"Herbal Octaves: The Resonance of Plant Medicines

Judith Boice, ND, LAc, FABNO – The harmonics of music offer a very helpful paradigm for understanding the more subtle effects of plant medicines. You may have had the experience of striking a note on a piano and hearing or feeling other objects in the room start to vibrate. These objects literally resonate with particular notes. Similarly, our own bodies resonate with particular frequencies.

Using the analogy of the piano keyboard, drugs and surgery resonate with the bass range, foods and botanicals the octaves around middle C, and more subtle, energetic modalities such as acupuncture, homeopathy, flower essences and visualization occupy the upper octaves of the keyboard. Each person has a particular “home base” on the keyboard, a note that when struck will elicit a sympathetic resonance in that individual. Faced with a major illness, ideally a patient would consider the offerings of the entire keyboard, just as Rachmaninoff prided himself on using every note on the keyboard in his piano concerti. Instead of avoiding “dissonant” or non-resonant therapies, someone can emphasize their “home base” therapy to help moderate the side effects of less resonant frequencies.

BOTANICALS

Most herbal materia medicas begin with descriptions of the physical material of the herbs, dividing each plant into different components:

  • Root
  • Stem
  • Leaf
  • Flower
  • Fruit
  • Seed

Each part of the plant may have slightly—or sometimes radically—different constituents, and therefore medicinal effects. Dandelion (Taraxacum officinalis) leaves, for example, have very different botanical actions from the roots.

All parts of the plant, however, share a common essence—an archetype that unifies and guides the plant’s own growth and maturation as well as its medicinal effects. This essence plays a central role in understanding the concept of musical octaves in working with herbs.

GEMMOTHERAPY

If fresh or dried plant leaves and roots resonate with middle C, then the next harmonic preparation of a plant above that note would be plant extracts made from the emerging buds of plants as is done in Gemmotherapy. The term is derived from the Greek gemmo, meaning “embryo”. The harmonic would be a perfect fifth, rather than an octave, because Gemmotherapy medicines, while still formulated from fresh plant materials, are made from a more nutritionally and metabolically active portion of the plant. Plant buds are densely packed with nutrients and active constituents that make these remedies particularly potent in very small drop dosages.

Gemmotherapy remedies are prepared in two ways: water, glycerine and alcohol extracts made without dilution, and diluted remedies that border on low dose homeopathic preparations.

ESSENTIAL OILS

Essential oils resonate an octave above middle C. Essential oils are also made from plant material. These potent volatile oils protect against insect invasion and may facilitate communication with other plants. These aromatic oils may also be a means by which a plant attracts human attention and interaction. Most humans study evolutionary adaptations and marvel at the plants’ development of certain flower shapes to aid the landing of bees and other pollinators, scents to attract certain insects, and tasty fruits that tantalize birds and other animals to feed and then disperse their seeds. Many humans, however, are reluctant to consider themselves part of this evolutionary interspecies wooing process. Some authors have suggested that plants may have developed particular essential oils and scents to attract human attention and encourage us to use, protect and cultivate their particular species.

Because essential oils naturally comprise only about 1 – 2 % of the plant material, they are extremely concentrated, potent extracts. To produce an ounce of rose essential oil, for example, requires two tons (4,000 pounds) of rose petals.

As volatile oils, these essential oil extracts directly impact the central nervous system when inhaled. Breathing them in allows direct absorption through the lungs into the bloodstream and therefore into systemic circulation. Some essential oils can be ingested but are very hard on the hepatic detoxification system. Kurt Schnaubelt, PhD hypothesizes that the essential oil content in plants may have catalyzed the human development of Phase I liver detoxification pathways:


. . . essential oils are among the native agents responsible for the development of the liver detoxification enzymes and especially for those with the ability to remove lipophilic xenobiotics (lipophilic substances foreign to the body). Thus the system of cytochrome P450 enzymes (CYP) – as the various Phase I liver detoxification enzymes are also called – developed to its current state.

