The Language of Plants with Julia Graves

First broadcast 131 days ago

The Language of Plants with Julia Graves

What do plants communicate to us? Herbalist Julia Graves offers a tour of the Surface Horizon exhibition centred on the meticulous observation of the plants that make it up.
She invites us to decode their language, to recognise their medicinal virtues and what they can tell us about the environment in which we live.

During this walk, Julia Graves stops in front of some of the works in the exhibition to listen to what the plants have to say. Her reading of the different chapters of the exhibition is based on her research into the language of plants, as described in her book The Language of Plants. A Guide to the Doctrine of Signatures.
Thursday 22 Jul 2021
from 07 pm to 07:23 pm


Julia Graves is a flower essence practitioner, creator, master herbalist, psychotherapist and homeopath.

She was raised in Germany by an herbalist mother and orthopedic surgeon father. Julia studied herbalism, traditional European medicine, anthroposophic massage as well as cupping as a teenager. She then studied medicine at Kiel University for four years. She wrote her doctoral thesis on her ethno-medical field research on traditional midwives and healers in a remote area of Zimbabwe. Thereafter, Julia trained as a Gestalt psychotherapist. While working as a flower essence counselor for the past 25 years, she focused on working with children, women, and families, as well as using flower essences in energy body work.

In 2010, she founded the Naturopathic Earth Quake Survivor Relief Clinic in response to the devastating earthquake to Haiti, and has headed the clinic in its missions that has since offered free treatment to over 70 000 people.

Julia is the author of The Language of Plants, a detailed guide to the doctrine of signatures, which became an instant classic since its publication in 2012, as well as of The Lily Circle - Practical Guide and Repertory and Healing Animals.



This is the first installation in the exhibition. As a herbalist, I love it because it speaks to me of abandoned land and includes all the plants that I have found here, in the streets of Paris, in all the neglected corners of the pavement. It speaks to me of the great power of nature to reestablish itself, to take back the land and the soil. 

I don’t think most people who come here will even see this work because, for them, these plants are to be ignored. But for me, these are plants that bring us great gifts: for example, here is the thistle and it’s a plant that supposedly loves to be mistreated. So, it’s a plant with immense power, with a root that goes down very deeply into the earth. 

If it gets eaten, or gets cut, it doesn’t mind. It will come up and make its flowers here again. And it’s also a warrior plant that is extremely well defended. It has thorns everywhere, and it says to us: ‘Come near me, and I’ll sting you, I’ll pierce you.’ And the same here, with its flowers. It stings so much that animals won’t eat it. Here we can see the treasure of the future, the seeds that it will send to the future to propagate itself. I love these plants that you can’t easily eradicate, that you can’t easily destroy. That is what this plant bed evokes for me. 

When I turn away from this plant bed, I see this wall completely invaded by jasmine and passion flower. This is the chapter on plants that have the power to take over the land, to colonize it. Here, we see a kind of green wave that takes over the wall. In fact, these are plants that have the power to climb, to suffocate, and to crush something in order to take back their place on the planet. 

I really like the fact that here, in the gallery, it’s actually passion flower that grows. It’s a sedative plant that everyone should take as an herbal tea at this point to slow down, because Parisians go too fast, are too agitated to even notice the subtlety of the plants and the exhibition and the message of this exhibition. The voice of plants and nature. So, everyone, breathe in, breathe out, to go into the spaces. 

Down here is the next chapter on observant plants, that is plants that have properties for the eyes. The chapter is called The Tears. This is cornflower, a very, very fragile flower for blue eyes, which are fragile. This is its signature: it looks like the blue iris of very fragile eyes. It was distilled historically, here in France, to wash fragile eyes. So, for me, there is this link with the gaze and the fragile blue eyes of the first sculpture entitled The Murmur. With these figures that are kind of surprised and disturbed, looking out into the distance. In fact, that’s the name of this exhibition, Surface Horizon, which looks at nature from a distance. What can I discover there? This plant, the cornflower, would be one of the healing plants for these figures in this sculpture, to heal them, to wash the invisible tears from their eyes. 

