Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Rosemary, for rememberance

Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis)

"There's rosemary, that's for remembrance."
-- Shakespeare's Hamlet to Ophelia

"[Rosemary] comforteth the cold, weak and feeble brain in a
most wonderful manner."

"Make thee a box of the wood of rosemary and smell to it and it
shall preserve thy youth."
--Banckes' Herbal

"As for Rosmarine, I lett it runne all over my garden walls, not onlie because my bees love it, but because it is the herb sacred to remembrance, and, therefore, to friendship; whence a sprig of it hath a dumb language that maketh it the chosen emblem of our funeral wakes and in our buriall grounds."
-- Sir Thomas More

"   Down with the rosemary and so,
    Down with the baies and mistletoe,
    Down with the holly, ivie all
    Wherewith ye deck the Christmas Hall.'  "

I love rosemary.  It's great to cook with, it's pleasant to look at, it attracts bees, and in hot weather it smells lovely and cooling when its smell is surrounding you.

We are blessed with a wall of rosemary plants just off the terrace.

I decided to do a bit of research as I've known for a long time that rosemary was the medicinal "jack of all trade" in ancient times.  I was overwhelmed with information!  Ranging from Mrs. Grieve's 'A Modern Herbal' (Vol II), to Valerie Ann Worwood's "The complete Book of essential oils & aromatherapy" and James Greens "The Herbal Medicine-makers Handbook", to my handy Bartlett's "Familiar Quotations", I gathered a real compendium of fascinating bits of information to share with you about rosemary.

[of course not all of it is true... !]

In early times, Rosemary was freely cultivated in kitchen gardens and came to represent the dominant influence of the house mistress 'Where Rosemary flourished, the woman ruled.'

The Treasury of Botany says:   'There is a vulgar belief in Gloucestershire and other counties, that Rosemary will not grow well unless where the mistress is "master"; and so touchy are some of the lords of creation upon this point, that we have more than once had reason to suspect them of privately injuring a growing rosemary in order to destroy this evidence of their want of authority.'

(that's not really why T wants to tear it all out, honest!)

- The botanical name Rosmarinus is derived form the old Latin for 'dew of the sea', a reference to its pale blue dew-like flowers and the fact that it is often grown near the sea. It is a symbol or remembrance and friendship, and is often carried by wedding couples as a sign of love and fidelity.

- In place of more costly incense, the ancients used Rosemary in their religious ceremonies. An old French name for it was Incensier.

- The Spaniards revere it as one of the bushes that gave shelter to the Virgin Mary in the flight into Egypt and call it Romero, the Pilgrim's Flower.
-  Both in Spain and Italy, it has been considered a safeguard from witches and evil influences generally.
- The Sicilians believe that young fairies, taking the form of snakes, lie amongst the branches.

- It was an old custom to burn Rosemary in sick chambers, and in French hospitals it is customary to burn Rosemary with Juniper berries to purify the air and prevent infection.
- Like Rue, it was placed in the dock of courts of justice, as a preventative from the contagion of gaol-fever.
- A sprig of Rosemary was carried in the hand at funerals, being distributed to the mourners before they left the house, to be cast on to the coffin when it had been lowered into the grave. In many parts of Wales it is still a custom.

- We continue to use rosemary in many of the same ways that our ancestors did: in potpourris to freshen the air, and in cosmetics, disinfectants and shampoos. 

- Scientists at the University of Cincinnati say that the scent of rosemary is an effective memory stimulant. This might make a nice potted plant for your desk at work, or where the kids do their homework!

- Several studies done in the last several years show that oil from the leaves of the very plant sold as a spice for flavoring can help prevent the development of cancerous tumors in laboratory animals. One study, led by Chi-Tang Ho, Ph.D., professor in the Department of Food Science at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, showed that applying rosemary oil to the skin of experimental animals reduced their risk of cancer to half that found in animals that did not receive the application of oil. In other studies by the same research team, animals whose diets contained some rosemary oil had about half the incidence of colon cancer or lung cancer compared with animals not eating rosemary. And researchers at the University of Illinois in Urbana found that rosemary cut by half the incidence of breast cancer in animals at high risk for developing the disease. Future studies will demonstrate whether these properties extend to humans as well.

Though these experiments have used rosemary oil to test the effectiveness in preventing cancer, the oil should not be taken internally. Even small doses can cause stomach, kidney and intestinal problems, and large amounts may be poisonous. Use a tea instead. Pregnant women should not use the herb medicinally, although it's okay to use it as a seasoning.

