Officinalis…What does it mean?


When you see this word in the botanical name of a plant, sit up and pay attention. Not only does it mean that this plant has hundreds, if not thousands of years of  recorded use, it also generally means that it could be a dynamic accumulator.

Officinalis c. 1720 – kept in stock by a druggist; Medieval Latin – literally “of or belonging in an Officine” a storeroom for medicines and  necessaries.

And while I could go into great detail I really don’t want to bore you, so when you simplify how you look at it, these herbs have very deep root systems that bring nutrients up to the surface and to the plant, thereby bringing them up to surrounding areas as well. It also means that you do not want them in a bed that receives large quantities of irrigation. the more you water it,the more shallow the root system. Once you have it established,walk away and let it do its own foraging.

In a permaculture type environment, this is something to always keep in the back of your mind. One of the most important things you can do is keep nutrients close to the surface.

Plants like marshmallow(althea officinalis), asparagus(asparagus officinalis) lemon balm (Melissa officinalis), all are very good at bringing nutrients to the surrounding soil. Even the lowly dandelion(taraxacum officinale) is a dynamic accumulator!  And as a bonus they are all edible in one form or another!

So here are some of my favorite Officinales

Asparagus (Asparagus officinalis) Asparagus is either loved or hated by anyone who tastes it, and I am a lover of this fabulous plant. It’s nutty flavor combined with the char of a grill are simply fantastic. I am currently testing a theory that basil planted with it attracts ladybugs, always a plus in the garden.

Borage (Borago Officinalis) Borage is another officinalis that is an excellent dynamic accumulator. That is, its roots run deep into the soil to bring nutrients up to the plant. However, be careful with your placement as it has a tendency to spread quite rapidly, and must be maintained. On the plus side, those flowers that you need to trim to keep the seeds at bay are great in salads, and the leaves are used in salads in other areas of the world, though not so commonly here.

Comfrey ( symphytum officinale) What an accumulator! This plant has the most amazing use as a fertilizer! It roots can go up to ten feet below the surface, allowing it to get to nutrients that have not been to the surface in many years. Many people will grow comfrey just to cut the stem off and let it decompose around other vegetables where extra nutrients are needed. Others will make a comfrey tea from the decomposing leaves to pour over other garden plants. If you are into sustainable vegan fertilizing, this plant is a must have.

Dandelion (taraxicum Officinale) I am harvesting flower petals for tea this time of year, and I can tell you this poor plant has an awful reputation,  and a LONG history as a useful plant, from tea, to salad greens, to coffee, this plant can do it all!

Lemon balm ( Melissa officinalis) One of my favorite scents in the garden, and one I keep planted in areas around the patio, lemon balm needs to be controlled, as it spreads quite rapidly by rhizome. Melissa (in Greek means honey bee) attracts pollinators in great numbers, and is well worth putting in a controlled bed where it cannot spread.

Lovage (Levisticum officinale) While not technically listed as a dynamic accumulator, lovage has some great characteristics that make it valuable in the landscape. Keep in mind though, that at 4 to 8 feet, it needs to be at the back of the garden. It is a fabulous insect nectary, but needs to be cut down before it seeds out, which is an excellent time to dry some for seasoning broths during the winter months.

Marigold (Calendula Officinalis)Don’t confuse this with your common marigold that most people use as an insect repellant in the garden. The florets of this beautiful plant are used in salads and as a replacement for saffron in recipes. They are also used as a natural dye.

Rosemary (rosmarius officinalis) Ok, so this might be one of my favorite herbs (maybe because I am right on the edge of its northern range as a perennial, and it has been coming back every year.) I use it frequently in cooking, and it has a fabulous history for use as a food item. It is also one of those plants that requires very little care, put it in a bed with a good ground cover and harvest to your hearts content.

While there are plenty more I could choose from, these will get you started as I research a hefty list for more wonderful officinale’s for tidbits to help you out. My current research is learning about cynoglossum officinale or more commonly known as Houndstongue..I can’t wait to read about it!

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