Rosemary Remembrances February 22, 2021
From food to Pharaohs, rosemary has captured imaginations and spread its enlivening essence throughout the ages. Join us as we trace the nostalgic nuances of rosemary through the winding lanes of civilisation.
Ophelia, Hamlet’s lady love swore by it. The Egyptian Pharaohs took it with them on their journey into the afterlife. Hungary’s Queen Isabella, used it as a treatment for gout. Ask any young bride and they would refuse to walk down the aisle without a few sprigs of this fragrant herb in their wedding nosegays. Early ballads celebrated it as an undying symbol of love and remembrance. Greek scholars of yore took the help of this bud to help them study better by wearing it in their hair. The Romans and Greeks put it on a pedestal and considered it sacred. Centuries later, Michelin chefs hoard it in their cupboards and gourmands savour its subtle flavouring in continental cuisine. Today, it is also the go-to essential oil for herbalists and aromatherapists for stimulating tired brains and pepping up emotional quotient. If you have not guessed it already, we are referring to the ‘dew of the sea,’ Rosemary.
Rosmarinus officinalis derives its name from the Latin words ‘ros’ meaning ‘dew’ and ‘marinus’ meaning ‘sea’. The moniker is indicative of the plant’s affinity to coastlines, especially the dry rocky one of the Mediterranean. It is native to the cliffs of the Mediterranean and, in common parlance, the plant is also referred to as compass plant, polar plant or compass weed. A bushy evergreen shrub, rosemary is quite distinctive with its stiff, needle-like foliage and small blue flowers. Graceful as they look, the flowers are rather small and two-lipped, blossoming in clusters on the spiky stalks of the plant. Late spring and early summer are when rosemary comes into its full blooming glory. Its dark green leaves are simple, sessile and storehouse of the potent, much-loved essential oil.
‘Sovereign balm’ was what Nicholas Culpeper, noted botanist of the 17th century, called rosemary essential oil. Not without reason. As history has proved, the herb and its volatile, aromatic oil has enjoyed a place of reverence throughout western civilisation. Rosemary belongs to the same family as mint, myrtle, and sage, and the genus Rosmarinus includes several species of botanicals. However, it is Rosmarinus officinalis that is used for distillation and yields the essential oil that the world loves.
Fresh or dried leaves from the top portion of the plant and flowers are hand-harvested. These yield the best quality of essential oil. The other parts of the plant like the stem and lower leaves are sometimes also used in distillation, but the oil extracted from these is of an inferior quality. Rosemary essential oil chemical constituents include bitters, borneol, linalool, camphene, camphor, cineole, pinene, resin, tannins, and it holds a firm place in the medicinal world for its anti-bacterial, anti-inflammatory, carminative, decongestant, and antiseptic properties.
Bewilderment sets in when there is a cornucopia of vials proudly proclaiming rosemary essential oil from France, Spain, Dalmatia, Tunisia or Corsica. Rosemary loves the temperate climes and so quite happily adapts to the growing conditions in all these countries. As a result, these nations are notable producers of the oil but the grades of oil differ with their counterparts in terms of chemotypes.
- Rosemary from Morocco and Tunisia is quite robust with a cineole chemotype that is 1,8-cineole chemotype, it is the most frequently offered variety.
- Its French cousin is stronger, veering more towards the camphor chemotype.
- In Spain, rosemary chooses to be gentler with clear leanings towards the alpha-pinene chemotype.
- In Corsica rosemary of the verbenone chemotype chooses to be gentler with 1,8-cineole and also less camphor.
was what Nicholas Culpeper, noted botanist of the 17th century, called rosemary essential oil. Not without reason.
In the ubiquitous dark amber or blue bottle, rosemary essential oil is beguiling. It is not easy to make out the pale yellowness of the oil and has all the appearance of water due to its low viscosity. But uncork the stopper and at once you will be taken in by the irresistibly warm, herbaceous aroma with woody and balsamic undertones. The camphor chemotype naturally displays a more penetrating camphorous fragrance.
From odorous to cosmetic to medicinal, rosemary has a plethora of uses. Rosemary verbenone variety, due to its milder characteristics, is favoured by the cosmetic and skin care industry. Rosemary is a soothing anti-microbial, antiseptic, astringent antioxidant. Its regenerative properties lend it well as a common ingredient in skin care products to treat aging skin, dry or oily skin, eczema, inflammation, acne, burns, and sun damage. In haircare, rosemary is an age-old remedy for preventing greying, hair fall, and dandruff. As a massage oil, it helps reduce pain, soothe inflammation and eliminate headaches.
Its strong antioxidant properties make it an ideal catalyst for aiding digestion, relieving flatulence and constipation. The more full-flavoured and robust rosemary cineole with the distinctive camphorous aroma works wonders to clear respiratory passages and reduce coughing.
If there was a competition for quick, zesty lift-me-ups, rosemary would give the citrus eucalyptus and tea tree a stiff run for their money. Used extensively throughout generations as enhancing mental prowess, ongoing research has revealed the stimulatory effect of 1,8-cineole on the temporal portion of the brain. This would sound like a science journal, only for the fact that it has a direct bearing on a person’s emotional quotient and happiness factor. Inhalation of rosemary oil has been shown to augment memory and incite renewed mental vigour. The oil acts as a definite mood-booster, eases stress and heightens the capacity to retain information. Science has only reiterated what the forefathers of continental civilisations knew all along, that this potent essential oil is a powerful fatigue-relieving psycho-stimulant, an elixir that held the power to incite cheerfulness and sharpen minds. In this perspective, the presence of rosemary in almost all festivals and religious ceremonies, including weddings, is symbolic of the cycle of life and death. This was the talisman that was commonly strewn on floors and in doorways to keep the dreaded bubonic plague at bay. In fact, recent developments are promising and indicate positive results in cancer-inhibiting effects of rosemary.
So, next time you are preparing for an important presentation, remember the Greek scholars who tucked a bud in their hair, and remember rosemary. While you might not wear the flower, it would not be a bad idea to plug in that diffuser and remember rosemary.