- Rosemary makes a pleasant-tasting tea. Use one teaspoon of crushed dried leaves in a cup of boiling water and steep for ten minutes.

- Rosemary helps to relax muscles, including the smooth muscles of the digestive tract and uterus. Because of this property it can be used to soothe digestive upsets and relieve menstrual cramps. When used in large amounts it can have the opposite effect, causing irritation of the intestines and cramps. A tea made from the leaves is also taken as a tonic for calming nerves and used as an antiseptic.

- Use an infusion as a rinse to lighten blond hair, and to condition and tone all hair. Try mixing an infusion half and half with shampoo to strengthen hair.

- An infusion can also be used as an invigorating toner and astringent. Rosemary added to a bath strengthens and refreshes, especially when used following an illness.

- Rosemary and lamb go well together. Make slits in lamb for roasting and tuck in sprigs of the herb. Place larger sprigs over chops for grilling and use chopped leaves sparingly in soups and stews. Use rosemary in bouquets garnis and sparingly with fish and in rice dishes.

- Use the dried leaves as potpourri and in sachets to scent clothes and linen and deter moths.

- Rosemary is grown as a companion plant for cabbage, beans carrots and sage. It helps to deter cabbage moths, bean beetles and carrot flies.


Hungary Water  was first prepared for the Queen of Hungary to "renovate vitality of paralyzed limbs" and to treat gout. It was used externally and prepared by mixing fresh rosemary tops into spirits of wine.  It was prepared by putting 1 1/2 lb. of fresh Rosemary tops in full flower into 1 gallon of spirits of wine, this was allowed to stand for four days and then distilled. Hungary water was also considered very efficacious against gout in the hands and feet, being rubbed into them vigorously.

A formula dated 1235, said to be in the handwriting of Elizabeth, Queen of Hungary, is said to be preserved in Vienna.

Don Quixote mixes rosemary in his recipe of the miraculous balm of Fierabras with revolting results.  According to a chanson from 1170, Fierabras and Balan conquered Rome and stole two barrels containing the balm used for the corpse of Jesus. This miraculous balm would heal whoever drank it. In Chapter X of the first volume of Miguel de Cervantes' Don Quixote de la Mancha, after one of his numerous beatings, Don Quixote mentions to Sancho Panza  that he knows the recipe of the balm. In Chapter XVII, Don Quixote instructs Sancho that the ingredients are oil, wine, salt and rosemary. The knight boils them and blesses them with eighty Pater Nosters, Hail Mary and Creed. Upon drinking it, Don Quixote vomits and sweats and feels healed after sleeping. However, for Sancho it has also a laxative effect, rendering him near death.


  1. As a postscript: When I went through my phase of reading countless period novels, I always wondered what "Hungary Water" was actually made up of... and now I know.

  2. Very interesting post Jes. I particularly like
    'Where Rosemary flourished, the woman ruled.' which has made me think I should plant some in my garden!

    And I like the idea that it's an effective memory stimulent...something I could do with these days!

  3. Dear Ayak... I actually have some in a vase near my computer and periodically I will rub it to smell the scent! I love the smell of it. (though I remember a lot of things I can only roll my eyes over the host of things I DON'T remember!)

    re: the women ruled thing: In actual fact I think that might be an "old wives" tale... tho it IS interesting that periodically T threatens to rip out all the plants! (lol- possibly because i am an 'old wive'!)

  4. I love rosemary! Just rubbing it and smelling my hand can really give me a much-needed pick-me-up on the toughest of days.

  5. Dear She,

    I know, me too. I even use sprigs for bookmarks sometimes... If I forget for a while when I open the book again I'm greeted with this lovely fragrance!

  6. I have been increaingly frustrated this summer by the skin on my face, neck and chest going berserk (probably due to a combination of heat, sweat and hormones), producing excess sebum resulting in lumpy spots and whiteheads.

    Then, browing in my in-laws' country garden, I spotted the rosemary bush and remembered your post. I picked a couple of handfuls of rosemary and boiled them in water to make an infusion. Once it cooled I added a couple of teaspoons of glycerine to prevent it being too drying, and am now using it as a toner/astringent 2-3 times a day. It's only been a couple of days but there already been an improvement - let's hope it continues!

    So, thanks for reminding me of the beneficial properties of somemof the lovely plants around us - and pointing me in the direction of a natural and virtually free skin revitaliser!



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