THE PLANT TYPE
The impulse is towards substance and not so much into form. That is immediately apparent when we look at one of the 2 000 species of this family, a family extending over the whole of the earth. Rugged herbaceous plants, including numerous “weeds”, stand before us. Their chosen habitat is one inimical to normal plant life, one which is putting obstacles in the way of plant life, bringing it to a halt, paralyzing it. So we find them in poor, dry grassland, in steppes and semi-steppes, among rubble, moraines and rocks in mountain regions, even in the high mountains, in the far north, and in the life-inhibiting salty habitat of the sea-shore. There the common whitlow-grass, the Rose of Jericho, wild charlock, penny cress, stonecrop, the Draba species, sea kale, purple sea rocket, scurvy grass and others grow quite cheerfully. And by spring and brook, in Springtime meadows and near shady shrubs we find others-water cress, cuckoo-flower, mustard garlic. The man-made steppe of arable fields holds many weeds of the Cruciferae family.
Crucifer nature is therefore fully able to cope, in every way, with conditions
on earth. The need does not arise to become parasitic and to use other, stronger roots to relate with the earth. This type relates to the forces of earth, but without becoming subject to them. It does not harden into tree-form, in fact hardly hardens at all, remaining plastic, soft, exuberantly alive. The tropics with their tremendous proliferation of the earth principle are avoided by the type, except where high mountains permit it to be above tropical conditions of life.
Let us look at the individual plant. Rapid germination, taking root strongly,
prolific foliation, come in rapid sequence. During this stage, growth tends to
hold back temporarily and to swell into leaf buds (cabbage, brussels sprouts,
toothwort, etc.) or to form ground rosettes (shepherd’s purse). The juicy, even fleshy, leaves are rounded, lobed, at most lyrate; only great altitude, and a maximum of light, will shape them into a finely divided, feathery form. In their swelling roundness they give sway to the form-giving forces of the fluid element, rather than the form-giving powers of the radiant, light-bearing air (powers which indent sharply, shaping to a radiant triangle, and impose order firmly). The form-giving forces of the “inferior” principle (solid, fluid, imbued with forces of darkness) as revealed in the plant. form, do not, however, exclude the form-giving forces of the “superior” (air, warmth, imbued with forces of light), but rather include them. The Crucifer style of life is actually to seek out powerful light forces, be it in the steppes and deserts, in the long days of the north, or in the powerfully illumined mountain heights. However, the plant type also retains the swelling, actively growing forces of the watery element, deriving from them its rugged vitality.
The life of the year has barely started when the Cruciferae make their
appearance. They belong to spring and early summer, and even persist in
germinating, flowering and fruiting in repeated cycles, achieving several
generations within a year; so rapid, energetic, and indeed heated is the rhythm of their life. The abundant foliage also moves ahead rapidly to the flowering stage; shooting, often tempestuously, into the huge racemose corymbs (pseudo umbels). The floral structure is simple; two pairs of separate sepals arranged crosswise, four petals, often clawed, and usually six stamens, also crosswise, with one pair of twos, and one of singles; finally the superior gynaecium. This has left leaf-nature behind and is free as it enters the region of cosmic ripening. That is what a superior gynaecium implies. The deeds of light, the active colours of white, yellow and orange, are those favoured by the Cruciferae, less so the colour red, overcast with some darkness, or the “passive” colours blue and violet. In this choice of colours, and in the abundance of flowering, the “superior” form-giving principle becomes visible. The leaf process had strongly absorbed it but not brought it to expression in form. The onset of flowering does not, however, signify completion of the gestalt, and the inflorescence continues to grow actively. New flowers are continually produced, though the individual flower runs through its life quickly, immediately passing on to the next stage, that of fruiting. The rich cluster of blossoms is soon interspersed with developing pods, and this deprives it of the grace given to plants more apt to linger in the flowering stage. In the development of the fruit, there emerge-at last-the principles of form for each individual species. At last the distinguishing, individualizing element comes to expression. It produces short little pods (siliculae), wide or narrow pods (siliquae), with beak-like points, or moulded close to the seeds. The germinating seeds also show individual features, in the width of the cotyledons and the position of the radicles. And so it is that botanists concerned with the classification of the Cruciferae must go to the region of the fruit for reliable distinguishing features. With other families they can base identification mainly ,on the flower.
