Plant Profile: Rosemary
In places like Southern France, Italy, Greece, and Spain, rosemary grows to three feet in height and blooms in the cool nights displaying pale blue or lilac flowers. Rosemary is a woody perennial evergreen shrub with small spiky leaves, fragrant and hearty. In the wild rosemary has an upright growth pattern. In the garden pruning the stalks after flowering will make for a bushier plant. Cabbage, sage, beans, and carrots make good companion plants. The dry hot summers with mild cool and wet winters of the Mediterranean climate resemble rosemary’s favorite growing conditions. Add misty weather moisture and lots of sunshine, soil that drains well, and temperatures that are 40 degrees or above and rosemary flourishes, growing wild. I have made mistakes in attempting to grow rosemary, an herb I would love to have abundant in my garden, its many uses and lovely purple flowers. First several plants for inside pots did not survive more than a few days. I bought a little plant this spring from Horizon Herbs. Starting from a cutting rather than seed is best. But I planted it in the ground and although it looks ok there now in August, I know it will be miserable if I leave it there once December comes. I am going to attempt to replant it in a large pot and bring it inside this autumn. Rosemary sometimes does not mind growing indoors in a container as long as there is some south side sunshine but it can not survive long in temperatures below freezing. It seems to me that if the conditions are right, rosemary is easy to grow, thought and patience is key if not in the prime climate. There is no best time to harvest rosemary; the sprigs can be cut off the main stem any time.
Despite the vast Materia Medica (collected knowledge) of herbalism, using numerous amazing herbs is limited by access to quality products or difficulty in preparation. Wild medicinal plants become sensitive to the impact of human activity in the form of increased demand, over-harvesting, environmental toxins, and habitat destruction. Currently United Plant Savers, an organization dedicated to the conservation and protection of native plants in the United States and Canada, lists 20 medicinal herbs “at risk” and 23 “to watch”. With some herbs there is no choice but growing them to obtain and that is often far from feasible. Being a mainstream culinary herbs, this is not at all so with rosemary. Having a rosemary plant that you can snip sprigs from is delightful, but buying rosemary is easy and no growing is required. Any supermarket will have dried rosemary in the spice section and many produce departments have fresh in packages. Even organic is often available both fresh and dried. Rosemary sprigs can be frozen, so if you only need a small amount from a package, freeze the rest for another time.
Energetically, rosemary is warm, stimulating, and dry. Constituents such as carotenoids prove a good source of vitamin A but you would have to eat a lot and that is unlikely because it has such a strong flavor. The fresh herb has a bit of a sticky resin quality, which can cause skin irritation in people who are sensitive. The essential oil can do this as well. The constituents differ slightly from the leaves to the oil. In the leaves flavonoids, proanthocyanidins, bitters, and volatile oils add nutritional benefits to food as well as function as anti-inflammatories, carminatives, and antioxidants. The oil has more concentrated volatile oils such as borneol, pinene, camphene, and limonene imparting strong antimicrobial and antioxidant properties. Rosemary is a food herb and for that reason has little risk associated with its use. But because of its strength and potency, best practice uses only small amounts. In larger amounts it can cause headaches and actually may be less effective for memory enhancement.
Sharp, biting, strong and spicy are all descriptions of rosemary’s distinctive, pungent taste. Flavor highlights stand out in fresh rosemary. Drying rosemary mellows the taste a bit. Buying dried rosemary in a spice jar will be even milder, still characteristic and classic though.
Rosemary is definitely aromatic; the aroma lingers in the air. Reminiscent of an evergreen mixture of pine and eucalyptus with a pungent fresh unique tone, most of us know this herbal smell well. The fragrance is strongest in fresh rosemary. Just chopping a sprig, the resinous sticky quality will cover your fingers in it.
