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  References to Plant Constituents in the Works of Steiner

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By: Peter A. Pedersen, Albert Proebstl, Ulrich Meyer
pgs. 18-36.doc

(Original title: Angaben zu Pflanzeninhaltsstoffen bei Rudolf Steiner. Merkurstab 1994; 47:561- 80.

English by A. R. Meuss, FIL, MTA.)

Introduction and aims
From the very beginning of anthroposophically-oriented science, biologists among Rudolf Steiner's pupils did work in plant morphology that resulted in a number of important publications. New ideas were described on plant development and aspects relating to the cultivation of food and medicinal plants elaborated. Attempts were also made to gain new insights into the actions and processing of medicinal plants.

It seems that this emphasis on morphology, with less attention paid to plant constituents, was due more to the special interests and capabilities of Rudolf Steiner's pupils than to anything he said. The list presented in this paper shows that Rudolf Steiner referred to constituents of about 35 plant species. Only a few of these were common substances such as sugars. Indeed, rare substances like nicotine and esculin were often mentioned by name and discussed. On many occasions Rudolf Steiner would explain the actions of a medicinal plant from the occurrence of specific substances.

In the authors' view, Steiner's references to constituents can be as fruitful for the development of anthroposophic medicine and pharmacy as his statements on plant morphology. This means that the references must be known and understood by modern scientists. The aim of the present paper is to present a list of those references and discuss the terms used by Rudolf Steiner in the hope that this will encourage others to work with Rudolf Steiner's statements on plant constituents.

Interpretation and presentation criteria
Table 1 lists references known to have been made by Rudolf Steiner to constituents of 35 plants. Three of these were personal communications to individuals who later put them in writing (marked "see ref. 3" in the table). The authors felt it was right to include them as they show good agreement with the other references.

In most cases the action, generally a medicinal action, of the plant was shown to be at least partly due to the substance in question. The statements relating to actions are important to interpret, but they should be considered in context The original sources - or Krueger(3) - are therefore included. It has to be stressed that the relationship between a particular constituent and a specific action should not automatically lead to the assumption that the constituent causes the action. The presence of a constituent may perhaps be taken to indicate that higher forces are at work. Rudolf Steiner has shown this, for instance, in the case of the alkaloids (atropine; GA 221,11 Feb. 1923). These forces would then be the active principle. It must also be stressed that individual constituents must, of course, be considered in conjunction with other characteristics. Thus lemon is important not only because of citric add but also for the "leathery skins" (GA 319, see also Pedersen(8)).

Rudolf Steiner's references may be considered from different points of view. We know that Steiner sometimes referred to higher dynamics by the name of the substance, e.g. silica, they have created. Thus he spoke of the calcium content of oak, the silica content of the earth's crust or of common horsetail. Reference might be made to "people who introduce too much nicotine into their bodies" (GA 348), or a description given of formic acid synthesis by isolating the oxalic acid from clover and heating this with glycerol (GA 232). The working hypothesis on which the list is based was that reference was made to the substance where quantities or concentrations were given, but that in other cases different interpretations are possible. Where specific physical substances such as esculin are mentioned, the authors felt that knowledge of these must derive from experimental work or, in Steiner's case, study of the relevant literature rather than spiritual scientific research. It is likely that at least some of the remaining statements also derive from the scientific literature.

Interpretation, therefore, depends on knowing the literature likely to have been available to Rudolf Steiner. His private library includes only Dinand's Taschenbuch der Heilmittel (pocket manual of medicines) and Domblueth's Arzneimittel der heutigen Medizin (drugs used in modern medicine) (1923), neither of which refers to constituents (personal communication, W.F. Daems 1987). A search was therefore made for textbooks and manuals using the same formulations as those given by Steiner (see literature list B).

As it is generally thought that Rudolf Steiner only or mainly referred to common substances, the main criterion for presenting the references was whether they concerned only common substances or - perhaps in addition - less common ones. The former are known as "primary constituents." Being part of normal plant metabolism they are found in all plants. If such a constituent has not yet been found in a plant, it means that further investigations using improved methods, are required.

