Rosemary: An Herbal History

Rosemary is a delightfully aromatic herb with a fascinating cultural history. Read on for some tidbits of its symbolism and significance.

Rosemary is an aromatic, woody shrub which comes from the Mediterranean, where it can be found everywhere from the hillsides of Provence to the ruined temples of Greece. The word “rosemary” comes from the Latin ros maris, “dew of the sea” and in Italy it still grows abundantly along the coastline.

Symbolism

Rosemary is the herb of remembrance and fidelity, as well as love and romance. The Romans used it as an aphrodisiac and young maidens would slip sprigs of rosemary into their pillowcases so that their true love would come to them in dreams. Rosemary played a large part in weddings, being added to the wedding cup and passed around to guests; a bride would ceremoniously give a sprig to her new husband to ensure he would remain faithful.

Uses

Rosemary has been used historically in wine, medicine and for its aromatic and nutritious value in the kitchen. The Romans used it extensively in food and medication, and knew it had valuable properties as an antiseptic, and as an insect repellent. In Europe in the middle ages, it was used to line chests as a repellent to moths. It was thought to repel the plague, and was carried in small sachets and inhaled while walking through plague ridden areas, and was also tossed on the fire to purify air. It was burned in the courts and the jails by judges and guards who feared catching jail-fever from the prisoners. In cooking it was originally used for its pungent flavor to disguise the taste of rancid meat, and although our hygiene has improved, Rosemary is still used to flavor meat dishes such as lamb and roast. Medicinally, it was thought to cure all manner of spots, marks and scars on skin, as well as to improve the breath in the morning and evening, and to prevent baldness. Its symbolism of remembrance inspired Greek students to twine it in their hair to stimulate memory while studying, and to drink it as an infusion to prevent forgetfulness.

In History

The properties of rosemary have been immortalized in Ophelia’s famous lines in Shakespeare’s Hamlet… “There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance; pray, love, remember…”

It has been said that the Virgin Mary sheltered under a rosemary bush on her flight to Egypt, and that when she spread her cloak over a rosemary bush, the flowers turned from white to blue.

The ill-fated Anne of Cleves wore rosemary in her crown on her marriage to Henry VIII, though it didn’t do her much good.

Rosemary was also Napoleon’s favorite perfume – he used more than a hundred bottles of rosemary water on his honeymoon alone.

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