Whenever I write of any herb I seem to say, "This one is my favorite." But in some ways it is true. Herbs are a little like children: They take on personalities, and you love each one for their individual qualities.
Take rosemary, for instance. Today it is considered a culinary aid, but it was once regarded as one of the great cureall herbs. It was mentioned for its medical and cosmetic powers by Pliny, by Dioscordes, by Galen, and revered by the early Arab physicians. We know today that it is an antiseptic, a gentle stimulant to the entire body, a wonderfully aromatic garden aid, a headache dispeller, a folk medicine heart tonic, and,and,and . . . the list for this ancient cure all goes on. But before I share all the virtues of the medical rosemary, let me share a special visual and olfactory one.
Have you ever traveled along the Mediterranean shores? I hope that you can sometime in your future, for one of my most pleasant memories of Italian shores is the pervasive, heady aroma of the evergreen, blue flowered, wild rosemary, Rosemary loves rocky mountainsides and cliffs, and because it grows so well and so near the sea, Rosmarinus means "dew of the sea," or "sea spray."
Breath Aid John Gerard, in his ancient herbal, mentions that rosemary is useful in keeping the breath sweet and clean. He advises drinking the distilled water of the flowers early in the morning and last thing at night. Culpeper suggests eating the flowers every morning, while fasting, with bread and salt: "It helps dim eyes, and procures a clear sight."
I make an inexpensive rosemary spice sherry gargle that you might like to try. If you haven't a sprig of fresh rosemary, use a pinch of the dried herb. I purchase a cheap sherry, and add a pinch each of cloves, cinnamon, anise seed, and a dust or two of mace, plus the rosemary. I steep, turn and shake the herbs in the sherry for a week or so, then strain them out. It's cheaper than most mouthwashes, and twice as effective and delicious. It is a great gift, by the way. Don't forget to label it, although I must confess that these items added to any wine only enhance its taste and act in a stimulating way on the body. (See Section Three.)
Memory Some herbs, such as elder or rosemary,, seem to evoke mystery and symbolism among our ancient forebears. Do you recall the phrase, "Rosemary, that's for remembrance?" Well, rosemary was thought to sharpen the memory. It was also thought to relate to fidelity. Thus, a sprig of aromatic rosemary was always woven into a bride's headdress.
Disease Prevention Rosemary was also thought to be one of the several herbs that could help ward off disease, and it is contained in many a family recipe and involved with many legendary recipes during the bubonic plague. Sprigs of fresh rosemary and fresh rue were always placed next to the judges in the dock and strewn about the English courts. It was believed they prevented diseases from spreading. No wonder a 1550 herbal says to drink a tea of rosemary flowers, "for it is much worth against all evyls in the body."
Because there was a strong belief in rosemary's antidisease abilities, each mourner was handed a sprig of fresh rosemary at a funeral, to have, to hold, and then drop on the coffin. "Dry up your tears, and stick rosemary on this fair corse [sic],Father Lawrence says in Romeo and Juliet.
Restorative But to our ancestors, rosemary had still other uses. My own grandmother had a strong feeling about the restorative abilities of this herb; she often suggested it for morning tea, and, as do the English herbalists (apparently this feeling pervaded all of Europe), she believed that rosemary could "comfort the brain."
Certainly, grandmother believed in rosemary for headaches, and, along with chamomile and linden, she liked rosemary for all sorts of sudden nervous upsets.
Because my grandmother had been rescued by the gypsies when she was young, she believed some of their superstitions. One was that a sprig of rosemary under a pillow could prevent children's nightmares.
Grandmother said that rosemary could prevent a miscarriage. However, many of the English herbalists indicate a contrary use of the herb to bring on a delayed period! That's one of the interesting things about herbs the contradictory uses. But then, I often wonder, how did the millions who lived before us actually discover the many uses of each herb?
Rosemary leaves can be used as a tonic tea, to stimulate and strengthen the system after an illness or when one is exhausted, Rosemary leaves added to wine are said to strengthen the heart and prevent the swelling of the ankles so common with certain heart conditions. Also, rosemary can act as a diuretic by releaseing fluid from the system. Kunzle used rosemary to stimulate menstruation, for headaches, nerves, strengthening after exhaustion, nervous heart troubles, stomach diseases, a diuretic, and even congestion of the liver.
Grandmother had several ways to prepare rosemarysteeped wine. For her heart cordial, she used a white wine,
I have had very positive reactions to her old tonic wine. We make it in my "History and Uses of Herbs for Health" classes. Since it will hold well, I use a full bodied, red wine, a Madeira. Many students use the wine when they feel ill. One student had an undetermined flu like illness. She said this tonic wine was the only food she could tolerate. "It saved me during those two home bound weeks."
Cold, Headaches, Stomach Spasms Add a small amount of fresh, or a pinch of dried, rosemary to other herbal teas. It combines well with sage, with lavender (also good against headaches), and, of course, it can be combined with the old standbys for stomach spasms chamomile or peppermint.
Rosemary is especially stimulating for the skin and, therefore, is a wonderful scalp aid, too. It can be added to shampoos and rinses to prevent dandruff and to strengthen the hair and make it glisten. It is particularly good for those with dark hair.
I have mentioned the tonic effect of rosemary on the skin, and aside from the excellent counterirritants like mustard, wintergreen, and the like, rosemary should take its place as a wonderful yet rather gentle external stimulant. For this reason, it can be added in strong tea form to the bath water to help with sluggish circulation, and it can be added to a steam facial to activate a sluggish, sallow complexion.
One link with the medieval past that I like is the Queen of Hungary water. The Hungarian Queen Elizabeth is said to have been cured of paralysis by the continued use of rosemary on her limbs, and the Imperial Library in Vienna is said to have a formula for Queen of Hungary water written in the Queen's own hand in 1235. This water was sold all over Europe, was found in many European apothecaries, and was also sold by certain groups of European gypsies as a face beautifier and cure all.
This famous water was distilled from the flowers of rosemary. But you can get some of the same external effect, some old pharmacy books say, from the leaves, since the camphorous oil of rosemary is in the leaves. The original water was made with a pound or more of the flowers in a gallon of white wine, then distilled again. You could try your own version with homegrown rosemary leaves steeped in a white wine. It makes a stimulating rub. Some allergic people may be sensitive to rosemary oil on the skin, however, so experiment cautiously.
Rosemary can be obtained in oil, tincture, dried form, or in pressed herbal juice.