When taken internally, one drop of essential oil is roughly equivalent to ingesting 30 cups of tea!

Ideally, essential oils are ingested only when prescribed by a physician or other healthcare professional with advanced training in aromatherapy. Per orem essential oil prescriptions are more common in Europe and are prepared in encapsulated vegetable oil suspensions by compounding pharmacies. Patients rarely take these prescriptions for more than a week or two at a time.

FLOWER ESSENCES AND HOMEOPATHIC REMEDIES

Flower essences and homeopathic remedies have similar octave ranges, 2 – 3 octaves above middle C. I think of flower essences as having similar frequencies to lower dose (6c and 12c) homeopathic remedies. Higher potency homeopathic remedies (200c, 1M and higher) resonate at the very highest octaves on the keyboard. These statements are based on personal experience with patients. Currently we do not have the tools or instruments to measure these more refined energetic therapies. In my opinion, that is a failing of our existing technology, not the potency or efficacy of the remedies. For understanding the effects of more subtle medicines, I think of our current testing devices as yardsticks trying to measure the pitch of a note. We simply lack the appropriate tools to measure these phenomena. Hopefully, as our understanding of more subtle therapies progresses, our ability to measure their effects will develop as well.

Flower Essences

After completing his medical training in 1912, Edward Bach, MD studied and researched the newly emerging science of vaccinations at the University College Hospital. In 1919, he began working as a staff physician at London Homoeopathic Hospital. As described by Matthew Wood in Vitalism: The History of Herbalism, Homeopathy, and Flower Essences, Bach was given a copy of Hahnemann’s Organon “. . . to acquaint him with the philosophy of the hospital. He wasn’t looking forward to the reading, but after a few pages Bach realized the genius of Hahnemann and the relationship between his own discoveries in immunology and the principles of homeopathy.”

While at the hospital, Bach noted that patients tended to develop particular illnesses when they developed certain mental and emotional patterns. Fascinated with this connection between mental, emotional, and physical health, he left his practice in England and returned to his native home in Wales.

There he developed a series of illnesses. While sick he would roam the countryside, looking for plants that drew his attention. When he found a resonant plant, he would gather the blossoms and prepare them as a “flower essence.” Although Bach is credited with the development of flower essences, in truth he was rediscovering an ancient practice. He would place the flowers in a small glass bowl filled with spring water and leave the flower filled bowl of water in the sun for four hours. The water would become “potentized” by means of its contact with the flowers and the sun. This “essence” was preserved with alcohol and reserved to make “stock” for further dilutions of the remedy.

Over the course of four years, Bach discovered and researched 38 remedies. Some who have studied Bach’s work claim that these 38 remedies are the only ones humanity will ever need to address all diseases. Bach himself, however, encouraged people to develop their own relationship with plant allies. In his book The Twelve Healers, Bach notes that “In this system of healing, everything may be done by the people themselves; even, if they like, the finding of the plants and the making of the remedies.”

The primary sphere of influence for the flower essences are the mental and emotional realms. The flower essences do not take away emotions, or attempt to “cure” them, like anti-depressants or anti-anxiety drugs. Instead, the flower essences provide more internal ballast to allow more ease in addressing emotional issues.

In turn, as the mental and emotional spheres are harmonized, the physical body can relax into a more functional, balanced state. The flower essences can and do have profound effects on the body. They access and support the physical body through the mental and emotional realms.

Homeopathic medicines

Homeopathic remedies cover several octaves because of the wide variety of potencies. Low potency (lower dilution) remedies often are prescribed for acute, physical ailments and for young children.

The more dilute the remedy, the higher the potency—a concept that flies in the face of conventional pharmacology. Correspondingly, the more dilute the remedy, the closer it moves to the essence referred to above.