The main groups of primary constituents are carbohydrates (e.g. monosaccharides such as glucose and fructose and polysaccharides such as starch and cellulose), proteins and nucleotides (including monomers such as amino acids and purines), fats (e.g. triglycerides and phospholipids) and inorganic matter (e.g. potassium, calcium, magnesium, iron, manganese and silica). Plants only differ in the amount of these substances they contain, except that some degree of individualization exists for nitrogen-containing polymers. Less common substances, known as "secondary constituents," are only found in some plants and may therefore be taken to indicate variations in metabolism. A secondary constituent may also be seen as the product of a deviation from archetypal plant biochemistry, analogous to the concept of the archetypal plant used in plant morphology. Examples of secondary constituents are glucosides, alkaloids, the constituents of volatile oils and tannins.

Information supplied
Only primary constituents were mentioned for 10 plants (see Table 1). The question to be considered in this case is why they were referred to in connection with the medicinal actions of those particular plants. It may be assumed that in the case of clover and lemon the reason was the high concentration of the substance in question. With other plants such as Cucumis, Capsella and Fragaria it has to be accepted that substances were mentioned that do not play an unusual role in the plant concerned, at least not from the point of view of materialistic modern science.

Birch may serve as an example, though it is also a special case, because apart from the potassium salts Rudolf Steiner also mentioned dynamics or processes. Birch bark contains potassium salts in concentrations that do not go beyond the usual (0.05 - 0.10 - 0.17 - 0.29%(4); the caldum content is higher than usual (0.28 - 0.50 - 0.65 - 1.28%(4)). These substances may perhaps be considered in terms of seasonal variation or in conjunction with other constituents and processes. The term "protein-producing powers" used in connection with the leaves does, of course, dearly refer to the dynamics. The protein content of the leaves is relatively high (11 -14 - 17 -19.8% of crude protein calc. w. ref. to dried subst.(4)) but does not essentially differ from concentrations found in other plants, not even in terms of seasonal variation.(9)

A second group consists of 12 plants where only defined (e.g. nicotine, Group 2a, 6 speces) or at least identifiable (e.g. tannin. Group 2b, 6 speces) secondary constituents were mentioned, sometimes in addition to primary constituents. Table 1 shows that the occurrence of these substances was already known and reported in the literature at the time when Rudolf Steiner gave his lectures. In some cases reference is made to toxic effects (Amygdalae, Hyoscyamus, Tabacum, less obviously so Papaver), which depend on the concentration, in others to methods of obtaining the substance from the plant (tannic add from Quercus, Salvia and Salix), with the substance rather than the plant essentially responsible for the medicinal action (tannins and bitters, GA 314). It may, therefore, be assumed that in this case the substance is meant.

A question still to be investigated in pharmacy is the extent to which the extract should be purified. Total extracts are generally used nowadays; esculin is, however, available in its pure form.

Six plants for which an exactly-defined single substance was mentioned are of special interest. The substances are four powerful toxins, two of which are used in conventional medicine, a less powerful stimulant (caffeine) and a substance with a special relationship to light (esculin). The first five contain nitrogen (alkaloids and caffeine, which is similar to an alkaloid). According to Rudolf Steiner these are produced because the astral acts directly on the physical, bypassing the etheric (GA 221, 11 Feb. 1923). This is an important statement when we consider the ranking value of the substance, a subject we will not discuss in the present context.(6)

With the remaining 13 plants, not all the terms used can be fully correlated with specific constituents so that we have a wider range of potential interpretations. Some of these terms are ambiguous or no longer used today. Correct interpretation depends on knowledge of whether those terms were used at the time and, if so, what they signified. We have compared Rudolf Steiner's references to these plants (and to Geum and Gentium) with information given in such major manuals from the early twentieth century as we have been able to track down (see Literature B), including the main work on pharmacognosy (Tschirch). The most important items of information given in the manuals relating to plants for which several constituents were mentioned have been listed in Table 2. Rudolf Steiner often used highly specific terms to describe odor and taste, characteristics that relate to the constituents, and these instances have also been included.

In the case of Arnica, silica and "camphor-like principles" could not be traced. The former, called the "basic substance" by Steiner is, of course, present. The term "camphor-like" remains inexplicable, as it is not connected with reference to the volatile oil. Rudolf Steiner refers to this substance as the "actual sedative" so that we have to take the term to refer not to substance but medicinal action. Arnica thus ought to have an action similar to camphor.

In the case of Carum carvi, agreement between statements by Steiner and Koehler is complete.

