From Patterns to Details.

While at Linnaea Farm, I heard for the first time the concept of “the doctrine of signatures“, a technique developed by Paracelsus, circa 1500 A.D.,  to determine what function a particular plant may impart by studying its form.

For example, the plant lungwort (Pulmonaria officinalis) is an herbal remedy for, you guessed it, lung health. Its leaf shape resembles a lung and also has spots on the leaves reminiscent of a diseased lung. While the doctrine of signatures, as well as efficacy of herbal remedies, is controversial, it is hard not to feel some sense of truth when exposed to multiple examples. Another illustration of this is with comfrey (Symphytum officinale); upon breaking the stalk, long strands are exposed which are comparable to skin. Comfrey is known to be an exceptional skin healer, so much so that you must be certain you don’t have an infection (e.g. deep wound that hasn’t been cleaned properly) before applying it to your skin, as the skin will heal over the infection, causing disastrous results.

The doctrine of signatures also shows up in the permaculture principle “design from patterns to details“. Stepping back to see the grander plan and its patterns, you can then move inwards to the details. Without this approach, it is easy to miss the forest for the trees. While the doctrine of signatures may be controversial (not every form displays its function), the same is true with farming advice. Each farmer approaches a problem using different solutions, reminding us to listen to our own hearts when making decisions.

Like Adam Shaikh of Linnaea Farm told us, “you have to farm for you”. At the end of the day, if you planted 50 rows of beets because you thought people really want beets and then no one buys them….well, you better really like beets. “Don’t plant something you don’t want to eat,” Adam said, “because chances are you’ll be eating it, especially if it goes wrong” (i.e. gets a pest/disease and no longer looks nice enough to sell).

Adam leading us through the garden, full of things he likes to eat.


Oliver Kellhammer, ecological artist and activist, explained this well when we visited his home on Cortes Island. By planting fig trees below the upper deck of his house, he didn’t have to use a ladder to pick the ripe fruit – he simply had to walk out onto his deck. Designing with yourself in mind (Oliver doesn’t enjoy heights) is not only smart but useful.

Oliver’s home with fig trees surrounding the deck.
Oliver at Hank’s Beach.

Farming has to work for you and your life. Don’t employ methods that sound great but mean you have to be on the farm every hour of every day. You’ll burn out, and worse, you’ll think that you’re not a good farmer. Maybe you’re a great farmer, but you were too busy listening to what others thought was best. By taking your time, observing, interacting with and being curious about your land and how the living world interacts with it, you’ll know how to bring things into balance. It might take weeks, it might take years, but if you have patience and community, anything is possible.  These are the tenets of permaculture.

Like Adam said, “if you want something done fast, do it yourself. If you want something that lasts, do it with a community”.

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