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Officinalis – Why do they all have the same names?

By Kevin She
13 Jan 2016

Officinalis – Why do they all have the same names?

Most of us remember high school biology classes and binomial nomenclature, for example, Homo sapiens is the name for humans where Homo is the genus1 designation and sapiens is the species name.

Curiously, the binomial nomenclature for jasmine is Hyssopus officinalis. Lavender is Lavandula officinalis. Lemonbalm is Melissa officinalis. Valerian is Valeriana officinalis. There are around 70 species with officinalis as its name. Some of them are not even plants and includes a mollusk, the common cuttlefish (Sepia officinalis), and the bath sponge Spongia officinalis2.

Why do they all have the same name?

“Carl von Linné” (National museum press photo)

Carl Linnaeus (1707 – 1778), also known as Carl von Linné after his ennoblement, is widely considered the father of taxonomy – the science of naming, describing and classifying organisms3.

He was a precocious and avid amateur botanist in his teens but his schoolmasters thought that young Carl would never become a successful scholar because he was not a diligent student and preferred exploring the countryside to look for plants. However, Johan Rothman, then the state doctor of Småland and a schoolteacher, saw promise in Linnaeus and mentored him in both botany and medicine. It was at university when Linnaeus received increasing respect as a botanist – while only a second year student he was selected to give lectures at the University of Uppsala which were hugely popular.

During this time, he began to question the existing systems of classifying plants and set out to develop his own system that was based on hierarchical classification of the natural world dividing it into the animal, plant, and mineral kingdoms. Over time, the system was further refined and culminated in the Systema Naturae which he published in 1735. Eleven more editions, among other works, would be penned by Linneaus and two part names (genus and species) would eventually be introduced. Others continued publishing successive editions of Systema Naturae near the end of Linnaeus’ life as his health declined. These works had a huge impact on science as an indispensable foundation for biological nomenclature – scientists could now talk to one another without ambiguity as to which organism they were referring to.

What does Linnaeus have to do with officinalis? Over the course of his career he named over 7,000 different species of plants and over 4,000 species of animals4. Among them, he bestowed officinalis as the species name multiple times.


Why officinalis?

In medieval Europe, monasteries provided hospitality for the poor and healing for the ill in addition to their religious and intellectual missions. Some herbs were recognized for their ability to treat different illnesses and conditions; a tradition of recording which herbs were effective for which indications was developed and texts from each monastery were updated over time. Additionally, new herbs that were discovered to be helpful or were known in particular geographic areas would be recorded, drawings were sometimes added to help the reader to identify the plant, and these texts would be exchanged between monasteries.

Each monastery had a building called the officina where medical monks prepared and stored medicaments such as dried extracts, infusions, decoctions, tinctures, distillates, and other preparations from plants. The officina was often attached to a garden for growing fresh medical herbs.

Linnaeus recognized the tradition of herbal medicines and in the first edition of the Systema Naturae acknowledged this tradition by giving plants with a history of being used as medication the species name “officinalis,” literally “from the officina.”

In 1753 Linnaeus followed up with the publication Plant Officinalis where he catalogued many more examples of plants with long established medical use. In the tenth edition of System Naturae, published in 1758, Linnaeus extended the “officinalis” species designation to the animal kingdom to include animals whose parts have traditionally been used as materia medica (medical materials), such as the above mentioned cuttlefish and sponge.

While plant and animal parts traditionally associated with medicine have been graced with their officinalis name, whether they have true medical utility varies.

For example, Melissa officinalis in modern times has demonstrated anti-anxiolytic effects (Kennedy &al., 2006, Alijaniha &al., 2015) and Valeriana officinalis is effective as a sleep aid (Maroo &al., 2013, Salter & Brownie 2010).

On the other hand Sepia officinalis, the cuttlefish, its bony beak or ink, was traditionally used to treat all kinds of different conditions ranging from heartburn, vomiting, intestinal bloating from gas, vitiligo, scabies, freckles, ringworm, and earaches. While modern medicine doesn’t find evidence for efficacy for these ailments, interestingly, chitosans isolated from the bony beak shows good antimicrobial activity in vitro (Hajji &al., 2015) and a peptide (small protein or protein fragment) from their muscle shows similar activity to synthetic ACE inhibitors in vitro and can reduce blood pressure (Balti &al., 2015), at least in rats.

Sponges were traditionally used for absorbing fluids during surgery and as tents; small pieces are compressed and impregnated with a soft wax. When inserted into wounds or orifices the body heat would melt the wax and the sponge would expand. Also, after being burnt (Spongio Usta), it was sometimes made into a tonic to de-obstruct the gastrointestinal tract or as an antacid (Castle 1828). Today, over 5,000 different species of sponges have been identified, with many more yet undiscovered. A plethora of bioactive small molecules have been isolated from a large number of different sponge species; the activities of these small molecules range from potently activating natural killer (NK) immune cells (Shimosaka 2002) to exhibiting various antimicrobial activities (Laport &al., 2009) to all manner of enzyme inhibitors (Baker 2015).

Regardless of medical efficacy, the scientific Latin binomial nomenclature for many foodstuffs such as asparagus (Asparagus officinalis), ginger (Zingiber officinale), rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis), sage (Salvia officinalis), and watercress (Nasturtium officinale) owe their names to Linnaeus and the medical beliefs of medieval monasteries.