Nothing has been found, even in the more recent literature (Voronkov et al.(10)) on the silica content of chamomile. Bockemuehl(1) found 2.6-4.2% of silicates in the root ash. To our knowledge, sulfur does not occur in elemental form in the plant kingdom. We therefore consider Dinand's reference to this to be an error; none of the other sources refers to it. A probable conclusion is that Steiner either accepted Dinand's erroneous statement, or he was not speaking of the substance in this case. The idea that this concerns a different aspect of (he sulfurous is supported by the description of chamonule root in GA314. This is preceded by a general discussion of silica, sugars and alkaline salts as well as the "flower which contains sulfur." It should be possible, according to Steiner, to produce sulfur from the latter which, of course, is only feasible if "sulfur" is taken to be sulfurous substance-in our view in the form of the volatile oil. This also agrees with the formulation used in die lecture of 5 January 1924 (GA 316) where Steiner described the threefold plant in terms of scent, leaf and root Discussing the "scented" aspect of (he plant, he said, for instance: "And because the activity from which scent arises exists in its most concentrated form in sulfur, we would be right to follow the medical terminology of the past and call the spiritual extractive principle in the plant through which scent arises - a principle that causes longing to arise in the elemental spirits - the sulfur principle in the plant" He concluded with the 6 meditations for physicians; the 1st and 4th are important in the present context:

1 Spirits of healing, you unite with the blessed sulfur of ethereal fragrance.
4 I seek to unite my soul's wisdom with the fire of that fragrance. 

In this lecture, the term "sulfurous" is synonymous with "the spiritual extract principle" in the plant, or the dynamics that result in scent production. The interpretation is possible, therefore, that with reference to chamomile the term "sulfur" referred to the scent substances and hence also to the dynamics that produce them. For Chicorium, again no reference to silica could be found. Later on, 13% of silica was found in the root ash.(10)

In the case of the common horsetail, the term "sulfates" was only found in Dinand. This is interesting in view of the fact that Equisetum species cumulate sulfates and contain unusually high concentrations of these, Equisetum arvense 4.3-17% of sulfates in the ash or 0.7-3.5% of dried matter.(5a,b) The nature of the "resinous binding agent" is still open to question; Moeller/ Thorns do speak of resin, but no resins have so far been found in the plant.(5a) Pectin, the only substance in Equisetum arvense known to have binding properties, is present in fairly high concentrations(5) but cannot really be called resinous. The concentration of silica given (90%, GA 327) could not be found anywhere else.(5) It probably means 90% of the ash.

The details given for Gentiana lutea have been verified. Apart from the difference between "sugar-containing" and "levulose," agreement with Koehler is complete. Agreement between Steiner and both Zoemig and Dinand is complete for Geum urbanum. Reference to the taste suggests that Dinand was the source. Details given for Iris gennanica agree best with Zoernig and Tschirch.

Zoernig's description of Origanum majorana does not entirely agree with the details given by Steiner; the words "all kinds of salts" - even adding "especially in marjoram" are unlikely to be based on Zoernig. Moeller/ Thorns or Dinand may have been the source. For Pimpinella anisum iron could not be confirmed, and mucilage (gum) only within limits. The information given on oak bark agrees best with Zoernig, who does not give the calcium concentration, however. Steiner spoke of 77% of calcium in oak (GA 327), but we think the term "calcium structure" indicates that the action is partly explained not in terms of the physical substance but by the way oak deals with calcium.

Sulfur has never been found in elder flowers (see under chamomile).

Investigation has shown that Steiner cannot have taken all his information from one of the manuals we checked. He must, therefore, either have used a manual we have not been able to discover or several manuals and perhaps papers published in journals. It would be difficult to check this out, especially as there is also the possibility that some of Steiner's statements (camphor- like?) have been wrongly reported.

The majority of terms investigated, some even at the level of word combinations, e.g. unpleasant odor, could not be found in the works of Zoernig or Koehler. The conclusion is, especially as the term "levulose" used by Steiner apparently appears only in Koehler, that this book was available to Steiner, possibly through Mr. Spiess or Dr. Schmiedel (a copy of it exists in the library at Weleda Schwaebisch Gmuend). On the other hand, the fact that both Steiner and Moeller/Thoms use the unusual term "resin" suggests that this work was also available to Steiner. Reference to "sulfates" and the erroneous reference to sulfur by Dinand make it seem possible that Steiner had this manual available as well.

