The Nature of Plants and Plant Medicines


The following is excerpted from The Herbal Lore of Wise Women and Wortcutters: The Healing Power of Medicinal Plants, available from North Atlantic Books.

Let them save this man from Consumption sent-by-the-gods, these plants, fathered by Heaven, mothered by Earth, whose root is the primal cosmic ocean. –Atharva Veda 8:7:2

Plants are basically invisible! This is a startling statement and one that is obvious nonsense to any sensible, rational human being. But the esotericist would point out that the thing we call a plant is only the mineral aspect revealing itself to our external senses. We do not see directly the life forces that make the seed germinate and let the plant grow, mature, and flower. Nor do we see the soul (astrality) or the spirit of the plant. They remain forever removed from the external world and do not incarnate. To really see a plant, one must be clairvoyant. The great poet and scientist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe tried to formulate this in a way acceptable to the contemporary mentality. He called the plant a "sensual-supersensual" being. In his study of plant metamorphosis, he developed the idea that every visible plant is a play of the archetypal plant, the Urpflanze.1

The plant is not a mere thing like an inanimate or manufactured object. The plant is a living process that is in a constant state of becoming, unfolding and originating. In so doing, it makes dynamic use of substances (elements), leaving in the wake of its growth finished forms — stalks, branches, leaves, blossoms — that bear the mark of life energy having passed through. Once this etheric energy has passed through, the formed substance is given back over to the laws of physical matter, begins to disintegrate, and returns to the soil and air. The plant thus tiptoes through the world of physical matter, touching ever so lightly into incarnation. The steps of such plant incarnations are marked by rhythmical, seasonal changes-tied to solar, lunar, and cosmic rhythms-involving the interplay of contraction and expansion, systole and diastole.

The unfolding begins with a seed — a tiny, hard, dry protein body. After the elements of water and warmth from the spring sun and spring rain awaken it, growth starts. But the seed does not just get bigger and bigger. Instead, after the initial swelling, it breaks apart. As its first metamorphosis, it expands its cotyledons into the light and sinks a root into the ground. Polarity — one of the signs of living processes! Then, in harmony with cosmic influences, it grows rhythmically, alternately drawing together to form bud or node and expanding into leaf and stalk. The repetitions are not mechanical or exact. Observe a typical herbaceous plant: the lower leaves are rounder, fuller, and closer to the elemental natures of water and earth. As it grows, the leaves become gradually more serrated and pointed. The ponderable substance seems to melt away as buds form anew in preparation for the next crescendo: the bursting open of the flower petals. Within the corolla, the pistil and stamens represent another contraction to be followed by the expansion of the ovary into the fruit and, finally, the contraction into the ovule. Once the seed is formed, the vitality of the visible plant has spent itself. Like Persephone, it must go into the earth again and, awaiting a new season, draw anew the life (etheric) energy from the earth and cosmos for the next cycle of manifestation. In this process, nowhere is the entire plant completely present at any one single time. Each time we look at a plant, we see only a part of it in actual manifestation.

For Goethe, the archetypal plant organ is basically the leaf, flat and open to the cosmos. It has no inner organs that would serve as anchoring places for an incarnated soul (astrality), as one finds in human beings or animals. The plant is open to the in-streaming cosmic impulses. They — planets, sun, moon, stars — are its organs, bringing about its rhythmic contractions (as in seed, bud, stamen, anther, pistil, ovule) and expansions (as in cotyledons, leaves, sepals, petals, fruit). Upon this archetypal theme, each plant family, and within them each individual species, plays and improvises in amazing variety. The mints, for instance, do not get excited about root or flower but spend themselves on fragrant leaves. The cucumber family, twisting over the ground like so many snakes, splurges on bloated, watery fruits. Others such as the mandrake have a thing for roots! Asters and sunflowers bundle their individual flowers into disks, reaching a new threshold of organization. Perennial plants like to linger, while some weeds and spring flowers are flighty and shy. Thus, the Urpflanze-the mother of all plants-plays out its myriad ideas and lets its imagination become visible in countless forms.