1 – A refresher on Scientific Classification: In the case for humans

Kingdom – Animalia
Phylum – Chordata
Class – Mammalia
Order – Primates
Suborder – Haplorhini
Family – Hominidae
Genus – Homo
Species – sapiens

and some organisms also has a subspecies name appended after the species name, for example Panthera tigris tigris, the Bengal tiger from the Indian subcontinent, in contrast with Panthera tigris altaica, the Siberian tiger.

2 – Bath sponges are indeed animals and not plants! The first sponges appear in the fossil record about 2.5 billion years ago and are considered the first animal and first true multicellular organism. While the adult is immobile and appears plant-like, the young sponge has a nervous system – a brain, albeit a very rudimentary one – and is free-swimming. Typically, after a couple of days of swimming around the young sponge will attach itself to a surface and begin to grow. As it grows, it kicks out its brain and lives the rest of its life in a sessile state – eating, growing, and reproducing in the same place.

3 – Linnaeus is also instrumental for why 0 degrees Celsius is defined as the freezing point of pure water and 100 degrees Celsius the boiling point. Prior to that, the centigrade scale of measuring temperature developed by Olof Celsius, another of Linnaeus’ mentors, used 100 to represent the freezing point of water and 0 to represent the boiling point (the centigrade scale was renamed to the Celsius scale in 1948 in honour of Olof). Upon Olof’s death, Linnaeus promptly reversed the scale for his own use; his interest in temperature was in relation to greenhouses. The first documented use of the 0 to 100 centigrade scale was in a paper Linnaeus wrote recounting the temperature of the orangery at the Botanical Garden of Uppsala University in 1745. Orangeries are special greenhouses for citrus and other fruits and were all the rage in fashionable residences from the 17th to 19th centuries.

Another fun Linnaeus fact; when a species is first described in literature, the specimen that the description is based on is called the type specimen, and there are various organizations and institutions that collect and curate these specimens. Linnaeus was the first to describe Homo sapiens but did not specify or collect a type specimen. In 1959, on the Linnaean bicentennial, Linnaeus himself was assigned as the type specimen for Homo sapiens by WT Stearns in the peer reviewed journal Systematic Zoology.

“Since for nomenclatorial purposes the specimen most carefully studied and recorded by the author is to be accepted as the type, clearly Linnaeus himself, who was much addicted to autobiography, must stand as the type of his Homo sapiens!” (Stearns 1959).

For the record, Linnaeus was buried in Uppsala Cathedral in 1778 and has not been exhumed and curated.

4 – Linnaeus hypothesized that there were no more than 10,000 species of plants in the world, and during his career catalogued over 7,000 of them; the Encylopedia of Life currently lists 250,000 to 380,000 plant entries and over 1.3 million entries in total. Thousands of species are discovered and documented each year and the current estimate is that there are about 8.7 million different eukaryotic species on Earth (Mora &al., 2011). This is leaving out the count of prokaryotes and viruses, first discovered in the 1890’s – with viruses there are theoretically an infinity of species, if species can truly be applied to viruses. It wasn’t until Charles Darwin’s 1859 book On the Origin of Species that the modern concept of species was first developed. However, to this day, the definition of species remains fluid and the “species problem” (what it means to be a species) continues to be debated.


Alijaniha, F., Naseri, M, Afsharypuor, S., Fallahi, F., Noorbala, A., Mosaddegh, M., Faghihzadeh, S., & Sadrai, S. 2015 Heart palpitation relief with Melissa officinalis leaf extract: double blind, randomized, placebo controlled trial of efficacy and safety. J. Ethnopharmacol. doi: 10.1016/j.jep/2015.02.007

Baker, BJ. 2015 Marine Biomedicine: From Beach to Bedside. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press

Balti, R., Bougatef, A., Sila, A., Guillochon, D., Dhulster, P., & Nedjar-Arroume, N. 2015 Nine novel angiotensin I-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitory peptides from cuttlefish (Sepia officinalis) muscle protein hydrolysaes and antihypertensive effect of the potent active peptide in spontaneously hypertensive rats. Food Chem. doi: 10.1016/j.foodchem.2013.03.091

Castle, T. 1828 Lexicon Pharmaceuticum. London, Metcalfe Printer, 3a Grocer’s Hall Court, Poultry

Kennedy, DO., Little, W., Haskell, CF., & Scholey, AB. 2006 Anxiolytic effects of a combination of Melissa officinalis and Valeriana officinalis during laboratory induced stress. Phytother. Res. 20(2): 96-102

Laport, MS., Santos, OC., & Muricy, G. 2009 Marine sponges: potential sources of new antimicrobial drugs. Curr. Pharm. Biotechnol. 10(1): 86-105

Maroo, N., Hazra, A., & Das, T. 2013 Efficacy and safety of a polyherbal sedative-hypnotic formulation NSF-3 in primary insomnia in comparison to zolpidem: a randomized controlled trial. Indian. J. Pharmacol. 45(1): 34-9

Mora, C., Tittensor, DP., Adl, S., Simpson, AGB, & Worm, B. 2011 How many species are there on earth and in the ocean? PLoS Biology doi: 10.1371/journal.pbio.1001127

Salter, S. & Brownie, S. 2010 Treating primary insomnia – the efficacy of valerian and hops. Aust. Fam. Physician. 39(6): 433-7

Shimosaka, A. 2002 Role of NKT cells and alpha-galactosyl ceramide.Int. J. Hematol 76 Suppl 1: 277-9

Stearn, WT. 1959 The background of linnaeus’s contributions to the nomenclature and methods of systematic biology. Systematic Zoology 8(1): 4-22