Learning to Read the Book of Nature


This article first appeared in the April 2010 issue of Lilipoh magazine

The Healing Language of Plants: A Modern Alchemical Path
Encountering the Madia Plant
Observing Madia’s Distinctive Flowering Rhythms
Creating an Interior Image
Madia’s Botanical Family
Habitat and History of Madia
Madia Concentrates Solar Warmth
The Inner Experience of Madia
The Healing Message of Madia Flower Essence




The Healing Language of Plants: A Modern Alchemical Path

When I first encountered the flower essences of Dr. Edward Bach in the mid 1970s, I was amazed at his remarkable powers of perception and intuition, and his ability to identify the subtle healing forces of flowering plants that could bring healing and balance to the human psyche. I wondered, “How was he able to do that?” Aside from quest to understand flower essences, I believed that such a profound soul-spiritual relationship with nature would be vital to healing the destructive alienation of modern civilization from the matrix of its natural environment.

At the time there were only three books in print about Dr. Bach’s work, with only brief hints of his plant observations. A couple of references in Bach’s Heal Thyself1, point to Paracelsus the medieval alchemist-physician. Perhaps Bach had applied Paracelsus’ “Doctrine of Signatures” to his study of the flower essence plants, noting the correspondence of plant forms to their healing properties, although we have no direct evidence of Bach’s plant study methodology.

Nonetheless, the concept of signatures provided a starting point for new flower essence research, and in 1979 I founded the Flower Essence Society2 out of the quest for understanding the healing language of the flowers, and to test that understanding through the clinical experience of an international network of health practitioners. I was soon joined by Patricia Kaminski, who introduced to our work Rudolf Steiner’s spiritual science and the living plant science of Johann von Goethe.  In many ways, Goethe’s concept of the “gesture” of a plant paralleled Paracelsus’ “signature,” describing how a plant expresses its essential nature in physical form and growth patterns, particularly in the polarities of expansion and contraction, and the metamorphosis of form in the plant’s life cycle.3

As we developed our plant observations in creating new flower essences, we recognized a kindred spirit in Julian Barnard, who developed his own living relationship with the flower essence plants of Dr. Bach, describing their healing “gestures.”4

We also recognized that as creators of plant medicines, we have a special moral responsibility for accuracy and precision in describing their qualities. This requires clarity and objectivity in our plant studies, as well as thorough corroboration of our insights by the evidence of clinical experience with the actual flower essence.

Such a responsibility is also an opportunity, for our flower essence plant studies can lead us to a meditative path, one that is grounded in the Western esoteric traditions of alchemical and Rosicrucian studies. It is what Arthur Zajonc5 calls a “yoga of senses,” a meditative practice that, rather than withdrawing from the world, challenges us to imbue our sense perception with awakened consciousness. In this way the dichotomy of science and spirit can be bridged.

To illustrate this method of plant study, we will consider the Madia elegans, a native California wildflower used throughout the world in flower essence therapy for three decades.

Encountering the Madia Plant

The first step to understanding the language of plants is pure observation, direct sense experience of Nature. In this virtual-reality age of instant Google searches, this point cannot be overemphasized. We must follow Paracelsus’ admonition that to study the book of Nature, we must walk her pages with our feet.

In the early spring we first meet the Madia as a rosette of leaves at the ground, growing out of a deep taproot. We also see the dry, desiccated woody stems of last year’s growth, still standing nearby, indicating that this plant is an annual that grows each year from seed.

By mid-summer, having grown vigorously throughout the spring, the Madia plant can obtain a height of up to four feet (1.2 m), spreading out widely with its multiple branching gray-green stems and narrow linear leaves. As the summer sun warms the day, a penetrating pungent fragrance emanates from the plant. If we approach and touch the plant, we find ourselves enmeshed in the sticky, aromatic resin that coats the leaves as well as our clothing or any animal fur that may brush by. Now we know why various species of Madia are commonly called “Tarweed.”

Observing Madia’s Distinctive Flowering Rhythms

Yet, a mystery remains. Where are the flowers? A closer inspection finds many tightly closed buds, but no flowers. To see the flowers we must wait some hours for the cooling of eventide. Then the flowers unfold into radial star-forms, now fully open to the air and attenuated light. The multitude of brilliant and well-ordered flower forms stand out against the background of the rather drab and sometimes chaotic vegetative structures, and the dried out grasses and meadow plants that characterize the summer landscape of California’s Mediterranean climate.



