Knights of the Garden

The herbs dubbed officinalis have rich histories as medicinal plants, and many provide beauty in the garden.

| December/January 1999

  • Calendula officinalis, with its cheery gold or orange blossoms, was believed to ward off evil in pre-Christian times.
  • The common peony, with big, beautiful red or white blossoms, was once popular as an antispasmodic.
  • Jasmine, a popular garden flower, was among the first flowers employed in perfumery.
  • With its large, duck-foot leaves, sassafras—once used as a flavoring for root beer—is a popular yard tree in the eastern United States.
    Photograph by Christopher Hobbs
  • Asparagus—the same vegetable that we enjoy today—was used as a diuretic and a laxative as early as 2,000 years ago.
    Photograph by Derk Kuyper
  • Virtually every part of the dandelion has been utilized by someone, sometime.
    Photograph by Christopher Hobbs
  • Primrose (Primrose Vulgaris) and Lungwart (Pulmonaria officinals)
  • Calendula officinalis
    Photograph by Jerry Pava
  • The brilliant red cherries of shan zhu yu (Cornus officinalis), an Asian dogwood, are taken as a nerve tonic and digestive.
    Photograph by Holly Shimizu
  • Primrose (Primrose Vulgaris) and Lungwart (Pulmonaria officinals)
  • Primrose (Primrose Vulgaris) and Lungwart (Pulmonaria officinals)
  • Primrose (Primrose Vulgaris) and Lungwart (Pulmonaria officinals)
    Photograph by Anne Gordon

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.

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