Herbal Remedies and Plant "Signatures"

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One of the key relationships any herbalist must learn is the association between herbs and their function, which is commonly determined by an herb’s “signature.”

One of the key relationships every herbalist must learn is the visual association between herbs and their medicinal function, which is commonly known as an herb’s “signature.”

Although science has decisively identified the direct relationship between a plant’s chemical constituents and the medicinal function it serves, in prehistoric times, village healers had to rely on physical markers to relate plant to symptom; those characteristics which help an herbalist equate plant and natural purpose. 

Becoming a system of plant identification through the centuries, now virtually universal throughout the world, this same system is still quite useful today when herbs are available in the wild.


The first “signature” is a plant's color--particularly the color of its flowers.

Plants with yellow blooms, for example, are generally used for liver, gallbladder, and urinary disease; their petals and hips used to make teas and tonics to rid the body of toxins and infections.

Similarly, herbs with reddish color flowers are related to blood purifiers; red indicative of astringency. Herbs displaying blooms of this color are used to treat skin disorders caused by blood impurities.  The active ingredients in such flowers are considered antibiotic in function.

Herbs that produce purple or blue colored blooms are most often reliable sedatives and calmatives.  These are generally useful when treating nervous disorders and muscle spasms--whether chronic or temporary--or as a supplement when treating ailments requiring bed rest.


The second “signature” for selecting a plant is the growing conditions or overall location.

Herbs that typically grow in gravely soil, for example, would indicate their usefulness in treating related “stone or gravely” illnesses: kidney stones, gallstones, as well as when there is a need to cleanse the digestive track or bronchial system.

Commonly known as “stone breakers,” herbs in the parsley, peppergrass, shepherd’s purse, sassafras, and mullein family fall into this useful category. (Note that mullein typically grows wild in the gravel along railroad tracks; you would not choose this herb should it be found growing outside its normal environment.)


Herbs typically growing in mucky, swampy, or wetland areas such as willow, verbena, boneset, and elder are plants commonly used for treating excess mucous excretions and congestion such as asthma, colds, (wet) coughs, and rheumatic conditions.


Herbs that grow near fast-moving water are best used as diuretics--as fast water flushes debris from the stream, so too do related herbs flush toxins and harmful waste from the digestive system.


Directly related to a plant’s curative properties is its physical texture, the third identifying “signature.”

Plants that have a soft, malleable texture are usually effective for treating swollen areas or inflammations. Likewise, they can be used for wet colds or chest disorders. Considered emollients, horehound, mullein, and hollyhock fall into this category. Traditionally, no remedy prepared for internal use would be complete without the inclusion of a soft-textured plant.


Any herb that produces thorns or is prickly to the touch is used for disorders involving sharp pains. Thistle, for example, is prepared as an infusion for all internal organs experiencing pain. Hawthorn is usually prescribed for heart pain (as well as other heart-related ailments or to prevent pain). Wild prickly lettuce is commonly used as a pain reliever as well as a sedative. In that prickly lettuce comes with white, yellow, or blue-colored blooms, this herb can also be matched to other specific ailments.

Wild prickly lettuce

Similarly, plants that typically produce hairs on its body suggest sharp or stitching pain.  Hops, nettle, and mullein fall into this category.


Always keep in mind that while herbs have an infinite capacity to provide natural cures for innumerable ailments, it should be recognized that herbology and herbalism are based on hard science. 

While countless individuals throughout time have mastered the relationship between a plant’s medicinal properties and its proper administration, there are many poisonous plants in the botanical kingdom that mimic safe plants.  The greatest of care and prudence must to be applied in using any herb or herbal preparation. 


Culpeper's Complete Herbal, N. Culpeper

A Modern Herbal, M. Grieve

Jude's Herbal, Jude Williams

Images via Wikipedia.org

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Herbs and Plant Signatures, herbs, herbalism, plant signatures, plant growing location, color of plant flowers, thorns, herbology, herbs as curatives, choosing herbs, relate plant to symptom, plants, thorns,

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Posted on Feb 4, 2011