it is, there is no way of defining it. Because tao is the course, we can also call li the watercourse, and the patterns of li are also the patterns of flowing water. We see those patterns of flow memorialized, as it were, as sculpture in the grain in wood, which is the flow of sap, in marble, in bones, in muscles. All these things are patterned according to the basic principles of flow.”

Watts also writes:

Li is the pattern of behaviour which comes about when one is in accord with the Tao…”

The connecting principle that unites all these forms and patterns in nature is the dynamic process of flow, which is a manifestation of the Tao. Flow is the intelligence of nature. But flow, in this concept, isn’t simply a matter of pursuing the path of least resistance–there’s almost a moral dimension to it. Li is not just a pattern or principle. It is the pattern. (Check out this post at the Finding the Li blog which delves into the topic a bit more. You can see some more examples of li patterns on my Pinterest board, Li: Footprints of the Dao.)


If one accepts the possibility that all forms and processes are shaped (li) by the dynamic flow of the universe (tao), then it doesn’t seem so silly that we should learn directly from the plants, what I think of as botanical gnosis. After all, our scientific-materialist habitus has nearly destroyed our ability to reason analogically, and you’re not likely to learn it at your local university. One has to be motivated to seek it out, often in unconventional places. Why shouldn’t we use the li patterns in ourselves as a template for recognizing it everywhere in the universe, and vice versa?

Signatures are a way the plants communicate with us on a spirit-to-spirit level–or so I feel. I can’t explain how the plants’ physical forms relate to their spiritual selves, or why, any more than I can explain why they communicate with us at all. It’s difficult to put into words, but like everything, if you keep asking “Why?” you get to the ultimate questions of how we know anything, of what is reality. Because of this, I don’t deal in truths anymore, just in operating principles. And one of my operating principles is that what we perceive with our physical senses is not all there is to reality, but perhaps more importantly, may not even be real at all. (Whatever “real” means.) Another is that material and spiritual ontologies can exist side by side and each can and perhaps should require a completely different worldview to understand and to accept. I don’t think it’s a matter of accepting things on faith; I think it’s a matter of putting everything to the test including the usefulness of scientific materialism. You have to be willing to blast free of any paradigm, especially ones that tell you that subjective data isn’t acceptable, useful, or probative. The mental agility required to hold contradictory beliefs as true at the same time, and to blast through even your own paradigms is both a skill and an art form. I am a long, long way from perfecting it, but it has certainly made the journey a lot more interesting.


2 thoughts on “The Doctrine of Signatures, li, and botanical gnosis

    • Thanks Lucinda! I’m so glad it resonates–I wasn’t sure if I might come across as a rambling lunatic, but this is truly one of my favorite things about working with plants, so I wanted to share it with the like-minded. 🙂 I adore your blog by the way! I have learned much from it and your photos are lovely.

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