From the fluid sphere, too, forces are pushing upwards, causing abundant
nectar to flow from honey glands on the disc; some good bee plants are to be found here. But in a great number of species a tendency to self-pollination is apparent. The scent of these flowers is not very strong; it is volatile and sweet, with a touch of carnation or violet, or honey-sweet, depending on the species.
The flowering process reveals the relationship between the etheric organisa-
tion of a plant, i.e. its body ofform-giving forces, and astral spheres of existence. Strong astral and weak etheric forces result in the development of poisons. Poisonous plants are over-“astralized”. In the Cruciferae, “etheric padding” is so strong at all points during growth that astral spheres of action never succeed in breaking into the physical. The plants of this family are strongly etheric, sturdy, and thoroughly healthy. None are out-and-out poison plants. What they do provide are some important food plants and culinary herbs.
The pods contain small, round seeds rich in oils. The Cruciferae attract
cosmic forces so strongly that even in cool climates they manage to produce
plenty of oil from the warmth-action of those forces. Fats formed despite a
cool climate are of special quality, and contain many unsaturated fatty acids,
of great biological value because they are very active. (Something similar was brought out in the study on the Papaveraceae.) The Cruciferae are important, therefore, not only as vegetable but also as oil plants (rape, common radish).
So we see: Where the earth, on its surface, closes up upon itself, and the soil is mineral, dead, infertile, or where the ground hardens in cold and frost, where the “outward radiating”, dead, forces threaten to overwhelm the “inward radiating” forces of life, there, in those very places, the Cruciferae have their sphere of life. In their own way they confirm Goethe’s words, that Nature invented .death in order to have abundant life. To the very limits of where life is possible they are soldiers of the sun, of cosmic life. But areas where the earth, in its forces, proliferates upwards into the cosmic element, i.e. in the tropics, are not for these plants. For instance, in the Senegal region only 1 per cent. of flowering plants were found to be Cruciferae, but in Spitzbergen as many as 19 per cent. (Hegi). The type prefers the far north to the luxuriant tropics. Another demonstration of the same characteristic is the fact that about half the Cruciferae are “weeds”. The German term Unkraut (=non-herb) for weed should really be changed, for these plants are particularly vital, extremely fruitful, wresting life from the poorest type of soil. Their whole existence is a defiant insistence on life. The etheric principle is very strong in them. They do not sacrifice their vital forces to beauty of form; they do not have masses of precious, scented, marvellously formed flowers as the chief organ of the whole growing process; they do not offer juicy and delicious fruits. To be defiantly alive and solidly to make sure of continued life, that is enough for them. A keynote like this can produce plants with great medicinal powers. Their vital energy is also apparent from the fact that their life rhythms are much faster than those of other plants. Ionopsidium acaule, for example, the stem-less pseudo-violet from Portugal, germinates within three days and opens its first flowers after 14 days. Many other Cruciferae show the same tendency.