This part of the exhibition is called Levitation and it’s an extraordinary work. In fact, it’s the first sculpture or artistic expression I’ve ever seen in my life that is made from plants. And it’s both a real sea and landscape. It’s beautiful and shocking to me, as someone who works with plants. It’s really shocking to see this kind of mixture of plants together; in truth, you would never find them together in nature. For example, this wave of orchids is from a greenhouse and they would never be found like this on the ground with ivy. It makes me feel uncomfortable and makes me think: ‘What have we done to plants?’ There are some genuinely wild ones here that are directly from nature and some things that are really... I would say man-made. You can even see the stakes here to get them in that position. But for me, the ‘levitation’ is that they will run away. They’re going to run away from the earth; the orchid, normally comes cascading down from the treetops. And there, I think, you can see where the orchids start to rise and run upwards. 

Here, in this huge mess and chaos created by humans with plants and nature, there are also lots of medicinal plants related to infections, like echinacea for example. It’s one of the most valuable plants for increasing immunity and I always wondered why it wasn’t mentioned during the pandemic. In fact, the COVID pandemic has allowed this space to be filled with these images and these works. Actually, it’s also a very important issue, for plants as well, because we don’t only have human epidemics at the moment, but also epidemics that affect animals and also plants. They too are ill. 

Down here, there is a chamomile. Chamomile is also very good at fighting infections. It is very, very specific, traditionally used for abscesses and when Marguerite, the sculptor, spoke of this work as magma that makes big bubbles, it reminded me of abscesses that will also erupt from the skin. For me, there’s really an extraordinary link with this plant sculpture. 

Here we have the lungwort, which is the signature of the lungs. It’s called lungwort because it’s one of the most prized medicinal plants. We use lungwort, a traditional plant for the lungs, to restore moisture to the lungs. That’s exactly what the victims of COVID have suffered from, the lungs are too dry. But nature has given us a remedy for that. That is the lungwort, which is always down there, in humid places. And these stains, most people won’t know it, but actually our lungs, if you cut them off from the body, if you open up the body, are stained like this, especially here in Paris, because of the pollution. 

In this extreme plant sculpture, there is also mullein—it’s the yellow plants, the flowers. It’s an extraordinary plant for the lungs, particularly the lungs that have been subjected to the fine particles of urban pollution. In fact, it’s one of the plants that will grow right next to the Périphérique, in the cracks of the concrete itself, in an extremely polluted place. It helps the lungs to defend themselves against the fine particles. For me, this sculpture is really an illustration of complete confusion because the mullein is next to the orchids despite the way in which they are grown in greenhouses with chemicals which, in fact, destroy nature. So you have the plant that helps us survive pollution and the plant that pollutes, or rather that is produced in a polluting way. 

Here, at the main entrance, a very moving sculpture stares at us with a confused, lost, and disturbed look. I’m sorry to say that it reminds me of the look that I find in today’s children, in the new generation, who no longer have a connection with nature. That, for me, is the innocence of children who look around and say: ‘But what is this place? What kind of world is this?’ A century ago, all children knew, say, one or two hundred plants. That’s how we were born. It’s as if we were a computer and our brain was a computer. It’s as if the programme was made to recognize plants. 

Everybody knew how to pick food, to fill their empty stomach, to learn how to heal themselves. If that is taken away from us, as human beings, we are in fact robbed of our natural heritage. For me, the natural consequence of this is that confused, disturbed, disoriented look. 

The room with the diving girls reminds me of the fact that we owe all our oxygen to plants. Without plants, we would be dead in a few days. We are like the divers, our oxygen is finite, we have to go up quickly, otherwise we will die. Also, the divers are very anxious because we have already polluted the sea. We can no longer eat what is in it and we can no longer find what used to be in it. This diver’s hand evokes that, the anguish of not being able to find anything to eat in the sea anymore and knowing that she soon won’t have any oxygen and will have to go back to the surface in a hurry. 

Here, we are in the greenhouse. I love this part of the exhibition because I’m in the greenhouse, in the greenhouse effect, in the desertification that we have created. And at eye level, I look at the cracks, the clay that is cracking and the plants that are struggling, the drought and the overly strong light. This part of the exhibition is called The Desert Oracles. The Desert Oracle says: ‘We plants are in pain, but we can be healed. Why? Because we are all one, united.’ What this means is that if I burn my hand in a fire, I will do everything I can to heal it. Why don’t we do the same thing for the Earth? If we destroy it, if we pollute it, why don’t we act immediately? That’s what the Desert Oracles say to me. 

