One of the most delightfully fragrant herbs, in my opinion, is rosemary. Perhaps you have this evergreen growing in your garden. And this time of year, rosemary is often found in little tree forms that you can bring inside to enjoy all year round.
Rosemary is native to the Mediterranean region but is grown pretty much everywhere these days. The Greeks and Romans used rosemary extensively (and still do) in their cooking and to flavor wine, but it also was used for medicinal purposes, treating ailments such as upset stomach, gout, colds, headaches, and nervousness.
The Greeks and Romans also associated rosemary with improving memory; in fact, Greek scholars would wear rosemary garlands around their necks or in their hair to help them concentrate and remember their facts while taking exams. It had a particular association with remembering the deceased; Shakespeare wrote, “There’s rosemary: that’s for remembrance.” Christians called rosemary the “holy herb,” linking it to Mary who, as the legend goes, draped her robe over a rosemary bush, turning the white flowers to blue.
Today, scientists are looking at rosemary in a new light. As with many spices and herbs, rosemary contains antioxidants (flavonoids and phenols) and may offer certain health benefits.
Brain health. Researchers from the Burnham Institute for Medical Research in California isolated a substance in rosemary called carnosic acid. In animals, carnosic acid protects the brain from free radical damage. Interestingly, it only becomes “active” when there is some kind of insult or injury to the brain. The hope is to turn this substance into a medicine that could be used to protect against a whole host of neurological disorders and diseases, such as Lou Gehrig and Alzheimer disease, and maybe even slow down aging. But for now, why not add a few springs of rosemary to your cooking? By the way, if you’re into aromatherapy, some research indicates that inhaling the scent of rosemary may improve memory and concentration and decrease stress (maybe college students should breathe in the scent of rosemary during those final exams!).
Antimicrobial agent. Rosemary has natural antibacterial, antifungal, and antiviral properties. It’s effective as a flea and tick repellant, and inhibits the growth of a number of bacteria, including those that spoil food, such as E. coli.
Pain reliever. Sore muscles? Creaky joints? Rosemary oil may help ease the pain of muscles and joints, and is actually approved for use in Germany for these ailments. If you decide to try this, it’s best to mix an essential oil with a “carrier” oil, such as almond oil. Using undiluted essential oils on the skin can cause irritation.
Cancer fighter. Rosemary extract given to lab animals has been shown to reduce breast cancer by 47% compared to a control group. And rosemary extract helped to block the growth of skin tumor in mice. In humans, rosemary was shown to block the effect of carcinogens on human lung cells.
Hair restorer. Rosemary oil, along with other essential oils (lavender, thyme, cedarwood) promoted hair regrowth in 84 people with alopecia (hair loss) who massaged their scalps with the oil every day for seven months.
Possible Side Effects
Rosemary is considered to be safe when used in foods or in cooking. Rosemary oil can be toxic if ingested, leading to gastrointestinal distress and possible kidney damage. Taking large amounts of rosemary leaves may cause pulmonary edema, vomiting, asthma, seizures, and coma. Pregnant women should not take rosemary supplements or eat large amounts of rosemary as it may lead to miscarriage. Also, people with high blood pressure, ulcers, ulcerative colitis, or Crohn disease should avoid rosemary. Interestingly, the German Commission E (similar to our Food and Drug Administration) has approved the use of rosemary leaf at 4–6 grams per day to treat high blood pressure and gastrointestinal upset. (Remember: Never self-medicate with herbs without first checking with your health-care provider.)
How to Use Rosemary
Don’t let the possible side effects scare you away from using rosemary in your food. Rosemary goes well with chicken, pork, and lamb dishes, along with tomato sauce and soup. If you bake your own bread, add some fresh rosemary to your next batch. Use fresh sprigs of this pungent herb as a garnish. Also, when summer rolls around again, toss some rosemary sprigs or stems onto the hot coals of your grill for some flavor (and a wonderful smell!).
Editor’s Note: For more great ways to incorporate rosemary into your diet, check out the following recipes: