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Flore médicale des signatures (L'Harmattan)

Peony signals through the red color of its flowers that it possesses hemostatic properties, and walnuts, the meat of which can easily evoque a brain, indicate by this particularity their vertue to calm headaches. At least this is stressed by the authors who wrote treatises on the Theory of signatures applied to plants.

The history and content of the Medical Flora based on this Theory of signatures had not been the object of an in-depth study up to now, although it is frequently evoqued in books of botany, biology, medicine, pharmacy, and even philosophy. The Flore médicale des signatures aims to fill this gap.

Such a theory doesn't go back to Antiquity, although the first Greek and Latin authors who wrote books about plants never failed to observe that the color or the morphology of many plants did evoque sometimes parts of the human body or various external manifestations of diseases. They sometimes translated the accuracy of their observations by giving some plants names evoquing such analogies, but they never attempted to find causes.

Paracelsus, a somewhat original and provocative Swiss physician, was the first, in the 16th century, to give the basis of the Theory of signatures and to propose its applications. According to him and his followers, the similarity between the color, the morphology or the biology of many plants with parts of the human body or various external manifestations of diseases should in no case be due to pure chance. They consider that such analogies are particular signs which have to be interpreted as signatures that God, in His great compassion for Mankind, would have applied on precise plants, in order to informe man discretely of the therapeutic vertues they contain. The Theory of signatures had thus originally the aim to act as a precious guide to search for medicinal plants and their properties, to which physicians were asked to refer before prescribing their remedies. It was nevertheless largement opposed since the 17th century and totally abandoned during the Enlightment, being then only evoqued in some litterary texts praising the beauties and secrets of Nature.

In this Flore médicale des signatures, you will find both a history of the elaboration of the theory of signatures in plants and a presentation of its content through the main texts - generally translated here for the first time in French - not only of Paracelsus himself, but also of authors often forgotten, such as D. Sennert, J. P. Rhumelius, H. C. Agrippa, O. Crollius and above all G. B. della Porta, who exposed the theory with a great conviction. The book also encompasses a detailed inventory of the many plants which compose this very particular flora.

Guy Ducourthial is Docteur ès Sciences of the Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle (Paris). Geographer and ethnobotanist, he particularly dedicated his researches to some aspects of the History of Botany, poorly studied up to now. He is the author of a Flore magique et astrologique de l'Antiquité, of La Botanique selon Jean-Jacques Rousseau and of a Petite Flore mythologique.


Guy Ducourthial, 2016. Flore médicale des signatures XVIe - XVIIe siècles. (in French). Paris, L'Harmattan, 672 p. ISBN : 978-2-343-09472-4. price : 52 €.


Michel Chauvet
17 November 2016

The plant of the month: cannonball

Sal, Shorea robusta, is a tree from India, the seeds of which give a fat which is an authorized substitute of cocoa butter. I asked an image to an illustrator, and he gave me what resulted as being Couroupita guianensis, the cannonball, a very showy species indeed. This is astonishing, since the trees share no character. My illustrator simply relied on Google Images. By the way, more than 90% of the illustrations labelled "Shorea robusta" on the Internet represent Couroupita ! As a showy species, it is frequently photographed, in contrary to sal.

How can such a crass mistake occur? Fortunately, we have Wikipedia, which gives both answers and photos. The origin could be a labelling error in a botanical garden of Sri Lanka in 1881. The tree then spread to all South Asia. It was taken up in the Hinduist symbolic under the name nagalingam, the stigmat being perceived as a lingam, and stamens as a sacred snake (a naga). A beautiful individual is to be found in front of the Royal Palace at Phnom Penh, duely labelled ’’Shorea robusta’’. Tourists then pelted it with photos, scrupulously copying the false name.

A friend and telabotanist residing at Pondicherry confirms me that it is now part of the Tamil folklore, and that the tree is the floral emblem of the State of Pondicherry.

It could be suggested that labels be changed locally. But the species has taken such a symbolic and ritual importance in South Asia that it will be difficult to convince that it eventually comes from Guyana, and so, was absent from Asia before Christopher Colombus.

Moral of this story: Internet has no responsibility for that, of course, but this example strikingly shows that the most frequent data are not always the good ones, and that we must always check in reliable sources. It should be stressed that Wikipedia, often criticized for being not reliable, has the great merit of emphasizing the error. In the meanwhile, my illustrator, somewhat piqued, had to redraw his illustration.

Pages have been created only in French for the moment, due to lack of time. You can help us translating!

Curiosa

Why is seringat the French name of Philadelphus coronarius, whereas lilac bears the name Syringa ? My perplexity doubled when I read that this name came from the use of hollow branchlets to make… seringes ! This was the beginning of a long etymological search, that we detail in our Etymological dictionary. But this quest ended up in an enigma.

Renaissance botanists used to group several plants with frangrant flowers under the name Syringa. For instance, Bauhin in his Pinax (1623) distinguishes Syringa cærulea, which is lilac, Syringa vulgaris; Syringa alba, which is seringat (mock orange), Philadelphus coronarius; and Syringa Arabica foliis mali arantii', which is sambac, Jasminum sambac. It seems in fact that the name Syringa was first applied to the mock orange, but Linnaeus decided another way. This answers the first question.

mock orange flowers

As to the second question, you must know that the etymon of medieval Latin syringa is Greek σῦριγξ, -ιγγος - surinx, - ingos, which meant in ancient Greek "flute" or "fistula". In medieval Latin, this "flute" or "pipe" came to designate a "seringe". But in fact, we must not understand our hypodermical or intravenous seringes. Every pipe through wich a liquid was pushed was called a syringa, which applies to seringes for rectum or uretra enema !

The object size fits indeed more, but it seems that this meaning is not the right one. Tabernaemontanus may give us the right explanation in 1625 in his Neuw Vollkommentlich Kreuterbuch : "the branchlets can be used as a whistle (or flute), by removing the marrow". This explanation is highly plausible. What remains is to check it experimentally. If you have a lilac or a mock orange in your garden, cut off a branchlet, scoop out the soft heart, et blow into it to see (or hear) the result. Give us then the answer on the ethnobotany forum of Tela Botanica.

Michel Chauvet

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