An oft-repeated story has it that the sirloin steak was invented when King Henry VIII dubbed a particularly succulent cut “Sir Loin.” It’s rubbish, of course. “Sirloin” comes from sur loigne, Norman French for the upper part of the loin. In the plant world, however, botanists really do confer a sort of “knighthood” on plants that have gone the distance. These outstanding herbs bear the specific epithet officinalis (masculine or feminine) or officinale (neuter), meaning “of the (druggist’s) storeroom,” signifying that they were commercially used as medicinals. Herbalists cherish a special respect for them.
Eighteenth-century Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus, who originated the binomial system of nomenclature (of animals as well as plants) and named many officinalis plants, bestowed the moniker on many herbs that were already household words by the time he gave them their scientific names. In collating and reducing several existing taxonomies into a single, consistent system, Linnaeus occasionally had to decide between a plant’s officinal status versus another descriptive word for that species. That he chose to name it officinalis speaks highly of its historical use.
Only sixty-odd plants have earned this distinction. The “-odd” is the result of taxonomic politics. Some have received the appellation, then lost it. Some are better appreciated for nonherbal reasons. Several Asian officinals, such as Magnolia officinalis and Cornus officinalis, have never been introduced to the West as medicinal herbs; they are recognized as ornamental trees, however. A few are just plain weird.
The Not-So-Dumb but Pretty
Many familiar garden flowers began their long partnership with humanity as herbs. Officinals are particularly well represented in this part of the garden. In pre-Christian times, humble Calendula officinalis, with its cheery, daisylike gold or orange blossoms and floppy, sticky leaves, was believed to ward off evil. Later, it became associated with the Virgin Mary as the first “marigold.” In Slavic countries, the petals (technically, ray flowers) impart saffronlike color and bitterness to sauces and soups. When beaten into salves, they are effective in treating skin disorders. The use of the leaves as a potherb gave rise to the common name pot marigold. Calendulas are easily raised from seed in fertile earth.
The primroses once dubbed Primula officinalis have long been assigned to two different species, P. veris (cowslip) and P. vulgaris (English primrose). The latter is the familiar flower sold in flats in early spring. Both have a long tradition of use to treat bronchial, nervous, and dermatological disorders (although handling the plants can cause dermatitis). Their crepelike leaves are also tasty cooked or in salads, and the pastel blossoms make delicious wines and jams.
The fragrant, starlike flowers of white jasmine (Jasminum officinale) perfume desserts and teas in China and India whereas the vines are twisted into wreaths and garlands for Hindu and Buddhist rites. Celebrated for their potent scent, jasmine blossoms were among the first flowers employed in perfumery. Jasmine is a popular garden flower in areas where summers are long and hot.
Once popular as an antispasmodic but little used today, common peony (Paeonia officinalis) may yet have a future as a medicinal herb. Chinese studies in the 1980s found one of the plant’s florin contents, paeoniflorin, to be effective in treating uterine spasms. This herbaceous species with big, beautiful red or white blossoms does best in regions that approximate its native Mediterranean climate, but it often does well in other climates as well.
Many familiar garden flowers began their long partnership with humanity as herbs.
The Clark Kent Officinals
A few of these superheroes hang around supermarket produce sections, passing themselves off as workaday foodstuffs, but at the first cry of distress, these mild-mannered herbs dodge into the nearest phone booth to emerge as officinals of long standing. The ancients, who cultivated it as early as 2000 b.c., recognized common asparagus (Asparagus officinalis) as a diuretic and laxative while enjoying much the same vegetable we know today. Eastern Europeans graze stock on steppes covered with wild asparagus. (My grandmother’s cat used to get foolish on the asparagus tips he nibbled in her garden.) Grown from one-year-old crowns or seed, asparagus can produce for ten years or more. Spears are harvested for about six weeks in spring; those not harvested are allowed to grow into tall, ferny stalks to store energy for next year’s crop. The foliage may grow to 8 feet tall and 4 feet wide. Insignificant yellowish flowers are followed by berries that turn red in late summer.
The ancient Greeks deemed watercress (Nasturtium officinale) brain food, and because it is rich in iron and vitamins, smart people still eat it. Though common in ditches and streams, wild watercress should be avoided because virtually all free-flowing water in North America is contaminated. Nevertheless, gardeners willing to provide clean, circulating water find that this pungent, refreshing herb grows readily from cuttings or seeds.
Medicinal rhubarb (Rheum officinale) resembles the culinary sort (R. cultorum) but grows up to 10 feet tall. Research affirms the traditional use in Asia of the rhizomes against bacterial maladies. Like those of garden rhubarb, the stalks of the officinal rhubarb are edible when cooked, and the leaves are toxic. Specialty houses sometimes carry the seeds, and those who have space for its huge, tropical-looking foliage will find that this rhubarb adds an exotic touch to yard or garden.
