ROSEMARY (Rosmarinus officinalis – Labiatae)

Rosmarinus (meaning ‘dew of the sea’) is a genus of three species of hardy and half-hardy evergreen flowering shrubs. Rosmarinus officinalis is native to the Mediterranean but now grows in many other warm countries such as Spain and Tunisia; it dies if exposed to cold winds and frost in Britain. The leaves are linear (rather similar to those of lavender), dark on top and paler beneath, and the flowers are pale blue, tubular and borne in axillary clusters; both flowers and leaves are very strongly aromatic and it seems the calyxes retain most of the volatile principles. The plant can grow to a height of about 1.8 m (6 ft).

Rosemary is probably one of the best known and most used of aromatic herbs. The Ancient Egyptians favoured it, and traces of it have been found in First Dynasty tombs. To the Greeks and Romans it was a sacred plant, and Horace, the Roman poet, composed odes to its magic properties. Both Greeks and Romans believed rosemary symbolized love and death, and this is echoed in later traditional country associations with weddings and funerals. Brides used to wear rosemary entwined in their bouquets; bridesmaids would give rosemary to the groom, and other guests would receive it too as a symbol of loyalty and love.

The association of rosemary with funerals obviously involves love and constancy, but it also refers to the herb’s meaning in the language of flowers – remembrance, as referred to by the tragic Ophelia, ‘There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance’. Rosemary’s use as a safeguard against contagion and infection might also be a reason for the funerary associations (until quite recently, sprigs would be placed in the coffin at country funerals). Rosemary was one of the strongly antiseptic herbs burned as purifying incense, carried in anti-plague posies, and strewn on floors. Another French name for the herb is, in fact, incensier because it was used as incense in church when incense was not available or was too costly.

Enormous claims have been made for the properties of rosemary throughout the years. A Saxon manuscript herbal recorded: ‘For the sickly, take this wort rosemary, pound it with oil, smear the sickly one, wonderfully thou healest him.’ Richard Banckes’ 1525 Herbal makes even more ambitious claims: ‘Take thee a box of the wood of rosemary and smell to it, and it shall preserve thy youth.’ The French claim it as a universal panacea, and a traditional recipe for staying well was to always carry a sprig of the herb.

Rosemary has been used medicinally for centuries. Theophrastus and Dioscorides recommended it as a powerful remedy for stomach and liver problems; Hippocrates, the ‘Father of Medicine’, said rosemary should be cooked with vegetables to help overcome liver and spleen disorders, and Galen too prescribed it for liver infections, particularly jaundice. To Renaissance apothecaries, rosemary was one of the most valuable remedies at their disposal; Arnauld de Villeneuve in a thirteenth century treatise described how the essential oil was then distilled.

Morocco is one of the primary world producers of the oil: the plant grows in a semi-wild state and is extracted by numerous small distillers. The amount produced has surpassed 100 tonnes, but usually it is around 70 tonnes per year. The rosemary oils from North Africa, particularly Tunisia, are more highly rated than those from France or Spain.


Description: The flowering tops of rosemary are distilled to produce the best oil, one far superior to that obtained from the stems and leaves of the plant before it flowers.
Rosemary oil is basically colourless, but veers towards a slightly pale yellow-green. The smell of the oil is similar to that of the leaves when crushed in the fingers – camphory, and rather like incense and honey.

The principal constituents: Up to 15 per cent borneol, camphene, camphors, cineol, lineol, pinene, resins, and a bitter principle, saponin.

Dangers: Rosemary oil can be adulterated, by sage, aspic and, especially, turpentine oils, so try to be sure of the provenance of any you buy.


In illness
Both herb and oil are strongly antiseptic, and are stimulant, cholagogue and diuretic. They are also useful in rheumatic and respiratory con¬ditions. I find rosemary useful for mental and physical tiredness and depression, for liver and respiratory problems and for rheumatism (good in a poultice, see pages 23 – 4).

To combat weariness, Dr Leclerc prescribed an infusion of the tonic leaves. You could drink this, to redynamize the whole system, or you could put a little of the essential oil in the bath – 10 drops or so ¬which will be stimulant and tonic. Another way of combating tiredness or depression (rosemary has always been thought of as a cheering herb), is to store some of the fresh herb or a few drops of the oil on a tissue, with your clothes and bedlinen: in bed and during the day, you will be comforted by the aroma.