Plants are visible imaginations. Goethe insists that this archetype, real as it is, must be perceived by the faculty of imagination-by an artistic eye, so to speak, not just by clinical analysis. In the plant world — as well as in the world of insects, fish, birds, and mammals — nature says to us, "Hey, man, can you imagine this?" If you can't imagine it, you might perceive it, but you won't "see" it. With this in mind, we see that it is not so odd at all that herbalists and wortcunners are also masters of imagination, at home in fairy tale, folklore, dance, and song.

Human beings also have an archetypal form of their body/soul configuration. One of the differences is that the soul (sensing, feeling, desiring, consciousness, sympathies and antipathies, joy and pain) of human beings is incarnated into their physical/etheric organization, while for the plants it impinges from the outside onto the physical/etheric organism.

Human beings do their playful improvising in the realm of soul and spirit: there they can think, imagine, and dream up the most bizarre and wonderful forms. The plants, on the other hand, can do this within their physical/etheric bodies, creating even monstrous and weirdly shaped flowers, fruits, stems, or roots without any ill effect to themselves. In contrast, when a human being creates bizarre thyroids, gigantic livers, violet skin, strawberry noses, or any other distorting play on the archetypal form of his body, he or she is truly sick. Rudolf Steiner formulated this as, "What is beautiful in the plant is illness in the human being." This, however, becomes a clue in the use of herbal medicine. It is a matter of finding the bizarre (but healthy) plant and bringing it into relation with the bizarre (sick) organ of the suffering human being. And the signatures, so herbalists tell us, are the clue.

Human Illness and Corresponding Plants

Once again, let us look at the intuition of the archaic philosophers: originally creation was One. This unity divided itself into the kingdoms of nature: human beings and animals on one side, plants and minerals on the other side. Human beings and animals are more thoroughly incarnated because they have brought their soul with them into their physical existence. The soul in existence (Latin ex + sistere = "standing outside") is a soul standing outside of the original wholeness and thus is not in eternal bliss but in a state of dukka ("suffering"). Plants have kept their "souls" out of existence — insofar as scientists are correct in asserting that plants have no soul. The soul of vegetation rests in essence (oneness, the void, heaven). Plants have retained in a state of wholeness (health) that which human beings have taken into existence. Thus, plants cannot really become sick or suffer in the way human beings (or animals) do.

Astrality works externally upon the physical plant, but it works internally in the human being. Since plant astrality cradles in the heavens, nonincarnated, its ordering and guiding influence upon the plant bodies is harmonious. It is different for mankind! Here, misguided astrality will eventually result in distortion of the physical/etheric organization. This is behind the biblical wisdom that sickness and death are the result of sin (from Old English sunder = "to separate") or Buddha's teachings that desire (astrality) is the cause of all suffering. Whether the cause of the illness has to be sought in previous lives or in this life; whether it comes from the inside as frustration, unfulfilled wishes, greed, anger, lust, and so on; whether it is projected by sorcerers and black magicians from the outside; whether it comes from parents in the form of family karma — all these considerations can be left aside for the moment. The fact is that the unguided astrality of the human creates the conditions and situations that result in suffering. Accidents, infections of germs, and epidemics are just the agents to carry this out. A healthy soul is not likely to become infected, and a watchful mind can avoid accidents quite well.

The relationship of the plant archetype to the human being has classically been represented by Plato, Hindus, Jews, Australian aboriginals, and others in the image of an inverted tree whose roots are in the heavens. In their initiation rites, the aboriginals plant a tree painted with human blood upside down in the ground. Hanging upside down on the World-Ash, Woden learned the secret of the runes. The trident of Shiva (which has been perverted into the pitchfork of the Christian devil) is the upside-down World Tree with its three roots. The Kabbalah knows of a Tree of Life rooted in heaven. Even the cross upon which Christ, the archetypal human being, was sacrificed can be seen as the tree with three roots extending into the width and breadth of heaven.

