Will Shakespeare knew rosemary. The plant that is! In ‘Hamlet’, Ophelia states the long-held belief “There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance.”
It’s now known that antioxidants in rosemary help prevent aging in cells and aging is associated with memory loss. Pregnant women may be advised to avoid large doses as a medicine in case it induces abortion – but otherwise it’s a beautiful-smelling, super-tasting safe herb.
Respected as a holy, magical and healing plant, one legend maintains the original flowers of rosemary turned from white to blue when the Virgin Mary spread the Christ-Child’s linen, or her own cloak, to dry on a rosemary bush. (Actually the flowers vary in colour, blue, pink or white, depending on the species and variety). In some areas it’s said to bloom at midnight on Old Christmas Eve, 17th January, (though usually later on, in the spring). Another gardening anecdote relates it growing well not only for the righteous but for a woman who rules her husband and household. To stop gossip, some husbands removed the root so the bush died! Greek scholars, sitting exams, wore garlands of rosemary, believing it helped mental concentration by improving blood flow to the brain. Since the thirteenth/fourteenth centuries, rosemary has been known worldwide as ‘Queen of Hungary’, after the Hungarian Queen was certain her paralysis (maybe gout or rheumatism) had been cured by ‘Hungary water’. This was probably produced by macerating rosemary flowers and flowering tips for a month in alcohol, then straining through fine muslin and taken medicinally in 1tsp doses.
As a symbol of fidelity in love in Elizabethan times, flowering sprigs were woven into the bridal wreath; bridesmaids, groomsmen and wedding guests were given sprays of rosemary tipped with gold and tied with coloured ribbon, while at the wedding feast, sprigs of rosemary were dipped into the wine before the bridal pair had a drink, to ensure happiness and love. New Year guests were given rosemary plus an orange adorned with cloves. At funerals, to denote the deceased would not be forgotten quickly, rosemary was included in wreaths, and small sprays carried by the mourners, were strewn on the coffin as it was lowered into the ground. A sprig of rosemary fastened to a doorpost, was said to ward off witches and stop snakes entering, while rosemary attached to clothes, offered protection from evil spirits, witches, fairies, thunder, lightning, physical injury, assault, and the plague. Judges wore a sprig to defend themselves from being infected by those brought before them. As for incense, if unavailable, rosemary was burnt. There’s a recipe for rosemary incense in Leslie Kenton’s Healing Herbs (see Notes).
Rosemary originated in areas bordering the Mediterranean, appreciating the full sun and close proximity of the ocean; hence its name from the Latin, ros and marinus, dew of the sea. Popular in monastic gardens, it was brought over the Alps to northern Europe by the first Christian monks. In Britain it should be treated as a half-hardy perennial, tolerating a poor but benefiting far more from a well-drained soil. Pinching out the tip of the main shoot will encourage side growth – it can grow up to 2m (6ft). Dwarf varieties grown in pots, have the advantage of being easy to transport indoors for the winter. Propagation is by seeds, cuttings or layering. Cuttings, best taken from a woody shoot in late summer, will need protection from frost and cold winds while young.
Fortunately rosemary can be harvested fresh all year round but if not possible, it can be dried. If flowering tips are to be dried or frozen, cut the sprigs when the flowers are open. To dry the leaves, pick the sprigs before flowering, and hang them in a warm (not above 40°C/104°F), airy place, away from direct sunlight. Don’t leave them hanging up for ages or they’ll acquire dust and become tasteless. Better, use a flavour-sealing, quick dry method – spread them on a tray covered with muslin, place it in the warming drawer of a (used!) oven or an airing cupboard and leave for a few days until they are dry but still green. Then they can be stored whole, wrapped in paper, in a drawer or dry, dark larder or the woody stems discarded and the leaves placed in dark-glass bottles.
As said at the start, rosemary is a safe herb. Germany’s ‘Commission E’ (conductors of the first comprehensive study of herbal medicine) found that drinking rosemary leaf infusions helped problems with upset stomachs, indigestion and appetite loss, while the external use of infusions and oil could ease circulatory complaints and rheumatism. Rosemary essential oil has potent antioxidant, antiseptic and antimicrobial abilities.
Some old remedies may at first seem strange (such as to prevent giddiness by combing hair daily with a comb made of rosemary wood), but research is frequently confirming our ‘wise’ past knowledge of plants. Gerard in his Herbal of 1636 recommends the distilled water of the flowers, drunk morning and evening, as a mouthwash/breath freshener, while nearly a hundred years later, boiling cider with a sprig of rosemary for 15 minutes and drinking it at bedtime, was remedied for increasing sweating to reduce a cold.
Nasal congestion can be eased with this homemade chest rub (though not if the skin is broken, sore or sensitive). Pour boiling water over a handful of rosemary flowers and leaves, leave for 25 minutes and then strain. Transfer the contents of a small jar of vaseline into a heatproof bowl placed in a saucepan of boiling water. When melted, add the rosemary infusion and simmer for 20 minutes, stirring well. Remove from the heat and when cool, stir in 8 drops of oil of rosemary, stirring again before applying to the chest. (Don’t store this in a fridge).
For those suffering from asthma, see if this infusion can help, taken each morning during a bad spell; a pinch each of rosemary, orange flower water and thyme in a cup of boiling water.