Rosemary tea is good for liver problems, major and minor. After a heavy or fatty meal, for instance, drink two cups of rosemary tea instead of coffee. Also massage the stomach and liver regions: use a mixture of2 drops each of chamomile and rosemary oils in 20-25 ml (4-5 tsp) soya oil. This oil can also be used to relive rheumatic aches and pains, and is tonic and stimulant for children and old people who have been ill.

To counteract the breathing problems of asthma, you can include fresh rosemary in little pillows to have near you when you sleep. When symptoms are at their worst, a little essential oil, rubbed gently into the chest, solar plexus, forehead and sinus areas can help.
(See also abscesses and boils, anosmia, backache, bronchitis, bur¬sitis, constipation, coughing, cuts and wounds, fever, headaches, lumbago, menopause, muscular pains, oedema, palpitations, shin¬gles, stiffness and throat, sore.)

Rosemary wine
One of the herbals advised: ‘If thou have a cough, drink the water of the leaves boyled in white wine and ye shall be whole’.

When taken in small quantities, this can act as a tranquillizing cordial for palpitations, a weak heart, headaches and tiredness.

  • 1 litre (1 3/4 pints) Chablis or Muscadet
  • 200 g (7 oz) fresh rosemary, chopped.

Warm the wine and herb together gently, do not boil, and then transfer to a glass container. Leave for a few days, then strain, bottle and seal.

In beauty
Rosemary is used a great deal in eau de colognes and eau de toilettes ¬indeed it was a major constituent of the first perfume, known as Hungary Water because it made a Queen of Hungary so well that she, although aged 72, managed to ensnare the King of Poland!

Rosemary was in ingredient of the first skin lotion sold commercially in Britain in the seventeenth century, and it is very stimulating for the skin. In Garden of Herbs, the reader is enjoined to ‘Boyle the leaves in white wine and washe thy face therewith and thy browes and thou shalt have a fair face’.

Drops of rosemary oil can also be used in the bath to help itchy skins (about 10 per bath), and a few drops in the bidet can act as a natural antiseptic for mild irritations.
Rosemary is perhaps best known, though, for its effectiveness as a hair treatment. It is tonic and conditioning for dark hair especially, and helps retain the colour. A little oil can be added to shampoos or rinses (or the fresh herb can be infused for a final rinse). Rosemary shampoo lotions can help hair problems such as dandruff and alopecia.

Rosemary hair oil
This is good for such hair problems as greasy hair and an itchy scalp.

  • 80 ml (3 ¼ fl oz) soya oil
  • 2.5 ml (½ tsp) wheat germ oil
  • 10 ml (2 tsp) rosemary oil
  • 5 ml (1 tsp) cedarwood oil

Mix the ingredients together and shake the bottle. Let rest for a few days before applying. Put a little on the scalp a few hours before shampooing. Massage gently for a few minutes, cover hair with a warm towel to help absorption, then wash off.

In cookery
As a culinary herb, rosemary goes well with poultry, rabbit and lamb, and because of its antibacterial properties protects against possible putrefaction, and helps digestion of the fat. (The Romans used the herb in cooking to protect against cholera.) Add whole sprigs to meat marinades, stews and braises, but remove before serving; the leaves are tough and disliked by many, and only the tenderest shoots and flowers can be eaten raw. Rosemary can also give its powerful flavour and therapeutic properties to herb oils and vinegars, to salutary ales and wines (a sprig added to a less than perfect red wine will improve the bottle’s bouquet); to jars of sugar (rather like vanilla pods); and milk infusions for milk puddings. Place rosemary under meat or fish to be roasted or baked; and burn a few sprigs on the coals while barbecuing meat.

Other uses
Rosemary can contribute to pot-pourris and as it promotes well being it would be valuable in a herb pillow. Rosemary’s perfume is a safeguard against moths and other vermin. Banckes’ Herbal advises: ‘Also take the flowres and put them in a chest amonge your clothes or amonge bokes and moughtes [moths] shall not hurte them.’ Rosemary could be used in the rinsing water of clothes or bedlinen, or linen could be dried over rosemary bushes to permeate them with the fragrance. Rosemary was used to scrub floors, both to perfume and purify: when James I visited the Bodleian in Oxford in the seventeenth century, the floors had been rubbed with the fresh herb. Writing inks were once perfumed with herbs, rosemary one of them.

Rosemary bushes can be planted among vegetables to discourage pests.

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