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  The Liliaceae

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By: Wilhelm Pelikan

The Liliaceae
Sulphureous succulence, congestion and rocketing growth

Translation from the German of the twentieth chapter of 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 Goetheanum/Dornach. Switzerland, whose permission should be sought for reproduction. Translator: A. R. Meuss, FIL. Member of the Translators' Guild.

In the Liliaceae, the class of monocotyledons reach their highest development, the pinnacle of flowering form. The lily family offers quite a variety of forms, yet basically it has a very simple, easily discernible pattern of growth. One feature shown by the family type is etheric congestion*), watery, mucilaginous swelling. Bulbs, corms and rhizomes are characteristically formed, so that this plastic swelling and congestive growth takes place beneath the surface of the soil; it frequently extends also to the leaf process, holding it back close to the sphere of subterranean organs, where rosettes may form. Bulb formation – sometimes below ground, sometimes half in the earth and half above it – does of course represent a leaf principle held back in a closed-up, swollen bud, around a shoot pushed down and compressed to the nth degree? Actual root development is poor and rather primitive, as in many of the monocotyledons. This indicates that the Liliaceae arose during an early period of earth development and plant evolution, a time when growth took place not in the solid, mineral earth of today, but in a softer, more plastic, fluid soil. The plants belonging to this family do give the impression of something childlike, soft, primitive, indeed embryonic. What they desire, first and foremost, is to become a living drop, a watery sphere.

A tremendous effort is required to move out of such watery succulence, and advance to a flowering process of great intensity in scent, color, and form. A long period during which the plant rests within the rounded sphere is followed by vehement release from tension, arrow-straight upward-rocketing growth, with the plant giving itself up entirely to the upper elements of light, air and warmth, and the worlds of color. The watery, mercurial principle gives way to a tremendous sulfur process that needs the assistance of the element sulfur itself to come about, especially in the subgroup of the Allioideae. Sulfur substance enters into the fluid proteinic plasticity, releases from it the sulfur-containing essential oil that is found in all the onion family, and channels it up into the volatile sphere of floral scents. Thus the lily plant ascends from the fluid sphere to the region of airy elements. Even the most lovely perfumes of this family, like those of the lily-­of-the-valley and the hyacinth, always have a hint of something sharp and inflammatory, onion-sulfurous, lingering in the background. It is because their protein processes are "sulfur-treated" like this that members of the Liliaceae, watery and succulent as they are, nevertheless are also strongly permeated with light and warmth.

Liliaceae existence therefore swings to and fro between mercury and sulfur principles. Salt, the earth processes, have little part in it. Mineralization, lignification, tree growth, is unusual in the family. The assimilative process does not condense as far as starch formation; it suffices for it to have concentrated as far as a slimy, sugary stage that holds on to the watery principle with great tenacity, preventing it from evaporating into the air.

Despite the simplicity of its basic theme, the family type is capable of producing much variety, and has given rise to approximately 2600 species. The individual species are distributed over the whole of the earth; the far north and alpine regions with their crystalline rock-forces, the "salt" pole of the earth, have to do without them, however, whilst they love the sulfurous climates of the tropics and subtropics. There are no aquatic or swamp plants among them, for water on the outside would only interfere with formative forces closing themselves up within their own fluid sphere. A drop form, waiting for the light to come and fill it with color, waiting to arise itself as a form of color, would be threatened in its existence as an individual drop by large expanses of water, in danger of dissolving into them. The cold of polar regions on the other hand would cause this fluid entity to freeze and become an ice crystal.

Protein, the "water of life", always needs sulfur, as we have stated in an earlier chapter, the substance "the spirit uses to moisten its fingers" before it moulds the stuff of life. In the Liliaceae, sulfur assists mercury to make the transition into the flowering process.

With this transition into the flowering region, the lily process explodes into another principle of form—the six-pointed star that is characteristic of all the monocotyledons. What a transition this is, from a drop form to a hexagon. The hexagon is of course inherent in the circle, with the radius equal to the length of one side of the inscribed hexagon; in geometrical terms, circle and hexagon show the most intimate relationship one can think of. If we consider a drop of water, from its origin, the precipitation of a rain drop, making it subject to the earth, and then rising in the opposite direction, upwards into the heights that are part of the cosmos ... up there it may have been an ice or snow crystal, until winter brought it floating down to earth. Water has a drop form on the one hand, and the hexagonal shape of a snow crystal on the other. In the lily, this inner nature of water is expressed as a living form, rounded and drop-like in the lower, and radiantly hexagonal in the upper organs. The image could be expressed like this: the lily archetype streams down from above as a six-pointed star, in cosmic purity and coolness, and melts into a watery drop as it touches the surface of the earth.