Could rosemary be of help in the treatment or delay of Alzheimer’s disease? Rosemary contains compounds that will retard the breakdown of acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter (brain chemical) playing a key role in cognition and reasoning. As these compounds can be absorbed through the skin, regular use of a rosemary shampoo, either a commercial one or rosemary tincture added to a herbal shampoo could prove beneficial.
The pain of neuralgia may be eased with an infusion of combined rosemary leaves, lavender flowers and lime blossom, or the infusion used as a compress, placed warm on the affected area. Even a little sprig of rosemary placed inside the mouth may help.
For someone who has fainted, one or two drops of rosemary essential oil on a tissue or a handful of leaves crushed into a ball, held under the nostrils can help to revive, backed up with an infusion of 1 or 2 tsp of crushed leaves in a cup of boiling water.
An infusion of 2 tsp of dried rosemary per cup of boiling water can bring relief from pain, including pre-menstrual symptoms, or place 56g (2oz) of rosemary in a muslin/cloth bag and leave it in the water when running a bath. Likewise, rosemary added to a footbath is great for tired, swollen feet.
Rosemary oil can be purchased or made at home, to use eg for massaging onto painful joints and bruises. Pour a cupful of olive or almond oil over two handfuls of rosemary leaves in a jam jar, cover with a piece of muslin or cheesecloth secured with a rubber band and leave for 2 to 3 weeks on a sunny windowsill. Then strain it into small screw top jars and store it in the dark.
An ointment which may soothe eczema, skin irritations and rheumatism is easily made by melting in an enamel pan, 1 tbsp rosemary oil with 4 tbsp white petroleum jelly. Stir it well and then put in small jars and cover when cold.
Aromatherapists use essential oil of rosemary in a massage during treatment for depression, whilst a morning drink of rosemary infusion can also be beneficial. However, if suffering from high blood pressure, rosemary must be avoided in aromatherapy treatment as it stimulates circulation.
Extracts of rosemary are often found in proprietary soaps, perfumes, toilet waters and hair preparations. As a hair treatment, since massaging the scalp stimulates the circulation, helps decrease dandruff and encourages hair growth, massaging using one part rosemary oil to two parts almond (or olive) oil, can promote healthy hair and even a better memory. And a rosemary infusion as a final rinse can benefit dark, dull or oily hair.
There’s a useful decoction recipe for puffy eyes in The Herbal Health and Beauty Book (see Notes), while the New Herb Bible (see Notes) includes rosemary in recipes for an antiseptic mouthwash, a soothing bath oil, a skin cleanser, a scrub, a tonic and a soap. To refresh skin that is sensitive and dry, try applying twice weekly, a hot compress of rosemary and mauve flowers.
Within the home, small bags made from muslin or cheesecloth and filled with dried rosemary, can be placed in clothes drawers to help deter moths while providing a fragrant smell. Or make a little herb pillow containing rosemary, cloves and nutmeg. Rosemary was one of the herbs used in tussie-mussies (nosegays), needed in the Middle Ages to hide bad smells, but also believed to protect the holder from disease as well as being presented as declarations of love, (rosemary for remembrance). Fresh sprays of leaves and flowers in a vase, in a herb wreath or a pot-pourri can help cleanse the air and provide perfume, while burning rosemary sprigs outdoors can keep insects at bay. Rosemary essential oil can be added to furniture polish and to wax or oil when making candles.
Before fridges and freezers were invented, rosemary was placed with meat so its to some extent antimicrobial properties could help preserve the meat. The aromatic, pungent leaves are used, fresh or dried, with lamb, beef, chicken, pork and fish, while the flowers and chopped young leaves can be added to salads. Rosemary is contained in the Herbes de Provence seasoning blend. It adds flavour to grilled meat, barbeques, ratatouilles, sauces, etc; to mushrooms, soup, soft cheese; to biscuits and jam, as well as to fruit-cups and mulled wine. (It’s one of the herbs used in vermouth). Using fresh sprigs allows them to be removed easily before serving. Additionally, bees feeding on rosemary, produce excellent honey. For an easy-to-make rosemary, garlic and pepper oil, look in ‘A Handful of Herbs’ (see Notes).
Leslie Kenton’s Healing Herbs. Paperback edition published by Vermilion (Random House), London, 2002. £6.99 ISBN 0-091-88428-4
The Herbal Health and Beauty Book by Hilary Boddie. Published by Optima (Little, Brown and Company (UK) Ltd, 1994. £10.99 ISBN 0-356-21030-8 contains herbal remedies for health problems such as dizziness and laryngitis, as well as beauty treatments for the face, feet and hair.
New Herb Bible by Caroline Foley, Jill Nice and Marcus A.Webb. Published by David & Charles, Devon, 2002. £12.99 ISBN 0 7153 1363 0
A Handful of Herbs by Barbara Segall, Louise Pickford & Rose Hammick. Published by Ryland Peters & Small, London, 2001. £15.00 ISBN 1-84172-109-3 combines the notes of a horticulturalist and a food writer, illustrated with suitably refined photos; includes ideas for scented candles, a wreath of herbs, a recipe for rosemary and garlic flavoured pizza/bread, the use of rosemary for finishing touches to a dining table, for adding perfume and decoration to a room, even for adding perfume to writing ink.
Sine Chesterman © In Balance Magazine