“There’s rosemary; that’s for remembrance ...”
– Ophelia in Hamlet
Rosemary (Salvia rosmarinus) is a perennial, evergreen shrub that is often referred to as the “prince” of aromatic herbs. It belongs to the mint family (Lamiaceae), along with other fragrant herbs such as sweet marjoram, lavender, thyme, and sage. Roman philosopher Pliny the Elder is credited with giving rosemary the designation Rosmarinus, or “sea dew.” He wrote that its fragrance is similar to frankincense.
For at least two millennia, rosemary has been used in traditional herbal medicines, to infuse foods with flavor, and in the art of perfumery. The essential oil in rosemary’s dark green, needlelike foliage gives the plant its fresh, piney scent and distinctive, robust flavor. The oil is a complex blend of chemical compounds that defend against plant pathogens, insects, and even foraging animals. It also has antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory, and antioxidant properties that are beneficial to our health.
Rosemary produces edible flowers that are milder tasting than the leaves with a contrasting sweet note. They generally appear in the spring and summer and range from blue to purplish blue; in some cultivars, they are white or pink. The bluish flowers attract a variety of bees; their aroma attracts potential pollinators. Honeybees collect their rich nectar to carry back to the colony to nourish the brood and make honey. Gardeners say the bees seem almost companionable as they work and are less likely to sting. Rosemary honey, homemade or store-bought, is especially appealing drizzled over fresh goat cheese, blue cheese, or brie.
Native to Asia Minor and the Mediterranean region, rosemary’s history is rooted in ancient traditions. It was used in ancient Egyptian funerary practices and came to symbolize fidelity and remembrance at weddings. When Anne of Cleves married England’s Henry VIII in 1540, she wore “a rich crown of stone and pearls with rosemary in her hair.”
The Romans introduced the herb to Britain. Rosemary-based Anglo-Saxon remedies can be found in the Old English medical textbook Bald’s Leechbook from the 10th century. Rosemary was not well known until mid-14th century when Jeanne de Valoise, the French countess of Hainault, implored a Salerno scholar to compile “a little book on the virtues of rosemary.” In 1338, she sent a copy, with cuttings, to her daughter Philippa, the wife of England’s Edward III. Rosemary was initially cultivated in the royal gardens, mainly for medicinal use.
Rosemary has had a strong association with memory since ancient times. Greek scholars wore rosemary garlands on their heads during examinations to improve their mental abilities. Traditional healers have long believed that it helps keep the memory strong during aging and is an effective treatment for depression and headaches. In the United Kingdom, researchers from the Department of Psychology at Northumbria University concluded in a study that the scent of rosemary could enhance memory in people over 65. In his seminal play Hamlet, William Shakespeare immortalizes rosemary’s association with memory when Ophelia states, “There’s rosemary; that’s for remembrance.”
Hungary Water, which may be Europe’s oldest perfume, was created for Queen Elizabeth of Hungary in the 14th century. Made from rosemary tops and flowers distilled in spirits, the perfume was also used as a facial beauty rinse and sipped as a medicinal elixir. Napoleon Bonaparte bathed in rosemary water, and rosemary eau de cologne was his favorite scent.
Rosemary became closely associated with the English Christmas. It was used as a fragrant “strewing herb,” scattered inside thatched-roof cottages to walk upon. A boar’s head garnished with rosemary sprigs graced Christmas tables of the wealthy. Small, holiday topiary trees decorate modern tables, with scented rosemary leaves ready to snip. The Treasury of Botany (1870) mentions an old folk saying from the Cotswolds about kitchen gardens: “Where rosemary grows, the woman rules the house.” The book continues to say that numerous healthy garden plants have been “accidentally” injured or disappeared altogether.
Rosemary grows extremely well in South Carolina USDA Hardiness Zones 7a-9a and is known to “thrive on neglect.” Grab a pot the next time you are at the grocery or nursery, and plant it in a sunny spot in your backyard or keep it by your kitchen window. Enjoy your new rosemary bush in the following ways:
• The herb complements Mediterranean dishes, lamb, chicken, steak, and roasted potatoes and vegetables.
• Add chopped leaves to marinades, shortbread cookies, pizza, or focaccia dough.
• Straight, woody herb branches make excellent grilling skewers, or use leafy branches as drink stirrers.
• Add to pear preserves, peach jam, marinades, ice cubes, sugar syrup, or soft butter.
• Sprinkle the flowers over cheese plates, salads, or cupcakes.
• Infuse a pitcher of chilled water or a cruet of vinegar with rosemary sprigs.
• Heat 2 cups mild-tasting oil with 3 herb sprigs in a small, slow cooker; cool and bottle.
• Use the leaves to season roasted nuts, to coat cheese logs, or to make cups of hot herbal tea.
• The essential oils in fresh herb leaves become more concentrated when the leaves are dried.