The term "levulose" still remains to be explained [the old German term used literally means "mucilage sugar." (Translator)]. Where Steiner and Koehler refer to this, the others speak of sugars {Carum, Levisticum) or specific mono- and disaccharides {Gentiana). According to Moeller/Thoms/ it is actually a synonym for "fructose." Where Steiner uses this term, therefore, it means mono- and oligosaccharides.

As already mentioned, use of the terms "resin" and "resinous binding agent" does not always agree with the specialist terminology in the field. It has been fully discussed elsewhere that, for Steiner, the perceptibly sticky nature of the substance was a dominant feature.(7)

Summing up, it may be said that all references listed under Group 2 and the majority of those in Group 3 (Table 1) may be taken to refer to substances. The exceptions and some of the substances have been discussed above.

The emphasis has been on constituents and the specialist literature in this paper. For further work on the subject, with the aim of developing criteria for the further development of anthroposophically-oriented medicine and pharmacy, particular importance attaches to Rudolf Steiner's descriptions of how higher principles, e.g. the astral, cause or influence the synthesis of certain substances.

Peter A. Pedersen, Pharmacist Ulrich Meyer, Pharmacist Albert Proebsti, Chemist Wala Heilmittel GmbH Weleda AG Bosslerweg 2 Postfach 1309 D-73087 Eckwaelden/Bad BoU D-73503 Schwaebisch Gmuend Germany Germany

A) Works and statements by Rudolf Steiner
GA 27. Steiner R,, Wegman I. Fundamentals of Therapy Tr. E. Frommer, J. Josephson. London: Rudolf Steiner Press 1983.
GA 221. Earthly Knowledge and Heavenly Wisdom (GA 221). February 1923. Tr. not known. New York: Anthroposophic Press 1990.
GA 230. Man as Symphony of the Creative Word. Tr. J. Compton-Bumett, rev. K. Kiniger, A.Meuss. London: Rudolf Steiner Press 1991.
GA 232. Mystery Knowledge and Mystery Centres. Tr. E. Goddard, D. Osmond. Domach. London: Rudolf Steiner Press 1973.
GA 312. Spiritual Science and Medicine. Tr. not known. London: Rudolf Steiner Press 1975.
GA 313. The Spiritual-Scientific Aspect of Therapy. Tr. R. Mansell. Long Beach CA: Rudolf Steiner Research Foundation 1990.
GA 314. Fundamentals of Anthroposophical Medicine. Stuttgart, 26, 27 (2 lectures) and 28 Oct.1922. Tr. A. Wulsin. Spring Valley NY: Mercury 1986.
GA 316. Eight Lectures to Doctors. Domach, 2-9 Jan. 1924. Tr. not known. MS translation R % at Rudolf Steiner House Library, London.
Easter Course for Medical Students. Lecture of 22 April 1924. Tr. R. Mansell. Long Beach, California: Rudolf Steiner Research Foundation 1984.
GA 319. Principles of the Methods of Healing in Anthroposophical Therapy. Penmaenmawr, 28 Aug. 1923. Tr. unknown. MS translation R 98, Rudolf Steiner House Library, London. Anthroposophische Menschenerkenntnis und Medizin. Den Haag, 15 Nov. 1923. Not translated. What Can the Art of Healing Gain through Spiritual Science? Amhem, 17,21 & 24 July 1924. Tr. G. Kamow. Spring Valley: Mercury 1986.
Anthr. Therapy, Lectures to Doctors. London, 2 & 3 Sept. 1923. Tr. R. ManseU. Long Beach, CA.: Rudolf Steiner Research Foundation 1984. An Outline of Medical Research. Report of 2 lectures. Tr. not known. 28 & 29 August 1924. London: Rudolf Steiner Press 1939.
GA 327. Agriculture. Lecture of 11 June 1924. Tr. G. Adams. London: Bio-Dynamic Agriculture Association 1977.
GA 347. The Human Being in Body, Soul and Spirit; Our Relationship to the Earth. Tr. J. Reuter and S. Seiler. New York Anthroposophic Press & London: Rudolf Steiner Press 1989.
GA 348. Health and Illness, vols. I and H. Tr. M. St Goar. New York: Anthroposophic Press 1981 & 1983.
GA 349. Vom Leben des Menschen und der Erde. Ueber das Wesen des Christentums. 13 lectures, Domach 1923.1. Auflage. Domach: Rudolf Steiner Verlag 1961.
GA 352. Natur und Mensch in geisteswissenschaftlicher Betrachtung. 10 lectures, Domach 1924.2. Auflage. Domach: Rudolf Steiner Verlag 1967.
GA 354. The Evolution of Earth and Man. 14 Lectures, Domach 1924. Tr. G. Hahn. London: Rudolf Steiner Press 1987.
KG III. Hilma Walter. Abnormitaeten der geistig-seelischen Entwicklung in ihren Krankheitserscheinungen und deren Behandlungsmoeglichkeiten. Wegleitung zum Verstaendnis einer Sammlung von Krankengeschichten mit Hinweisen wn Dr. Rudolf Steiner. Arlesheim: Natura 1955. KG V. Hilma Walter. Die Pflanzenwelt. Versuch eine Pflanzensystematik als Verstaendigungs-grundlagefuer die Therapie. Krankengeschichten und Berichte mit Hinweisen von Rudolf Steiner. Arlesheim: Natura 1971.
Dg. Krankeitsfaelle und andere medizinische Fragen, besprochen mit Rudolf Steiner; bearbeitet und gesammelt von Dr. Friedrich Husemann im Klinisch-Therapeutischen Institute in Stuttgart, herausgegeben von Dr. A. G. Degenaar. Manuskriptdruck. Stuttgart 1939.
B) Handbooks published in the early 20th century
Dinand AP. Handbuch der Heilpflanzenkunde 1. Auflage. Esslingen/Muenchen: J. F. Schreiber 1921. Dragendorff G. Die Heilpflanzen der verschiedenen Voelker und Zeiten. Stuttgart: Ferdinant Enke 1898.
Moeller J, Thorns H. Real-Emyklopaedie der gesamten Pharmazie. 1. Auflage. Berlin/Wien: Urban & Schwarzenberg 1904-1914.
Pabst G. Koehler's Medizinal-Planzen-Atlas. Berlin-Lichterfelde: Hugo Bermuehler 1898. Thoms H. Handbuch der praktischen und wissenschaftlichen Pharmazie Band V. 1. Haelfte. Berlin/Wien: Urbahn & Schwarzenberg 1929.
Tschirch A. Handbuch der Pharmakognosie Band n. Leipzig: Chr. Herm. Tuachnitz 1912-1917. Zoemig H. Arzneidrogen. Leipzig: Dr. Wemer Klinkhardt 1909 (L Teil) und 1911 (H. Teil).