Homeopathic remedies have the potential to catalyze change in the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual realms. Using our music analogy, sounding certain clear, pure tones can give rise to a series of harmonics – thirds, fifths, sixths, octaves. These “overtones” may explain why homeopathic remedies can cause responses on many different levels. The challenge in homeopathy often is not only discovering the correct remedy, but also the most appropriate potency to “ring true” with the patient.

Perhaps Hahnemann developed the practice of prescribing increasing and then decreasing potencies of the same remedy over time to ensure that the patient was exposed to all of the “overtones” of the remedy, to support the patient in “re-tuning” on many levels.

PLANT EXAMPLES

Certain herbs seem more suited to certain octaves than others. Very few medicines are prepared in all four octaves (plant/gemmotherapy, essential oil, flower essence and homeopathic remedy). This omission may stem from an instinctive sense of the optimal octave for a plant’s particular actions. Perhaps we can also use these principles to expand our exploration of herbs at different octaves than they currently are being prepared and utilized.

Choosing the correct octave

Years ago I suffered with a bladder infection that caused severe urethral spasms at the end of urination, a symptom that suggested homeopathic Sarsaparilla. I took Sarsaparilla 30c for a day with no improvement. After dosing the dried herb sarsaparilla (2 capsules every 2 – 3 hours), my symptoms began to improve. With my current understanding I would not say homeopathic Sarsaparilla was the wrong remedy, but rather that my body required a “lower octave” to address that particular illness.

Sometimes more physical symptoms require lower octaves. This correspondence does not always apply, however. Ipecacuanha, for example, triggers vomiting as an herb (middle C), yet resolves nausea and vomiting as a homeopathic remedy (at a “higher” octave).

Other examples include Hawthorne (Crataegus officinalis), which is prepared as an herb, gemmotherapy, flower essence and homeopathic remedy, but is usually not prepared as an essential oil. Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) is one of the few herbs available in all four octaves. It is utilized as an herb, rarely as a gemmotherapy (one producer, the Florihana Distillery in France), essential oil, flower essence (Flower Essence Society, not one of the 38 Bach Flower Remedies), and as a homeopathic remedy (Lavandula vera, with a proving in 2000 by the Dynamis Group in Montpellier, France)—. Arnica montana currently can be prescribed as an herb (a toxic botanical, for external use only), flower essence (Flower Essence Society) and homeopathic remedy, but is not widely available as an essential oil. In fact, large scale production of essential oil of Arnica, a wildflower that grows at high altitudes, could rapidly deplete the available native Arnica montana plants.

Each plant shares a common “essence” among the different preparations, but the remedies resonate at different octaves and therefore have different effects. The plant may have subtly different actions, such as lavender that maintains its essentially soothing nature throughout the higher and lower octaves. Lavandula vera 30c, though, did cause some stimulating effects among some of those participating in a 2001 proving in Provence, France given by Frederique Dervieux and Francois Simon. Others have markedly different effects at different octaves, such as Ipecacuanha, as noted above.

The art of working with plant medicines includes choosing not only the most appropriate herb, but also the most resonant “octave” of the plant—resulting in the highest benefit for each individual patient.

  1. Berthou, F. “Cytochrome P450 Enzyme Regulation by Induction and Inhibition” (lecture series, University of Chile, Santiago de Chile, October 8 – 12, 2001.) Quoted in Schnaubelt, Kurt. The Healing Intelligence of Essential Oils: The Science of Advanced Aromatherapy. Rochester, Vermont: Healing Arts Press, 2011, pp. 45 - 46.
  2. Wood, Matthew. Vitalism: The History of Herbalism, Homeopathy, and Flower Essences. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books, 2005, page 186,
  3. Bach, Edward, MD. The Twelve Healers. New Canaan, CT: Keats Publishing, Inc., 1979.
  4. Dervieux, Frederique and Simon, Francois. Lavandula vera, a proving from Provence. Presentation given at the Trobada d’Oc Congress – Collioure 2001