Rosemary – beloved in literature, delicious in the kitchen, with medicinal properties!
Aromatic and delicious, useful in the kitchen and in medicine, too – the pretty herb, Rosemary (Rosmarinus officialis) is an important plant. Rosemary has woody stems which resemble, to some extent, those of the Garden Mint (Mentha sachalinensis) which is hardly surprising since they are both members of the Mint family (Lamiaceae). Rosemary is an evergreen and native to the Mediterranean region, where it is found particularly on sea coasts. Its common name is derived from the Latin ros (dew) and marinus (of the sea), as it seems to be able to thrive just on the dew formed from the damp sea air; it does not mind poor soils, and its dark green, spiky leaves with silvery-grey undersides seem to minimize moisture loss.
There is no doubt that the plant has a strong, aromatic scent with hints of pine, and this must have given rise to its culinary use quite early on. The herb has spread over most of Europe and into North America, and it is thought that the Romans introduced Rosemary to their new province of Britannia, as they did with the medicinal herb, Valerian (Valeriana officialis). Rosemary has several low-lying or ‘prostrate’ modern cultivars, but it is far more common in its upright form, as you can see above. This particular example is the variety ‘Alba’, with masses of white, two-lipped flowers born in the leaf axils (the upper angle between the leaf and the stem); this variety mainly flowers in the spring and early summer. As you can see, the mature bush grows to approximately 5 feet tall, and can be 3 to 4 feet wide, although some gardeners like to plant it in the form of an aromatic hedge, as it can be easily trimmed to shape. The plant is behind a south-facing wall (an excellent way to plant Rosemary) in my brother’s back garden, about a half mile from the coastal waters of the Bristol Channel in South Wales. Propagation of this plant is extremely easy, as new, soft shoots from the old plant can be trimmed and pushed directly into the soil (although dipping the dampened end of the stalk into one of the many brands of hormone rooting powder will help things along). Propagation from seeds is also possible.
Rosemary’s uses – either dried or fresh – in the kitchen are manifold. The dried leaves can be found in herb mixes or on their own, and readily add flavour to soups, stews, roast meat dishes (especially lamb) and in salad dressings. You can even strip the leaves and pound them to make a Rosemary pesto, which is wonderful with a little olive oil and crusty bread. One of my favourites from the grill are lamb mini-kebab spears – take long, woody stems of Rosemary, strip most of the leaves and impale chunks of marinated lamb on the stalks, scatter rosemary leaves over them, and then grill quickly – delicious!
The ancient Greeks used Rosemary as an aid to memory, believing that the aroma stimulated brain function; indeed, students taking examinations often used to wear sprigs of the herb in their hair! In the Middle Ages, mourners use to wear Rosemary to the grave side, and toss the plant into the grave as a sign of remembrance. As Shakespeare had Ophelia say, ‘There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance. Pray you, love, remember.’ Hamlet, Act 4, Scene V. Sir Thomas More (1478 – 1535) said, ‘As for Rosemarine, 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.’ The herb was also used along with holly, mistletoe and ivy as Christmas decoration.
There is clinical evidence to support Rosemary’s increase in memory function. A group of twenty volunteers were exposed to rosemary aroma, then asked to perform serial subtraction and other tasks (against a control). Blood tests indicated the presence of 1,8-cineole (an active constituent of Rosemary) increased their performance; ‘Plasma 1,8-cineole correlates with cognitive performance following exposure to rosemary essential oil aroma’, Moss M, Oliver L, ‘Therapeutic Advances in Psychopharmacology’, 2012, vol. 2, (3), pg 95 – 102. Rosemary, as well as containing many minerals such as iron, manganese and copper, is starting to be explored as a potential agent for cancer chemoprevention and therapy, ‘Anti-proliferative and antioxidant properties of rosemary – Rosmarinus officinalis’, Cheung S, Tai J, ‘Oncology Reports’, 2007, vol.17 (6), pg 1525 – 1531.
Taken everything into consideration, it would be difficult to select a herb that had more significant effects on the human body, or had greater potential to do even greater good. Rosemary – the Queen of the herb garden!