A few Asian officinals are virtually unknown in the West as herbs. Hou po (Magnolia officinalis), a highland magnolia, has held a prominent place in Chinese medicine for two thousand years, its bark and flowers used in the treatment of as many as forty diseases. Some Americans in Zones 6 through 9 may know hou po as an attractive shade tree that grows up to 75 feet tall with fragrant, cream-colored flowers and wavy leaves.
The brilliant red “cherries” of shan zhu yu (Cornus officinalis), a species of dogwood, are used as a nerve tonic and digestive in northeast Asia. The tiny yellow flowers, ovoid fruit, and the tree itself closely resemble those of cornelian cherry (C. mas), which is native to Europe and western Asia, and the fruit of either may be used to make interesting preserves. Look for shan zhu yu in nurseries under the name Japanese cornel; it’s hardy in Zones 4 through 8.
Hair of Bat, Eye of Newt
No longer as popular among herbalists, hound’s tongue (Cynoglossum officinale) and snakeroot (formerly Senega officinalis, now Polygala senega) were once valued as medicinals.
Hound’s tongue, so called from the shape of its leaves (the generic name, Cynoglossum, is Latin for “dog’s tongue”), has become a noxious weed on this continent but was once a major European cancer remedy that has since been debunked. Today it’s chiefly used to treat hemorrhoids.
Whether snakeroot’s name stems from its use in treating rattlesnake bite or in the twisted, keeled shape of the root itself is unclear, but after observing Seneca healers successfully treat snakebite with snakeroot in 1735, Scottish physician John Tennent pioneered its use against illnesses with similar symptoms, such as pleurisy.
Snakeroot is a low-growing perennial with small, lance-shaped leaves and spikes of dull white flowers in summer. Renewed interest in its pharmaceutical potential has led to its commercial production in Manitoba.
The industrial era has been so hard on some officinals that their pictures are hanging up at the post office.
In the Old West (the Hollywood version, at any rate), nothing provoked sneers like bellying up to the bar and ordering a sarsaparilla. I reckon those old cowpokes had more brawn than brains: among other things, sarsaparilla (formerly Smilax officinalis, now S. regelii), the primary flavoring in the eponymous soda pop, boosts testosterone levels in men. In women, it alleviates the discomforts of premenstrual syndrome and menopause. The dried root of this Central American herb is sold in health food stores and homebrewing shops.
Another old-time root beer flavoring was sassafras (once Sassafras officinale, now S. albidum), which has fallen from favor since the U.S. Food and Drug Administration pronounced the safrole in the volatile oil carcinogenic. Lesley Bremness points out in Herbs (Dorling Kindersley, 1994), however, that sassafras-flavored root beer, banned in the United States, is fourteen times less carcinogenic than lager. With its large, duck-foot leaves, sassafras is a popular yard tree throughout the eastern United States.
The Really Weird Ones
A few of these superheroes hang around supermarket produce sections, passing themselves off as workaday foodstuffs.
Sepia (Sepia officinalis) has been on the A-list of remedies for feminine troubles since antiquity. Recent studies suggest that it may have a similar effect on nicotine withdrawal symptoms. Thanks to these applications, sepia is as provocative today as it was in ancient Greece. Gardeners should note, however, that it’s one of the hardest herbs to cultivate. This is largely because it’s a kind of squid. A cuttlefish, to be exact. (Westerners should bear in mind that animal parts are routinely ascribed herbal properties in Asia.)
Cuttlefish are slow-moving, inoffensive creatures about a foot in length, with short, stubby tentacles. Today, their primary commercial asset is a bony structure in their backs, which is used as a beak-maintenance accessory for cage birds. The officinal bit is ink that the animal squirts when annoyed. This ink has also been used as, well, ink. It turns a ruddy brown with time, a shade still called sepia.
Larch polypore or quinine conk (Fomitopsis officinalis, also Laricifomes officinalis or Fomes officinalis) is the only officinal fungus and is a serious destroyer of conifers. Hooves of this unusual white to yellow fungus jut from larch, pine, spruce, fir, and hemlock trunks throughout the Northern Hemisphere. It can live for thirty years or longer. Once believed to be a human panacea, it has documented value as a laxative. Antimalarial properties suggested by its bitter taste have not be confirmed.
Robert Henderson, who lives and writes in Chilliwack, British Columbia, has spent most of his life chasing wild herbs and other backwoods lore in the Pacific Northwest and around the world. His book on suburban wild herbs will be available this winter from Chelsea Green Publishing.