A Brief History of Rosemary

Rosemary is an herb renowned for the world over, both for its culinary and medicinal benefits.   Shakespeare paid homage to this powerful herb in Hamlet; Ophelia famously declares, “There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance.  Pray you, love, remember!”  Even Simon and Garfunkel immortalized this herb centuries later in their song “Scarborough Fair” beautifully singing, “Are you going to Scarborough Fair:/ Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme./ Remember me to one who lives there./ She once was a true love of mine.”  Perhaps these lyrics were inspired by centuries of tradition surrounding rosemary as an herb of remembrance. 

A very versatile herb, cultures have incorporated rosemary both in the kitchen and medicine cabinet for centuries.  Many cultural traditions surround rosemary.  It is often included in bridal bouquets and wreaths both for its pleasant aroma as well as its legend surrounding remembrance; many believe this herb helps people maintain clear memories.  Brides would wear a head wreath weaved with rosemary and flowers; this wedding wreath symbolized love and the memory of the woman she had been before becoming married.  As head wreaths fell out of style, rosemary was incorporated into bouquets.

And just as rosemary marked the beginning of a woman’s life as a married woman, it has also marked the end of life.  Rosemary has long been included in burial rites of cultures throughout the world.  While some cultures burn it, others include it in funeral flowers.

Speaking of funerals, rosemary was used throughout Europe during the Black Plague to ward off sickness.  Its price skyrocketed as people believed in its ability to protect against the plague.  Although simply carrying rosemary would do little to prevent sickness, modern research has confirmed its antibacterial, antiviral, and antioxidant abilities.  Both ingesting rosemary and/or using its essential oil can offer profound health benefits.

Several notable Roman figures wrote about rosemary’s ability to support memory.  Pliny the Elder and Galen both wrote about the benefits of rosemary.  Dioscorides, the author of De Materia Medica, a book recording the uses of medicinal herbs, also expounded upon its healthful benefits.  Several authors in the 16th century supported rosemary’s ability to treat a wide range of ailments.  In 1525, Bancke, in his volume Herball, records rosemary’s employment to treat gout and mouth issues.   While its ability to treat gout still needs research, it’s likely that its antibacterial properties did counteract issues in the mouth when chewed.

It seems as time went on rosemary worked its way into the kitchen and became a preferred flavoring for meats.  It became a favorite herb in Spanish cuisine in the 13th century and traveled to the new world with their many explorations.  Rosemary became a favorite tea as well throughout Europe and in the New World.  Today simple teas can be made by boiling two teaspoons of rosemary leaves and leaving them to steep for fifteen minutes.  Enjoyed daily, this tea offers significant antioxidant benefits.

Whether you enjoy rosemary as a supplement, as a delicious seasoning tool, as a tea, or as an essential oil, the most important thing is that you enjoy it.   Both ancient civilizations and modern science can’t be wrong: rosemary offers significant benefits.  Holding it won’t ward off sickness, but incorporating it as part of a balanced approached to your health just might. 

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