Returning in the early morning, in the cool light of the dawning day, we find the Madia flowers still fully open. Then, as the morning sun brightens and rises higher in the sky, we notice the ends of the ray florets curling inward to the center of the flower, as it returns to the compact bud-like state in which we found it the previous afternoon. We are reminded that plants are time organisms. Thus, it is impossible to fully know a plant with a single “snapshot” observation at a particular moment in time. Madia reveals itself both in the seasonal rhythms of its growth cycle — winter tap root to spring leaf rosette to summer blossoming and autumn death — and its diurnal rhythm of opening and closing in response to the light. (California Poppy — “the cup of gold” — for example, has the exact opposite light response, opening in the fullness of daylight, and closing not only at dusk, but when the sun is obscured by clouds.)

Creating an Interior Image

After observation, we can create an interior image of what we perceive with our senses, and then let the image live and grow as an inner experience of that we have perceived. If our inner picture is true to the phenomena itself — which takes considerable practice and skill — then this is what Goethe called “exact imagination,” giving us further insight into the formative forces working through the plant. This is a path of modern alchemical meditation and study, a re-creation in the microcosm of our own consciousness of the archetypal forces working through the plant, so that we can understand the healing forces at work in the plant remedy.

The Madia flower appears to our “mind’s eye” as a mandala, a meditation form that pulls our awareness into its center, as an exercise in concentration. The centering quality is further enhanced if we then inwardly follow the enfolding movement of the flower, its ray flowers curling into its center.

Madia’s Botanical Family

Having commenced a living connection with the plant, we now have a context in which for further observation, research and consideration of cultural, botanical, medicinal/nutritional, environmental and other properties of the plant.6

A closer examination of the Madia flower, perhaps aided by a botanical glass, reveals that each flower head is actually a field of flowers in itself, It is a “composite” of five-petaled tubular disk florets, mounded in the center, surrounded by the yellow ray florets, each three-lobed at their terminus, with red or maroon spots at the origins, forming a ring around the central disk florets.

Thus, it is apparent that Madia belongs to the Sunflower or Daisy plant family. (The name Daisy is derived from “Day’s Eye”) Its modern official name is Asteraceae, after the genus Aster, meaning “star.” These solar and stellar names for the family recognize the flower’s radial structure, but it is the composite quality that is its most characteristic signature, and thus the traditional family name Compositae. The structured orderliness of the composite flower head is both efficient and aesthetic, revealed especially in the intersecting spiral formed by the central disc florets, exhibiting the growth ratios of the Fibonacci series (seen in the Shasta Daisy image on the right). Thus the many parts of the composite flower, its central disk or tubular florets, and its outer ray or linguate (tongue-like) florets are organized into one coherent whole.

In the orderliness of the composite flowers we can recognize a key healing signature of the Asteraceae flower essences. In the human being the central organizing principle is our essential individuality, our Spiritual Self or higher Ego, and thus the Asteraceae essences assist our relationship with our spiritual identity, our sun-self or star-self. They are primarily flower essences that develop our consciousness. Within that overarching theme, there is much variation in the composite flower essences, just as in the plant family the commonality of the composite flower structure is modulated by a multiplicity of growth habits, leaf shapes and so on.7 Madia’s expression of the composite theme is the way it brings our consciousness to the polarity of expansion and contraction, growth and containment.

Habitat and History of Madia

Madia elegans is a California native annual wildflower (also found in Oregon), with the subspecies elegans, which blooms in the mid to late summer, most common in the mountains and foothills. It favors dry slopes, grasslands and forest openings, blooming much later than most other plants in these habitats.

Native American tribes knew the plant for its nutritional value, making a kind of pinole from the oil-rich seeds. This painting by Grace Hudson called the “Tarweed Gatherer,” depicts a Pomo woman preparing to gather the seeds of the Madia.8 The name “Madia” is actually of Chilean origin, where a similar species Madia sativa, was used by the indigenous peoples there as a source of seed oil.








Madia Concentrates Solar Warmth

Two other Compositae plants are well known for their nutritious seed oil, the Sunflower and Safflower. What does the oil signify? Wilhelm Pelikan, in his visionary book Healing Plants (Heilphlanzenkunde), provides the following insights about oil-bearing plants: “Volatile and fatty oils both relate to warmth, but otherwise they are polar opposites. In volatile oils, substance separates out into the warm element in a centrifugal process; in fatty oils, warmth turns into substance. Volatility is the essence of the former, concentration of the latter.”9

We have in Madia, then, a process of concentrating solar warmth into its seed center, a gesture that is enacted each day as the Madia flower pulls in warmth from the periphery and folds into its center.