The type outlined above is shown most clearly by the Liliaceae growing in the temperate regions, particularly around the Mediterranean. In early spring they produce a head of leaves, keeping it close to the congested subterranean organ, be it a root stock, corm or bulb. Often enough, this looks like an onion opening out half way. In the summer-flowering species, a leaf element is taken upwards, spiraling, with the flowering shoot, or may gather itself again, rosette-like, in a leafy head at the top. The calyx with its three sepals loses its greenness, assuming the same color as the three-petalled corolla. This gives a six-petalled appearance to the flower.

Snowdrops** see the winter out, squill, bog asphodel, grape hyacinth, daffodils, narcissi and tulips bring beauty to spring; lilies and crown imperial are part of summer, and the meadow saffron concludes the procession. This is how the family type spreads itself across the growing season in our latitudes. In warmer climates, the brief spring of deserts and steppes is made manifest by Liliaceae. For one wondrous week, their life, carefully protected below ground in corms and bulbs, floods the desolate earth with the color and scent of millions of blooms. Bulb formation may be pushed up above ground level to some distance, on a short, stout stem, with thick, fleshy green leaves, pointed and prickly, the whole structure opening out half-way or completely; after many years, often, of vegetative stasis in this type of succulent structure, an impressive inflorescence suddenly shoots upwards, like a candle or a rocket, and in this the plant often exhales its life. The aloes and dragon-trees of Africa, yucca and nolina in the desert steppes of Mexico, Texas and California, the bowstring hemps (Sanseviera species) of India and Africa, and the Australian "grass-tree" are of this nature.

In the 100 asparagus species, the bulb has become a much branched system of underground shoots; the leaves of these tall and slender climbing shrubs have sacrificed their existence to stem formation, dissolving into bushy branches of airy greenery. In the asparagus species, lily nature has transcended itself and entered into the sphere of the air, has developed "in the air and for the air", whilst onions and leeks, for instance, incorporate air elements in their hollow fleshy leaves.

Tropical forests provide the habitat for spider plants and Smilax species (prickly ivy, sarsaparilla); these climb up into the trees, twining or holding on with tendrils that are lateral leaf organs, with backward curving spines or similar structures on their stems; or they are hanging plants, nesting in the branches, sending down long aerial roots. One might say they are living one floor higher up than our own Liliaceae, in a region full of upward proliferating earth forces, where they tend to get somewhat out of hand. The flowers with their beautiful perfume on the other hand become insignificant. In many of these species, saponins may be found in the bulbous root stock.

Medicinal plants among the Liliaceae
The medicinal plants of this family show one-sided development, in one direction or another, of the basic type. As they are strongly flowering plants, the action is on metabolic processes, chiefly in the lower organization, and largely follows the paths taken by sulfur in the body. Digestive activity is stimulated, the liquefied food is made more accessible to the etheric body and taken over into anabolic processes, handed over to the part of the astral body that is active in metabolism, and left to be breathed through, permeated, with the airy organization. The fluid organization is filled with light and warmth where it is caught up in morbid congestion, and excess fluid is eliminated. Inflammatory swellings and watery from exudation in the region of the head and neck have their plant counter-process and polar opposite in the bulb process, a process situated between root and leaf. For details of this, see the descriptions of individual plants.

Allium sativum, garlic
Congestive growth occurs at first, in the small centre bulb which has multiplied vegetatively, producing daughter bulbs of equal size all around itself (the cloves). In spring, the plant shoots upwards, producing a stem about 75 cm in height, accompanied by four or five grass-like carinate leaves. The shoot rapidly develops a loose umbel of flowers. Emerging from an enveloping leaf that is broad at the base and terminates in a point, this opens out in summer, with two dozen bulbils revealing the earthy bulb-forming principle untransformed and unchanged, and between them a few long-stemmed flowers, white and six-pointed. Garlic thus presents an interesting variation on the Liliaceae theme. The whole plant is filled with the persistent, fiery, sulfurous leek smell (aliyl propyl disulphide). It grows wild in the hot, dry regions of the Mediterranean and Asia Minor.

This plant, which pushes bulb formation right up into the flower, helps the upper organization to find the right way of acting on the lower organization, especially the digestive process. With its assistance, the ego and astral body will break down the food energetically and completely in the gastrointestinal region, and, owing to the sulfur processes, the degraded food is well prepared when it is handed over to the etheric body to be imbued with life. Alien astrality, parasitic elements, are thus deprived of a substrate, and the intestinal flora kept within normal range. Freed from all foreign elements, the food will not give rise to allergic reactions and rheumatic processes in the body. The result is a general improvement in resistance. Correct dosage is however important with this powerful medicinal herb. It also relieves intestinal spasms and has a soothing effect, liberating the astral body when it has become caught up in spasms in the intestinal region.