SULPHUR AND SALT PROCESSES AS HEALING FACTORS IN NATURE
Two things, then, stand out clearly in the life-pattern of the Cruciferae. These
plants seek out those areas on the surface of the earth which are not enlivened and stand apart from the surging stream of life. There, they unfold particularly energetic and accelerated life rhythms. Rudolf Steiner provided a major clue to the comprehension of this double nature, and with this also for a full and true understanding of the healing powers of the Cruciferae. In his lecture cycle entitled Spiritual Science and M edicine» he went into detail about this and spoke, in the 15th lecture of the cycle, about two important medicinal plants from this family, the shepherd’s purse and the common scurvy grass or spoonwort. First he used the birch as an example for interaction between the salt processes taken up by the root, and the protein processes. The birch forces the salt processes out of the protein sphere and into bark formation, maintaining a relatively salt-free protein in the leaves. Rudolf Steiner then continued:
“There are plants which-as I might put it-very strongly take up root
formation, that is, very much develop the root principle, with the result that
potassium and sodium salts are deposited in the plant. In this tendency to
hold the root within the herb, as one might say, one detects the particular
bias which has healing effect in cases of internal haemorrhage, and also if there is formation of gravel, of gravel in the kidneys, etc. A plant of that type,
a plant that may be very useful in this way with haemorrhages, either internal or due to renal gravel and such like, would be Capsella bursa-pastoris, the shepherd’s purse,”
Attention is drawn here to a special development. Salt processes of the root
enter into the region which lies above the root. There is, however, a second
process active in Capsella bursa-pastoris, and in fact it is a characteristic of
all Cruciferae that two processes are working together. The following description of scurvy grass brings this out more clearly:
“Now try really to enter with your thoughts into a plant like the common
scurvy grass, Cochlearia officinalis. ‘I’his, too, is an interesting plant to consider; for this plant contains oils that are sulphurous, that contain sulphur. Because of its sulphur-containing oils, it acts diTectly upon its own proteins, throuqli that sulphur.* Now sulphur is that principle in the mineral sphere which acts to promote the forces, the form-giving forces, of protein. If the protein-producing process is sluggish, an added sulphur process will accelerate it. This, in essence, is what a plant like the scurvy grass has given rise to organically within itself. Because it grows in a specific habitat, and occupies a very definite, specific place in nature, the SCUTVY qrass is condemned to give rise to protein processes which appear too sluggish, and then a marvellous instinct in nature restores the balance, with thesulphurous oils to be found in the plant, oils which come to meet those apparently sluggish protein processes. A protein process which has been accelerated differs from a protein process which goes at the same speed by nature. This is something which must always be taken into account. You will of course find that many plants have protein-producing processes which proceed at the same rate as in the scurvy grass; but they have not been brought about by interaction between the principle of sluggishness and the acceleratinq
principle.In the growth pattern of scurvy grass, the principle of sluggishness
is constantly acting together with the principle of acceleration, and as a result, an inner correspondence makes scurvy grass particularly suitable, in the appropriate form, for use in conditions like scurvy. The process involved with scurvy is extraordinarily similar to the process I have just described.”
We are asked, therefore, to pay particular and close attention to the protein
process in the Cruciferae. In doing so, ‘one discovers things which may immediately be taken to prove the truth of what has been said above. In the same way as tubes of latex are threaded through the Papaveraceae, so protein tubules, myrosin cells, run through the Cruciferae. They contain a specific enzyme and this is able to split, and thus activate, the mustard-oil glycosides stored in adjacent cells. Those mustard-oil glycosides are strange compounds of sulphurous volatile oils (known as mustard oils), sugar, and a mineral salt, potassium bisulphate. When a bit of Crucifer tissue is chewed, the chewing action and salivation produce the familiar burning taste, like that of mustard or horse radish, because the contents of the myrosin cells come in contact with the mustard-oil glycoside. When mustard seeds are chewed, for example, the sinigrin contained in them is split into volatile allyl isothiocyanate, dextrose, and potassium bisulphate.
The volatile, etheric sulphur oil and the mineral salt are here combined in one substance. Sal and Sulphur process have come together in an unusual manner, and this is like a “chemical illustration” of what has been said above. In the Crucifer protein, however, there is latent the process which at any time can dissolve the bond between Sulphur and Sal. The Crucifer exists in a living interweaving and separation of salt and sulphur processes.
A sluggish protein process is present not only in scurvy grass, which we
have taken as an example, but also in many other Cruciferae. These plants
are condemned, basically, to have a very sluggish protein process because of their habitat. The sulphurous nature of the plant type draws in sulphur, to
use it as a remedy, as a healing principle of acceleration, to cure that sluggishness. In plants like scurvy grass, the salty habitat and northern environment will give a particularly strong note to this healing process. In the Cruciferae, a process and its opposite, a healing process, have come together and combined in a manner that is truly impressive.