The sticky resinous coating of the Madia plant is also a oil-like fire process. Although it does radiate its aroma to the environment, its role in the plant organism is to seal in moisture so that the plant can sustain its vitality during the hot, dry summers. This allows the vigorously growing Madia plant, which might otherwise dissipate itself and “burn out,” to last through the summer as one of the late-blooming plants. In this way, expansion in the vegetative realm is balanced by the containment of the resinous sheath, while expansion in the flowering realm, is contained in a daily counter-movement of contraction as the flower closes.

The Inner Experience of Madia

Let us now return to an inner experience of the Madia. (In our plant studies we may spend many years of observation, study and contemplation.)

First live into the brilliant solar luminosity of a blue-skied California summer. The fiery heat and light draw us out of ourselves into the periphery. Madia invites us to meet this excarnating pull to the periphery with an incarnating, centralizing movement. In the face of all the centrifugal forces of the environment, again picture the ray florets of the Madia enfolding to their centers, experiencing a similar movement of soul within you. Imagine gathering all the abundant summer fire forces, concentrating and densifying them into the oily seed that can provide nourishment and new life. Surround yourself with a resinous coating to guard against the dissipation of your forces during a time of outer dryness, and reach deep into the earth with your taproot for support and nourishment.

The Healing Message of Madia Flower Essence

Based on our living picture of the Madia, and as confirmed by three decades of practitioner reports through the Flower Essence Society, we can say confidently that the keywords for the Madia flower essence are focus and concentration. It is truly a remedy for our times, for our attention is pulled in so many directions, splintered into so many bits. Many of us live with a constant barrage of emails, phone calls, “tweets” and texts. Our mass media entertainment and video games are predicated on the viewer’s short attention span. Most people cannot hold a thought for more than an instant before the “monkey mind” runs off in another direction. Madia helps to calm and center both body and mind so that greater forces of concentration can be naturally developed by the soul itself in meditation, study and daily responsibilities requiring mindful focus. It has been helpful for those who are easily distracted, especially during the afternoon, or when exposed to heat, and for those with chronic problems of scattered attention, including Attention Deficit Disorder, a syndrome that could be a diagnosis for our contemporary society as a whole.

In closing, please contemplate the soul affirmations for the Madia written by Patricia Kaminski10 :

I am focused and clear in my actions.
I concentrate on what is essential.
I think with single-pointed Clarity.


1 Originally published in 1931, see Barnard, Julian, ed. Collected Works of Edward Bach, Ashgrove Press, Bath, UK, 1988

2 Flower Essence Society, PO Box 459, Nevada City, CA 95959  www.flowersociety.org

3 See Bortoft, Henri,  The Wholeness of Nature: Goethe’s way towards a science of conscious participation in nature. New York: Lindisfarne Press, 1966 and Seamon, David and Zajonc, Arthur, editors (1998). Goethe’s way of science: A phenomenology of nature. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1998

4 Barnard, Julian, The Healing Herbs of Edward Bach, Ashgrove Press, Bath, UK, 1988 (currently out of print)
Barnard, Julian, Bach Flower Remedies: Form and Function, Lindisfarne Books, Great Barrington, MA, 2004
Barnard, Julian, The Twelve Healers DVD, Healingherbs, Hereford, UK, 2005
Barnard, Julian, The Seven Helpers DVD, Healingherbs, Hereford, UK, 2007
Barnard, Julian, The Second Nineteen DVD, Healingherbs, Hereford, UK, 2009

5 Zajonc, Arthur, Meditation as Contemplative Journey, Lindisfarne Books, Great Barrington, MA, 2009, pp 93-120.

6 For a fuller discussion see Kaminski and Katz, “The Twelve Windows of Plant Perception” at www.flowersociety.org/twelve.htm, and Katz, Richard, “The Living Science of Nature,” in Calix: International Journal of Flower Essence Therapy, Flower Essence Society, Nevada City, CA, 2004

7 For a discussion of Asteraceae flower essences see Kaminski, Patricia, “Extending the Legacy of Dr. Edward Bach,” in Calix: International Journal of Flower Essence Therapy, Flower Essence Society, Nevada City, CA, 2004

8 The Tarweed Gatherer by Grace Carpenter Hudson (1865–1937), used with permission of the Grace Hudson Museum, Ukiah, California (www.gracehudsonmuseum.org). The woman pictured is well-known basketmaker Joseppa Pinto Dick (circa 1860-1905), who was Yokayo Pomo, a Native community southeast of Ukiah.

9 Pelikan, Wilhelm, Healing Plants, Mercury Press, Spring Valley, NY, 1988, pp 37-38

10 Part of the set of Affirm a Flower™ affirmations and photos available published by the Flower Essence Society.




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