With the lower processes "put to rights", the upper organization is relieved of pathological metabolic processes; the fact that this medicinal plant lives so strongly in bulb formation immediately gives a dynamic relationship with the region of the head and chest. Chronic bronchial catarrh, asthma, bronchiectasis, pulmonary emphysema, and even gangrene of the lung have been treated with garlic; in this sphere, too, which as part of the respiratory organization belongs particularly to the astral body, the effect is to establish proper astral activity in coordination with the processes of the fluid, etheric principle. The hypotensive, antisclerotic action of the plant may be seen in conjunction with this; the intensely "sulfurized" process between root and leaf (bulb information) counteracts excessive "salt" processes, tendencies to mineralize and form deposits. The beneficial action on vascular damage due to nicotine or vitamin D poisoning may also be ascribed to this.

Allium ursinum, ramsons, broad-leaved garlic
This is a real forest leek. From an elongated bulb grow glossy, green, broadly elliptical basal leaves and a slender stalk bearing the handsome umbel of white star-shaped flowers; these develop into trilocular capsules with black seeds that are carried off by ants. Growing in large colonies, ramsons fill the forest air with "sulfur". One the flowering is over, the plant soon dies.

This plant, too, has digestive and anthelminthinc properties; it prevents metabolic processes from erupting upwards into the sphere of the nerves and senses. On the other hand it also has an action on the "upper" organization, benefiting more the lung region, if there are catarrhal conditions, as one would expect with a well-developed leaf process.

Allium cepa, onion
In this member of the lily family, too, growth is congestive in the first year, with bulb formation at root level, and the air-filled, hollow leaves kept close to the ground. The following year, the inflorescence shoots upwards, a spherical umbel removing itself as far from the ground as possible. Allium cepa also originated in the Orient. It has aromatic sulfurous elements in all its parts, a wide variety of "sulfurous" substances. Other constituents derive from a vitality held down in the plastic, fluid element: mucilage, inulin, sugars, elements governing the sugar process (glycokinins), biocatalysts, vitamin C (see also under Cruciferae). Reduced to a pulp, onions give off rays that will greatly stimulate cell division (Gurwitsch radiation). Flavone glycosides and substances that strengthen cardiac activity have also been found in the onion.

The digestive, metabolism-accelerating "sulfurous" action is again greatly emphasized. The flow of bile is stimulated. In addition, the whole of the fluid organization is brought more strongly under the influence of the astral body; diuresis is greatly encouraged, watery congestion, oedemata, exudation into the tissues, are overcome and removed. The plant, with its bulb formation, also acts on the head and chest region, reducing inflammatory processes and stimulating the secretion of mucus. Used externally, as a poultice, onions will reduce inflammatory swelling (insect bites, paronychia), and on the other hand act as a derivative skin irritant. These polar spheres of action are a reflection, in the human organism, of the dynamics of the onion plant—on the one hand congested in the root region, on the other energetically exploding into the flowering process.

Urginea maritima (U. scilla, Scilla maritima), squill
A native of Mediterranean shores, this plant with its large bulb manages to live in a salty habitat, in an abundance of light and intense heat. The perennial bulb, its outer scales a reddish brown, may reach a diameter of 30 cm. The greater part of it stands out above the soil. In spring, this enormous, swollen structure sends forth a slender stem about a meter high and with a gentle S-curve to it, that terminates in a close spike of numerous white flowers with crimson stripes; these emerge laterally. When the flowering is over, the bulb produces a head of leaves the length of a span.

The plant was well known for its medicinal virtues to the ancient Egyptians. It was given the name "eye of Typhon" in antiquity. The onion-type action is greatly enhanced in the squill, with digitalis-like steroid glycosides (scillarin A and scillarin B) produced in addition to the volatile sulphureous compounds common to these plants. Medicinal preparations made from the fleshy inner scales have a powerful action on the fluid organism, where they bring about the energetic elimination of pathological cumulations of fluid, when the fluid has withdrawn from the sphere of action of the etheric organization to become "dead water". The astral body will come in strongly, squeezing out the fluid, as it were (action in cases of dropsy, ascites, anasarca, and also the watery inflammatory effusions of pleurisy). Inflammatory processes in the region of the bladder and kidneys respond well to the drug. On the other hand there is also an action on the region of the head and chest in cases of chronic bronchitis and of asthma in the elderly. Plants showing this kind of tension between etheric and astral processes always have an action on the rhythmic system, for a rhythmic equilibrium is constantly re-established between these processes. These plants act on the heart and on respiration. In the squill, the rapid transition from congested etheric processes to the unleashing of flowering processes governed by astral principles occurs in spring, the season of rhythm. It is only after the upward elimination of its flowering nature that the plant enters into proper leaf formation (always kept close to the bulb).