The language of flowers deems rosemary for remembrance. This an expression immortalized in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, illustrating the truth behind communication through plants. Ophelia wrought with guilt and confusion over the murder of her father and her love for Hamlet, loses her sanity finding no alterative but suicide. Her tragic babbling words to her brother Laertes, “there’s rosemary; that’s for remembrance; pray, love remember…” capture a distinctive Shakespeare symbolism as he often used the language of flowers in his writing. Folk tradition of the time linked rosemary to remembering those who have died and was often placed on bodies at funerals. Perhaps Shakespeare was foreshadowing Ophelia’s death with the overt idea that her memories were haunting her. In the Middle Ages, rosemary was revered for multiple life changing meanings. For purification to clear away toxins from the air or as a repellent for evil spirits, rosemary protected. It was spread on floors at Christmas so the cleansing aroma would assure happiness for the year. The lingering herbal scent evokes notions of everlasting love and loyalty symbolized by wreaths worn at weddings in this time. The Latin name, rosmarinus means dew of the sea. A magical story speaks to rosemary’s ability to restore beauty, youth, and vitality. In the 14th century Queen Elizabeth of Hungary, in her 70’s and suffering from rheumatism (inflamed, painful, stiff joints and muscles) visited a hermit who gave her a special blend of rosemary water, also known as Budapest or Hungary water, to protect her from aging. It was actually rosemary infused in wine. The story tells that it worked so well that the 26 year-old King of Poland fell in love with her and asked her to marry him. Napoleon Bonaparte used rosemary water as perfume, Princess Josephine demanded it when they were together, but he became obsessed with using it all the time. Because rosemary has always been known for its ability to help memory, students in ancient Greece wore rosemary necklaces, braided sprigs into their hair, or slept with it under their pillows before exams. Rosemary has always been for remembrance and now science supports the beliefs.
Culinary and Cooking
A bit of rosemary goes a long way in cooking. Master chefs know this implementing balance through mixture with other herbs and discernment of heavy hand. In Mediterranean cultures where this herb grows wild and abundantly, signature dishes include roasted chicken with thyme and rosemary or seafood bouillabaisse with rosemary breadsticks. To capture the flavors of French country cuisine, prepackaged spice blends like herbes de provence mix basil, fennel seed, lavender, marjoram, sage, summer savory, and thyme with rosemary. Using rosemary in this way will help mellow its intensity. A strong taste like rosemary can over power more delicate flavors, so it is best and mostly used with bold, savory foods such as stews, oily fish varieties, roasted or grilled meats, potatoes, and vegetables. It is an herb that can take the heat of cooking so works well as a rub and does not have to be added at the end as recommended for other delicate seasonings. Classical rosemary cookery pairs it with lamb, pork, tuna, tomatoes, potatoes, green beans, apples and pears or mixed with lemon, garlic, olive oil, and wine. Imparting its fragrance and pungent taste, it touches almost every part of a meal. For breakfast enhance an omelet with goat cheese and tomatoes, for lunch in a quiche, soup, or salad. For dinner, all courses, appetizers, as a pizza topping, especially main course meats whether chicken, lamb, pork, salmon or tuna, a flavoring for sauces, sides like roasted potatoes or vegetables, and of course in baking…breads, cakes, cookies, muffins.
Beneficial Qualities and Traditional Uses
Rosemary epitomizes the beauty of herbal medicine, the concept that it is the people’s medicine, the ability to practice and reap benefits in the comfort of your home, under your own discretion. A common culinary herb, there is nothing ordinary about its therapeutic potential. The most ancient medical manuals and practitioners like Galen, Dioscoirdes, Pliny, and many others all revered it as one of the most valuable, cure-all medicinal herbs. Long history surrounds rosemary as a cerebral stimulant and its ability to improve blood circulation to the brain. Effects include decreased symptoms of depression, cloudy thinking or brain fog, dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. This would be awesome enough, but it also improves circulation in other areas of the body by strengthening veins, arteries, and capillaries. By improving circulation, organs that rely on blood flow such as the heart, liver, and kidneys benefit. As circulation becomes stronger the body is warmer, which helps those who are sensitive to cold weather. Peripheral circulation is improved as well to help cold extremities. Anti-cancer research focuses on rosemary’s antioxidant activity and identification of protective constituents. So far, gastric and intestinal cancers have been study. Rosemary improves impaired fat digestion, reducing gas and nausea, and helping to clear toxins or intestinal infections. Rosemary is strongly antibacterial and antiviral so can be used to clear infections such as colds, flus, sinus infections, and sore throats. Rosemary has a multitude of interesting topical uses as well. It is a common addition to creams, ointments, and massage oils for fragrance and preservation. The antimicrobial properties of rosemary, either dried or as essential oil, prevent rancidity increasing shelf life. The essential oil, a few drops added to a massage oil or bath can help to relieve muscle pain. Rosemary tea can be used as a hair wash to stimulate hair growth and eliminate dandruff, but only on dark hair because it is also has a dying effect, which is useful to cover grays if needed. From an emotional perspective, rosemary traditionally is known to clear away melancholy and sadness when other remedies do not work. Perhaps this is because it increases clarity of thought, or calms nervousness, or strengthens self-awareness, or restores a feeling of vitality. Perhaps it is all of this combined or something yet to be discovered among the vast potential of healing qualities.
