a doctrine of signatures


The shy doe who has been around most days ate the hart’s tongue fern while we were away in Vancouver so I could read at Cottage Bistro from Euclid’s Orchard. Usually she doesn’t venture onto the patio but obviously she felt brave in our absence.  She left a few leaves of white violet but everything else has been nipped to the stem.

hart's tongue

I don’t think this doe had a fawn this year. In the past, we’ve seen deer with twins or singles and have watched the young ones grow over the summer season.


The local black-tail deer mate in November and December. Maybe this one is averse to the prospect.  She has eaten the fern shaped like the tongue of a hart, that beautiful animal out of the Song of Songs (“My beloved is like a gazelle or a young stag: behold, he stands behind our wall, he looks forth through the windows, showing himself through the lattice.“), and wanders near our house, maybe hoping for protection. I’ve always been interested in the history of herbal medicines and the old idea of the doctrine of signatures, found in Dioscorides and Galen and revived by Paracelsus, suggesting that every herb has its sign, indicating its use for human conditions. A heart-shaped leaf, for treating the heart. Yellow leaves for jaundice. Eye-bright for diseases of the eyes.

Of these ferns, Culpepper tells us, “The distilled water is very good against the passion of the heart…” Maybe the doe has her own longings, satisfied by the long leaves of a hart’s tongue fern glazed with rain. I wish her well in the fall season when we often see the bucks standing in brush by the side of the highway, looking for mates. As for the fern, it will grow back.