The Desert Oracles are also the plants that tell us about desertification. There is the fat-hen, which is very, very common in our fields, it invades them. Why? Because there are too many nitrates for other plants to grow. There is the mullein, which tells us that it is the only one that can survive air pollution. There is also the shepherd’s-purse, which is already dried out and will stop the bleeding. It would be very useful to us once we are injured by the destruction that we have created. Then there’s also the peony: it’s the opium which will relieve the pain. So, once injured, we can find relief with this plant. The peony spread very, very quickly in the great destruction, like the little peony, the poppy, which spread in the great destruction of the war, the First World War, in the fields destroyed by the bombs. And there is also the plantain, which indicates soil that is too compacted. It’s one of the few plants that can grow in soil that has been overly compacted by heavy vehicles. So, that’s what plants are, the oracles of the desert, of the destruction that we have caused to the earth. 

Here we are in the chapter of the exhibition called Reanimation. There are steles with imaginary plants that do not exist and will never exist. As a herbalist, it makes me really uncomfortable to see these plants because there’s something in me that tells me that they will never exist in this way. 

I can see that the shape reminds me of a horsetail, although it’s an imaginary horsetail here. But horsetail contains natural silica which is found in bones, in hair. And here, it’s very much like hair. It strengthens us and our spine, it gives elasticity to the joints and articulations, and it is a plant that is so resistant that it can give resilience to tissues and bodies, so much so that, in the past, it was used as a scouring pad. They used it to polish tin. Its German name, zinnkraut, means tin grass. Projected into the future, this is a plant that could be our guide and teacher in the subject of resilience. How do you survive, how do you defend yourself? 

Here, there is another stele and a sculpture inspired by an orchid whose flower has very long petals, like flags. It does this to imitate the shape of the insect that will come to fertilize it. There’s a great interplay between the flower and the insect: it’s almost as if the flower is trying to attract the insect for fertilization. In other languages, the name of this plant means snake tongue, because it looks like a snake’s tongue coming out. It’s very interesting for me to see that the other sculptor—this is Marguerite’s, this is Jean-Marie’s—saw the moray eel in it, an animal that is similar to a snake. For me, it’s about fertilization—the creative possibility in the universe that, we hope, will give birth in the future to other lives that we can’t yet imagine. 

Here we are in the penultimate chapter which symbolizes the sun, with this beautiful sculpture that is made of a material that absorbs the most sun possible. For me, this is really the place of peace, the ascension, the transmutation of all the emotions that have been conjured up by this exhibition in me. I would like to convey in this film what you can smell here: it smells like chamomile, like fresh clay, like earth, like herbs that symbolize the sun. It’s in the sunniest part of the museum. 

Here, you can resolve all the internal conflicts the exhibition has given rise to. For example, here we have chamomile, a solar plant—you can already see the signature, the little sun. It is very well known for chasing away the clouds of the soul, depression, difficult temperaments, emotional tensions. It brings back the sunshine of the soul. 

Here, there are other plants, like this one, from the sunflower family. As a herbalist, for me it symbolizes all the plants that turn to the sun. Like this sculpture, which is really a little meditation room inside which you can find your peace. And behind it, there is this wonderful sculpture of the horizontal plane of the Earth. For me, it symbolizes how evolution took place. Because this bas-relief is made with fresh clay. And you can see here how the sculptor has created structures on it using moulds, the outside of moulds. I like that very much because in fact, what is clay? It’s the shells of the moulds that have created this clay over time. For me, it really speaks about how the evolution of our whole planet came from the sea. And above it, the sun is rising.

It’s a very, very peaceful place, where I can resolve all the questions that the exhibition brought up for me. For me, this is where we have to ask ourselves: ‘The exhibition has alerted me to the reality of nature. Here, I am in peace, in meditation. Now, what do I decide from here? What will I take from here? What have I learned for the future? For our earth?’