Powdered, dried rosemary is best for tea making. Use ½ teaspoon of herb and 8 ounces hot water, steep in a French coffee press or teapot for 15-20 minutes. The strong flavor of rosemary may be hard to drink alone as a tea unless it is mixed with other milder, pleasant tasting herbs, mint, lemon balm or hibiscus for example.
Many herb infused honey recipes call for the honey to be heated slightly prior to pouring over the herbs. I don’t like to do this because it is very hard to keep the honey from getting too hot which will kill some of the important enzymes. My preference is to place the herbs in a jar with the honey, mixing with a wooden chopstick and then place in my yogurt maker for about five days. The honey will be warm, but not hot which also makes it easier to strain. Rosemary is good for this method because of its strong flavor. It can be powdered prior to mixing with the honey and then no straining is needed. If no yogurt maker, it is fine to just allow the herbs and honey to infuse together, mix them every day with the chopstick to make sure all of the herbs are touching the honey as they have a tendency to all float to the top. Prior to straining, place the jar in a warm water bath to make the honey a bit more liquid, easier to flow through the strainer.
There are two ways to prepare rosemary simple syrup. The first is to prepare an infusion as above. Measure one cup of the rosemary tea, heat in a saucepan until just boiling, add 1cup sugar and simmer until sugar is dissolved. This can be reduced a bit to thicken on a low simmer. The other way is to prepare simple syrup with equal parts water and sugar, for example 1 cup of water, bring to boil in saucepan, add 1 cup sugar and stir to dissolve. Then add rosemary sprigs, remove from heat, cover, and let steep for 2 hours, and strain out rosemary. Either method can be stored refrigerated in a small bottle and used in cocktails or drizzled over cakes or other desserts.
I love a yogurt maker for making infused oils. The low application of heat to warm the oil will allow the herb’s flavor to permeate into the oil. Making infused oil with rosemary has advantages, especially in comparison to many fresh herbs. Several constituents of rosemary are powerfully antioxidants thus eliminating the concern for rancidity, which is often the case when making infused oils. Fill a small jar with fresh rosemary sprigs, make sure that there are no droplets of water left on the sprigs. Fill the jar with olive oil and allow to infuse for 10 to 14 days.
Simply place a sprig or two or rosemary in a bottle and fill with organic apple cider vinegar then store away in a cool, dark place for about two weeks. There are infused vinegar recipes that call for heating the vinegar slightly or weighing the rosemary to assure a balanced infusion. Neither is necessary. The most important part is to make sure fresh rosemary, if not from your own garden is organic, translation pesticide free and that after rinsing with water, it is completely dry so no water is introduced into your vinegar. For a pretty presentation, the rosemary sprig can be left in the bottle, but after about a month, it may be best to remove to prevent overpowering rosemary taste.
The methodical way to prepare rosemary extract is by using 1 part dried rosemary leaves with 5 parts of liquid, usually a mixture of alcohol and water. A part can be whatever you choose it to be. For example, use 1 cup dried rosemary with 5 ounces or 150 milliliters grain alcohol or vodka. A non-alcohol version called a glycerite can be prepared using 1 part dried rosemary and 4 parts glycerin, a syrupy liquid.
Making essential oil is a truly specialized technique. Buying rosemary essential oil is also an exercise in careful thought to obtain the highest quality product.
Wood M: The Earthwise Herbal: A Complete Guide to Old World Medicinal Plants. North Atlantic Books, Berkeley California; 2008.