Various other features of the plant family show the same trend. Protein
from the Cruciferae is notoriously difficult to digest. Greens and cabbage need a strong stomach. In the seeds of the Cruciferae, however, for example in mustard seed, one finds the very seasoning to make such indigestible food digestible. Again, certain substances have been found in cabbage which under certain conditions are liable to produce goitre. When a goitre develops, this is concomitant with hypofunction of thc thyroid and a slowing-down of metabolism. The important hormone produced by the thyroid contains iodine. With goitre, the normal iodine process and its properties of stimulating metabolism cannot develop. Here the “principle of sluggishness” of the Cruciferae is in evidence. The “congestion of life”, as the head of cabbage buds between root and leaf formation, corresponds to the swelling of the goitre which develops between head and thorax–entirely in keeping with the correspondence between man and plant as threefold beings. On the other hand, some Cruciferae are able to accumulate iodine from fresh water where it is present in very small quantities. Examples of this are watercress and a species related to the common whitlow-grass. It is interesting to note that Rudolf Steiner recommended a preparation made from the corm of Colchicum and the flowers of the celandine for the treatment of goitre, and, as an adjuvant, the common whitlow-grass (for details, see under Erophila verna).
In the dead mineral kingdom, existence in material form is the essence; and
more than that: it is to exist as solid matter, to be crystalline. In the sphere of
life, however, mere being or existence is replaced by events proceeding, and
instead of substances there are processes. Vital activities and life processes must be used in describing the character of substances which are in the process of life, and this in fact means they cease to exist as substances. “Organic substance” is really inappropriate as a concept; metabolism, the transformation of substance, prevails wherever there is life. Life is borne not on substance, but on the transformation of substance. Organism, bodily processes, occur, and it is not a question of existence in form of substance. And when a state of substance serves to bear qualities of soul, of spirit, it has to be regarded in quite a different way from dead substance. Thus, if one intends to describe its role in the sphere of life, it is necessary to speak of sulphur, for example, in a very different manner from that used when one discusses it in the inorganic context. It was Rudolf Steiner who first spoke of substances in this new way, following them up in the processes in enlivened, ensouled, and inspirited matter. The following is an example ;’
“A peculiar quality of sulphur is that it serves to inhibit the decomposition
of protein; it may be said to hold together the organizing forces* in proteinic
“The sum total of the properties of sulphur remains constant within relatively
narrow limits. Sulphur is sensitive to such natural processes as warming,
burning, etc., and this enables it to playa significant role also within the
proteins, substances which separate completely from the forces of earth and
enter into the etheric sphere of action.
“Take sulphur. It is a constituent of protein, and thus forms the basis of
the whole process which occurs when protein foods are taken. From foreign-
etheric nature it passes through the state of being inorganic and into the etheric sphere of action in the human organism. It is found in the fibrous substance of organs, in the brain, in the nails and hair. It therefore moves through the metabolic pathways as far as the periphery of the organism. It is thus a substance which plays a role in the process of taking proteins into the sphere of man’s etheric body …. It becomes active in the sphere of the physical and of the etheric body. This is also evident from the fact that increased intake of sulphur into the organism causes vertigo and clouding of consciousness. Sleep, that state of the body where astral body and ego organization are not acting as psychic entities, also is intensified if sulphur intake is increased.-From this it is apparent that, introduced as a remedy, sulphur makes the physical activities of the organism more receptive to etheric action than they were in the diseased state.”
Sulphur thus supports the ability to take food protein properly into human
metabolism. This is the reason why herbs and condiments containing sulphur, such as horse-radish, chives, mustard, cress, and also onions and garlic, are so important when food rich in protein is taken, for instance with meat dishes, cheese dishes and eggs.-But there is also a second factor. When protein has entered metabolism it will eventually reach the blood, the processes of circulation. Now it must find the way to being breathed through. Sulphur tends to go by the same route. “It contains the process by which the rhythm inclined towards the digestive system is converted to that inclined towards respiration.”-“One property of sulphur which we have already men-
tioned a number of times is that it is active in that area of the organism where circulation and respiration adjoin, that is, in everything that comes from the lung.”-“The iron process is taken into the blood circulation by the metabolism. The sulphur process moves across from the blood circulation into the process of respiration.”! In the end, then, sulphur plays a role in getting the enlivened fluid, the protein which has been formed, to be breathed through, to be permeated with principles of Air. The air organization is able to combine with the fluid organization, filling it with breath and warmth. And with this, astral body and ego enter into the rhythmic organization. In the face of these two, sulphur withdraws, however. “The question arises as to whether sulphur also plays a role at the transition from the sphere of etheric activities to that of astral activities, and whether it has anything to do with the ego organization. It does not really combine with the inorganic substances introduced into the organism, and form salts or acids with them. Compounds of that type would provide a basis for inclusion of sulphur processes in the astral body and in the ego organization. Sulphur however does not penetrate there.”! And indeed, sulphur remains in its reduced, oxygen-free form in protein, and also does not give rise to mineral formation in the body (for instance in bone)-very much in contradistinction to phosphorus.