What is made visible in this universal symbol is that the human being has inverted his "proper" relationship to the universe. That is why Brahmans advise "uprooting the tree" in order to realign the members to their original position. The cosmic tree (the archetypal plant) is still rooted in the heavens. The animal stands halfway in between, and the human being has gained his "freedom" by turning his relationship with the heavens upside down. In that way, he is only conditionally part of the greater whole of the macrocosm. He has become — is becoming — a microcosm. His life habits and rhythms, his state of being, might derive from the whole, but they have spun off: they have emancipated themselves. He can turn night into day, can freely play with his emotions and imaginations ("He can lie," as Nietzsche aptly says), can become abnormal, can eat the wrong foods, can become sick, and so on. Animals have made that turn toward the microcosm only halfway. Insects and amphibians are still very macrocosmic, closer to plants in some respects. Mammals have internalized much of what is cosmic astrality and, hence, enjoy a greater degree of "freedom" than plants and lower animals; still guided by their instincts, however, they are by no means as liberated as the human being. However, human beings are never so totally independent that they can dispense with the macrocosm altogether. As free as we apparently are, we constantly have to go back to the greater world for nourishment and solace. We have to breathe the air, drink the water, and eat the food nature provides for us. Every day we have to sink deep into the cosmos in unconscious sleep to renew ourselves at the source. We are much like children who run and play only to return to slumber at the bosom of the mother.

The plant world supports us all along generously and selflessly, renewing the oxygen in the air and giving warmth, shelter, staple foods, spices, and stimulants to cheer us. And when our wily, free-ranging spirits lose their equilibrium, leading our emotions and then our body into chaos and disrupting its healthy functioning, plants are there to help as medicines. Human illness has been interpreted as a process of moving from a previous state of equilibrium toward a new equilibrium, as a change in homeostasis that might result in a higher state of health coupled with more consciousness. Observe children before and after the typical childhood diseases. Is it not true that they are more awake, more conscious after having gone through them? For some philosophers, such as Teilhard de Chardin, this is the point of nature's audacious experiment with mankind: to create more consciousness! Homeopathic doctors try to take this into account and see it as their duty to shepherd this process by neither suppressing the symptoms nor letting complications occur.

When warmth, fresh air, water, and wholesome food are no longer of avail in helping the body out of its wretched condition, stronger plants are called for — plants whose strange odors, distorted forms, arrhythmic life cycles, and often poisonous nature match the distortions and bizarre state of the physical/etheric organism of the ailing human being. As the ancient herbalists have been claiming all along, the forces that give external appearance to the plant are the same forces that account for the internal processes of health and illness in the human being. Thus, the astral forces (or planetary influences) that create the kidneys in the body manifest themselves in the horsetail (Equisetum arvense) in the field; the forces that form the heart are akin to those that form the foxglove (Digitalis purpurea); what is active in the intestines has its external counterpart in chamomile flowering by a dusty roadside; those that create the gastric juices also create the bitter wormwood (Artemisia absinthium).2 The herbalist of old looked for just such correspondences between man and plant, anchored in the concept of planetary signature, not the chemically active substance, the "active ingredients" that our laboratories are currently testing for.

Even today, herbalists following the lead of Paracelsus and Samuel Hahnemann do not think that it is so much the active ingredient that links into the metabolism of the body; rather, it is the organism's (often antagonistic) response toward the unusual astrality of specific plants. This astrality arouses the body's own healing power. This accounts for the often dramatic therapeutic effect of plants for which pharmacologists have failed to isolate any so-called active ingredients-for example, in such popular healing herbs as ginseng, valerian root, or lady's mantle.

This is, of course, the crux of the matter that puts the empirically operating scientist in a quandary. How is one to correctly identify and apply such correspondences and signatures? Most herbalists agree that a special gift, a second sight, is needed. Healing is an art more than a science. Some medical doctors and scientists have, however, attempted to give more substantial evidence and testing procedures. Samuel Hahnemann, for example, sought clarity with his "provings," that is, testing the medicaments on his own healthy body, then observing the symptoms that appeared and comparing them with the symptoms of the sick.