The crushed leaves have been used externally to treat wounds, burns, and suppurative inflammatory processes (boils, paronychia), in the same way as with other members of the lily family that we have described.

Colchicum autumnale, meadow saffron, autumn crocus, naked ladies
Having made ourselves familiar with the life and growth patterns of the family type and a number of Liliaceae, we find, as we come to consider Colchicum, that this plant shows distinctive anti-tendencies. As it comes into flower, the vital powers of the year are declining, with plant life withdrawing into root and seed. The meadow saffron flower thus stays at the level of the corm; the flowering process is pushed right down into the subterranean sphere, the upper forced down upon the under, without the mediating rhythmical middle, the leaf principle. The life rhythm of this plant resists the normal rhythm of life. The "rocketing growth" of Liliaceae coming into flower, leaving behind and beneath all that is leaf and root, free to rise into the upper regions, here remains caught up in the congestive sphere of the corm. After pollination, the microspores germinating on the stigma take many weeks to reach the ovules in the ovary situated on the corm below; "fertilization" occurs only at around Christmas; the seeds are formed in the sphere not of summery but of wintry forces. In spring, when all "normal" plant life goes into flowering, the infructescence arises, with its dark seed capsule, and it is at that time, too, that the leaves finally appear, to produce the new corm which will bear flowers in the autumn. During the summer, the plant stays quiescent beneath the ground. Spring and autumn, summer and winter have changed places for the meadow saffron.

It is not surprising that a plant like this is highly poisonous. The "anti tendencies" of the meadow saffron produce the poison. It is evident to the eye that the astral is coming in much too strongly. Colchicine, the alkaloid found in every part of the  plant and most of all in the seed, is the most powerful mitotic poison known to man. It inhibits the stages preceding cell division and multiplication. Seeds treated with colchicine get completely out of hand etherically, with their formative forces cut off, in a sense, from the spiritual form principle; erratic mutations occur, of a type seen normally only as the result of an extreme provocation such as X-ray or radium treatment.

The medicinal actions of Colchicum do follow the lily theme, but in greatly meta­morphosed form. Vomiting and diarrhea, dropsy, scarlatina) nephritis and uric acid diathesis are treated with Colchicum. The astral body is encouraged to act more strongly on the lower organization, and particularly its eliminatory processes. On the other hand, a powerful action is to be expected in the region between head and chest, in line with the development of a corm in the plant. This action can be utilized particularly if there are "anti-tendencies" to normal form processes in the upper organization, a tendency to form deposits, to harden or form tumors in that region, and especially a tendency to hyperplasia of the thyroid. Rudolf Steiner suggested the use of preparations made from the flowering corm for the treatment of goitre, describing how this condition is due to "atony of the astral body", causing the ego organization to be pushed back by the physical and etheric bodies. Cochicum acts as a powerful stimulant for the part of the astral body which is active in the region of the larynx. Thyroid activity, of great importance in many metabolic processes (as may be seen from its effect on basal metabolism), is spurred on by increased activity of the astral body. (Bearing its flowering process within itself, the meadow saffron corm is particularly well suited to the task of stimulating thryoid activity and guiding it towards metabolism.) Rudolf Steiner has also recommended the use of Colchicum roots as a remedy for inflammatory and proliferative processes affecting the meninges.

The action of Colchicum preparations on gouty and rheumatic conditions, particularly in the joints, also relates clearly to what has been said above. The reader is advised to compare the description given above with that of Mandragora. 1)

© A. R. Meuss 1981

*) Readers who are not familiar with the terminology used here may find it helpful to read the first three chapters of the book. These were published in translation in The British Homoeopathic Journal, 59, 164-173 and 224-234 (available as reprints in part 1 of Healing Plants, Rudolf Steiner Press, London).

**) Botanically, snowdrops, daffodils and narcissi belong to a closely related family, the Amaryllidaceae; their growth pattern is the same, however, as the lily process presented here, so that they may be included in the description.

1) Pelikan W. The Solanaceae. Br. Hom. J. 1975: 254 59.

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