Further literature
1 Bockemuehl J. Vorlaeufiger Bericht ueber Versuchsarbeiten mit Kamille in Zusammenarbeit mit der Weleda Arlesheim. Unpublished. Forschunglslaboratorium am Goetheanum, 27 Aug. 1974. 2 Karrer W. Konstitution und Vorkommen der organischen Planzenstojfe (exklusive Alkaloide). Basel: Birkaeuser 1958.
3 Krueger H. Heilmittelangaben Rudolf Steiners. Domach: Medizinische Sektion der Freien Hochschule fuer Geisteswissenschaft am Goetheanum 969-1979 (unpublished).
4 Pedersen PA. Phytochemie und Pharmakologie der Birke - Betula alba L. Eine Uebersicht der Literatur bis 1975 - herausg. 1976 (unpublished).
5 a) Pedersen PA. Equisetum arvense L. Eine Uebersicht der chemischen und pharma-kologischen Untersuchungen. 1978 (unpublished).
b) Strueh H-J. Equisetum und Kiesel. Tycho de Brake Jahrbuch 1989.
6 Pedersen PA. Die Stofflichkeit der Ranunculaceen als Ausdruck der Umkreiskraefte. Unveroeff. Manuskript. September 1983.
7 Pedersen PA. Was sind Bindemittel und welche Bedeutung haben sie bei der Herstellung von Heilmittel-Kompositionen? Vortrag bei der Jahresinformationstagung fuer anthroposophische Aerzte am June 17,1987 in Schwaebisch Gmuend (unpublished).
8 Pedersen PA. Pharmazeutische Betrachtungen zu Gencydo. Merkurstab 1990; 43:98-107.
9 Rysin LP, Antyukhina V. Chemical composition of grass-undershrub plants in pine forests of Moscow district. Lesovedenie 1977:36-4:7.
10 Voronkov MG, Zeichan GI, Lukevitz E. Silizium und Leben. Biochemie, Toxikologie und Phannakologie der Verbindungm des Siliziums. Hrsg. K. Ruehlrnann. Dresden/Berlin: Akademie Verlag 1975.

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