An evergreen herb with a distinctive aroma, rosemary has been used in cooking, medicine, and cultural practices for thousands of years. Enriched with meaning from folklore, rosemary has been used to scare away witches, celebrate weddings, and as a token of remembrance on ANZAC Day and Remembrance Day in Australia, due to its growth on the Gallipoli peninsula. But did you know that rosemary is also a member of the mint family, along with lavender, sage, basil, and oregano?
The scientific name for its genus, Rosmarinus, comes from the Greek ‘ros’ and ‘marinus’ (“dew of the sea”), named for its origins in the Mediterranean. Now, rosemary has been introduced and grown commercially and ornamentally across the world, but its pervasive and hardy nature has caused it to be considered as an incredibly invasive weed in countries such as Cuba.
Faiths and Cultures:
Introduced to China in 220 A.D. and the UK in the ninth century, rosemary has a rich history of cultural use. In Europe especially, rosemary has had a prominent place in folklore, such as in Sicily, where it was believed that young fairies would sleep amongst its flowers, whereas in Italy and Spain it was used as a protection from witches and general evil. In Portugal, rosemary is known as ‘elegrirn’ from the Scandinavian ‘ellegrin’ (‘elfin-plant’), whereas in Spain rosemary is called ‘romero’ (‘pilgrim-plant’), referring to the story of the Virgin Mary who rested under a rosemary bush while fleeing to Egypt.
Rosemary also became a symbol for happiness, love and fidelity, and friendship, and branches tied in colourful ribbons were given to wedding guests, as a New Year’s gift, as well as carried by mourners to throw onto coffins as they were lowered into the ground at funerals.
Due to its symbolism, as well as its tree-like appearance, rosemary also has a strong connection to European Christmas, where it was used decoratively and as a Christmas tree from as early as the 16th century. However it has since been replaced by poinsettias and pine trees in modern Christmas decorations.
Because of its spreading cultivation in English kitchen gardens, rosemary also became representative of the woman of the house. In The Treasury of Botany (1870), John Lindley wrote that in Gloucestershire and other English counties it was believed that rosemary only grew well where the woman of the house was also the master, leading to the damaging of rosemary plants by lords who felt that they weren’t in control of their households.
Medicinally, rosemary is known to have sedative, anti-inflammatory, antiseptic, and digestive effects, just to name a few. In traditional medicine, it was believed to refresh the brain and strengthen memory, and was burnt in sick chambers and French hospitals to prevent infection and purify the air, as well as to prevent ‘gaol-fever’ in the dock in courts.
The first British record of rosemary as a medicinal herb dates back to the ninth century, where it was used in remedies to treat fever and toothaches, and was later used in the 16th century to treat gout, lost appetite, coughs, to prevent bad dreams, and even as a toothpaste. It was also believed to treat asthma and lung conditions by crushing and smoking the leaves with that of Coltsfoot.
In the Philippines, infused rosemary leaves are used as an eyewash to treat mild conjunctivitis, and as a vapour bath to treat rheumatism and paralysis. The leaves are also used to in the therapeutic treatment of rheumatic diseases (inflammation and pain in joints and muscles), indigestion, and circulatory problems.
The essential oils found in rosemary are also popular in aromatherapy, as well as in stimulating the liver and gallbladder, and treating ear infections. Because of its strong aroma, rosemary oil is also used in perfumes and as a scent in soaps and detergents.
Rosemary is a highly versatile addition to your herb collection, with the leaves and flowers used in everything from roasted meats and vegetables, sauces, and stews to herbal butters, breads, and tea. Rosemary tea, an infusion of young tops, leaves, and flowers, was also thought to treat headaches, colds, and colic. Historically, rosemary was also used to flavour ales and wines. While the leaves tend to be used more heavily, rosemary flowers have a more subtle flavour and can be used in dishes where the leaves may be overpowering.
Rosemary oil is also used in seasoning of processed foods, while rosemary oleoresin, a mix of essential oils and resin, is used as a natural antioxidant in products such as cooked meats.
If you are looking for a new way to use this aromatic herb, have a look through these interesting recipes!
As a perennial, hardy plant, rosemary can tolerate heat, drought, and a range of soil and pH conditions, but struggles to survive in climates with wet winters or temperatures below zero. Therefore it is important that rosemary plants aren’t overwatered or have wet feet. However, when grown under optimal conditions of full sun, dry soil, a warm and dry climate, and in a sheltered spot, they can continue to grow and be used for up to 30 years!
Rosemary is an especially great addition to your garden if you want to attract bees, and can flower all the way from spring through to winter in a range of colours, depending on the species. It can also be used as hedging plant as well as a companion plant for a range of herbs and vegetables, including beans, carrots, sage, cabbage, broccoli and other members of the cabbage family, as it deters pests such as cabbage moths, bean beetles, and carrot flies. Just keep an eye on it as it will spread and grow quickly but can be trimmed back easily and you get to enjoy the cuttings.
Happy Growing and Cooking!