The reader is asked to forgive this detour into an area which would appear
to lie outside the sphere of plant life. The Cruciferae are one of the great
“sulphur families” in the plant world and may be said to reveal the nature of
sulphur in plant terms, so that this discussion was not ‘without relevance. (The other great “sulphur family” are the Allium species among the Liliaceae.
Some further details concerning sulphur processes will be given when these
This “revelation of the sulphur process in plant terms” uncovers important aspects in the nature of sulphur and also of the Cruciferae. It shows how the
Crucifer protein is taken hold of from two polar opposite sides. The salt pro-
cesses rising from the root want to bring to bear the “outward radiating”,
earthly forces. The sulphur processes on the other hand “hold together the
organizing forces in proteinic substance”, and thus support the activity of
the organization of form-giving forces. They make it possible for the “inward
radiating forces” to act with particular intensity; they accelerate the rhythm
of life, letting the plant move on rapidly from the lower to the higher formative
forces, so that their principles of light and warmth come through in the region
of flowers and fruit. With this, there is a particularly active revelation of the
nature of the plant in colour. (At the lower level of existence of mineral and
metal, sulphur-in the sulphides-reveals metallic nature in colour; the colours seen when metal salts in solution react with hydrogen sulphide tell
the analyst which metal he is dealing with.) All the sulphur plant families have much flower colour.-Because of the action of sulphur, the transition from leaf and rhythmic principle to the floral phase is particularly vehement. The “most sulphuric”, most accelerated process in plants is the flowering process. In the introductory chapters 2.3.4 it was shown how the basic processes of the mineral world, Sal, Mercury and Sulphur, appear in plants as root, leaf and flower process. As a polar opposite to the speedy transition from leaf to flower process in the Cruciferae we find in man the energetic transition from metabolic to respiratory rhythms, from blood to breathing process.
A major activity of the Crucifer life-process also finds expression in the
production of abundant vitamin C. The Cruciferae are important vitamin C
plants, a fact long since known to seafarers and those travelling in polar regions. Vitamin C is always abundant in plants which counter poor soil conditions with powerful cosmic light processes. Apart from the Cruciferae, the vitamin is abundant in the citrus fruits, rose hips, black currants, paprika, and above all the sea buckthorn, indeed plants with thorns do strikingly often contain much of it.
1 Steiner, Rudolf (1920) Geistesunssenschaft und Medizin. Twenty lectures. 3rd ed. 1961. Dornach: Rudolf Steiner Verlag. English edition, Spiritual Science and Medicine, London: Rudolf Steiner Publishing Co.-The passages quoted here have been translated from the German original.
2 Pelikan, W. (1970) Archetypal relations between plant and man. The British Homceopathic Journal, 59, 163.
3 Pelikan, W. (1970) Disease process and medicinal plant. The British Homceopathic Journal, 59, 169.
4 Pelikan, W. (1970) The members of being in man and nature. The British Homceopathic Journal, 59, 224.
Translation from the German of the eighth chapter in the author’s Heilpflanzenkunde (botany of medicinal plants) Vol. 1; published with the kind permission of the author and of the publishers, Philosophisch-Anthroposophischer Verlag am GoetheanumfDornach, Switzerland, whose permission should be sought for reproduction. Translator: R. E. K.
Author: Wilhelm Pelikan
Source: The British Homoeopathic Journal, January 1975.