according to giovanni battista della porta’s phytognomonica, plants can heal the human body parts they resemble. see the palmate root of orchid dactylorhiza? known as “dead man’s fingers.” & after orchis (son of a nymph and satyr) was dismembered, his organs became tubers; “orchis” is greek for “testes.”
The Doctrine of Signatures strikes back! Paracelsus (a.k.a. Phillipus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim) would’ve been proud to see a philosophical successor in Giambattista della Porta, whose work here maintains the somewhat common belief of the era that medicinal plants came into being in the shape of the things they were meant to benefit (i.e. the Doctrine of Signatures). Kidney-shaped leaves suggest a plant good for the kidneys, foot-shaped roots a podiatric wonder herb, etc.
This belief predates even Paracelsus, who died a few years after della Porta was born in the 16th century, but it was Paracelsus who popularized and “perfected” this superstitious botanical system. And its influence can still be felt in some corners today. Though that’s not to say you should go out and start digging up orchids, whether or not you have concerns for your virility. I hear oysters are a popular alternative.
For anyone planning to visit us between now and September 8, the NYBG is actually showing a 1588 first edition of this book, the Phytognomonica, in The Renaissance Herbal—our Mertz Library exhibition during Wild Medicine. And how often are you going to have the chance to see 425-year-old illustrations of such…imaginative root systems? —MN
You are what you eat, ancient medicine edition. Insert zucchini joke here.