Among other attempts to make qualitative aspects (i.e., those normally perceived by the faculties of the intuition and imagination) visible have been a number of picture-creating methods. For example, the quality of the air in a room in the winter can be ascertained by looking at the frost flowers that form on the window, just as the quality of milk and the heat source can be made visible by the tension lines that form on the skin of the milk. It is also known that the way crystals grow and develop can be influenced by impurities in the crystalline solution. Masaru Emoto, for example has photographed ice crystals that formed under varying conditions. In East Asian philosophy, water is considered a pure yin substance; it will be impressed by and take on the energies with which it comes in contact. Spring water and naturally flowing water will produce elegant, harmonious ice crystal patterns; piped city water will have distorted crystals. When in contact with flowers, the crystal shapes will somewhat resemble the geometry of the flower. Even sounds, such as chants and mantras, will influence the crystal structure.3 A few decades earlier, Lilly Kolisko developed a method of qualitative analysis of liquids: she allowed a biological solution to climb up a column of filter paper and then let silver nitrate follow up the same column. The results are wavy patterns and colorful bands that are characteristic of the biological substance tested — and reproducible. Even better known than Kolisko's capillary dynamolysis is Ehrenfried Pfeiffer's sensitive crystallization method. A small measured drop of blood, milk, plant juice, herbal extract, or any other organic fluid to be qualitatively analyzed is dropped onto a plate with copper chloride solution. Each substance crystallizes out into a characteristic pattern that can be compared. Interestingly enough, researchers applying this method have found that crystal patterns derived from herbal extracts show patterns similar to those derived from extracts of the tissues and organs they affect. The method is one of visual comparison, requiring an observant, artistic eye on the part of the researcher, and the results are not readily quantified. Nonetheless, sensitive crystallizations are used effectively in standard hospitals for blood and serum tests (sometimes an illness is detected before external symptoms show themselves). Biodynamic agricultural researchers have been able to show characteristic differences between organically grown vegetables and those fed from the fertilizer bag, as well as to show the difference between raw milk and homogenized, pasteurized milk. In both cases, mere quantitative analysis would indicate little difference as far as chemical formulas or ingredients are concerned.4

There are dozens of similar attempts that could be mentioned in this context, including Kirlian photography and attaching electrodes to leaves to measure "energies," "auras," and "magnetisms." Even if some of these are of dubious scientific merit, at least they show that not everybody feels at home with the materialistic explanations of life offered in the textbooks.

Copyright © 2012 by Wolf-Deiter Storl. Reprinted by permission of publisher.



1. It should be noted that the Urpflanze is not the genealogical or evolutionary precedent of plants, but their underlying archetypal principle.

2. Werner-Christian Simonis, Wege zum Heilpflanzenerkennen (Stuttgart: J. Ch. Mellinger Verlag, 1975), 50.

3. Masaru Emoto, The Message from Water (Tokyo: HADO Kyoikusha, 2000).

4. Ehrenfried Pfeiffer, Sensitive Crystallization Processes: A Demonstration of Formative Forces of the Blood (Spring Valley, NY: Anthroposophic Press, 1936). Lilly Kolisko, Agriculture of Tomorrow (Stroud, England: Kolisko Archive, 1939).

Teaser image by Alex E. Proimos, courtesy of Creative Commons license. 

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

RS Newsletter

Related Posts

Hallucinations 101

Hallucinations can occur for various reasons and in different ways. Drugs, medications and mental illness can all cause delusions. They can be treated by a medical professional once the reason for the illusions is determined. Let’s explore how hallucinations are generated and how to treat them.  What Are Hallucinations? Hallucinations are experiences created by the

Read More »

Does the Universe Have a Purpose?

A common experience for psychonauts is of feeling as though they have discovered some previously hidden meaning and purpose in the universe.  Many who undergo psychedelic experiences come away feeling as if everything happens for a reason, that there is a grand logic underlying existence.  This is an idea that philosophy and religions have explored

Read More »