In praise of rosemary

rosemary-283098_1280Whether it’s sprinkled on top of a focaccia or growing in a windowbox, rosemary is so ubiquitous that I think it’s easy to overlook its amazing healing properties. I’m guilty of that myself to some extent. I mean, I love rosemary, I grow it, but sometimes with an herb it’s not until you need it that you suddenly realize how awesome it was all along. (Well, that’s true of a lot of things in life, isn’t it?) In fact, if you were to grow only one medicinal plant, you could do a lot worse than rosemary.

Matthew Wood said, and I wish I could remember where but I just can’t, that the mark of a good herbalist is not how many herbs they can heal with, but how many things they can heal with a single herb. Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) is an incredibly versatile herb and if you know this plant well, you can treat a multitude of ills. Lucky for me, it also happens to be one of the few things I can grow here that isn’t destroyed by heat or bugs. It’s pretty hard to kill, and I think everyone should have some growing, at least a little pot.

First, you have rosemary’s pungent, clearing scent. To me, rosemary is the smell of clean. It’s also uplifting, vibrant, and energizing. Culpeper says, “…to burn the herb in houses and chambers, corrects the air in them.” I can testify from experience that diffusing rosemary essential oil can dispel a multitude of bad odors, but as is so often the case, the medicinal property of this plant reflects its esoteric properties. Rosemary is an herb of purification. It’s become all the rage to smudge with white sage, and in much of the US, including where I live, it’s a good choice: it grows abundantly in the wild and has been recognized for it’s cleansing and clearing powers since time immemorial. But if you happen to not live in a place where white sage is native, why pay for some sad, shriveled sage that’s been shipped halfway around the world or sitting on a shelf for two years? Try rosemary, or a bundle or rosemary, juniper, and mugwort.

When I lived in Spain years ago, you could buy sprigs of rosemary from passing street vendors. It is believed to bring luck and to protect pilgrims and travelers. (The word for pilgrim in Spanish is romero, which also means rosemary. I believe pilgrims acquired the name from the habit of carrying rosemary, but I’m not entirely sure.)

Culpeper emphasizes rosemary’s warming properties, saying it “is very much used both for inward and outward diseases, for by the warming and comforting heat thereof it helps all cold diseases, both of the head, stomach, liver, and belly.” Matthew Wood (The Practice of Traditional Western Herbalism, p. 26) refers to it as “the archetypal fiery mint.” Take a few drops of rosemary tincture directly on your tongue and you will feel that heat, as well as a tingly, diffusive feeling. Indeed rosemary’s warmth and dryness underlie all its medicine, and can serve as a mnemonic to help you remember all the various things it can do. In traditional Western herbal energetics, heat is stimulating and vivifying, and dryness counteracts damp conditions.

Therefore, rosemary can be used in any and all conditions that involve tissue “depression” (an excess of cold) or “stagnation” (excess damp that doesn’t move), wherever they occur in the body. Some common manifestations–this is by no means a comprehensive list–of stagnation and/or depression in various tissues include headache (including migraines), gas, cough, sinus infection, edema, poor memory, arthritis, gout, slow metabolism, constipation, weak digestion, lethargy, excess blood sugar, low blood pressure, and poor circulation. What you have here is a picture of underactive, slow, weak tissues and physiological processes. Rosemary can often benefit the elderly, since many of these processes slow down with age. It is a powerful decongestant for all organs subject to congestion, e.g., the lungs, sinuses, veins, liver.

The penetrating, tingly quality of rosemary’s volatile oils make it well suited for use as a massage oil for sore muscles. You can make a massage oil by diluting rosemary essential oil in a skin-friendly carrier oil (such as jojoba, coconut, almond, olive, apricot kernel, grapeseed, untoasted a.k.a. light sesame, or sunflower)–try a ratio of 10% essential oil to carrier oil, and go as high as 25% according to how you like it. And/or you can infuse rosemary in any of the oils listed above. Let some fresh rosemary sprigs wilt overnight, cut into little pieces, then place in a jar and cover with oil. Make sure there is no part of the rosemary exposed to air, and do not allow any water in contact with the oil. Allow to infuse for 4-6 weeks. You can add beeswax (at a ratio of 1 part wax to 8 parts oil–this basic ratio can be tweaked to your preference) to make a salve. The oil or salve can bring some relief to arthritis sufferers. It also helps with bruises and poor circulation. You can also add a few drops of essential oil to a bath. Matthew Wood in The Practice of Traditional Western Herbalism notes that rosemary stimulates the involuntary musculature (e.g., of the heart, intestines, diaphragm) but relaxes the voluntary muscles.

Rosemary’s heat and dryness also tell you where not to use it: anywhere there is excess heat, irritation, or dryness already. If you are having heart palpitations, high blood pressure, or tachycardia, for example, don’t take rosemary. (Take hawthorn.)

Wood says (if I’m quoting him a lot it’s because he’s written a lot about rosemary) (TPoTWH, p. 248):

“…rosemary is indicated in people who have too strong an incarnation, so to speak, or who grasp the material world with such vigor that they get headaches and nervous tension. I do not mean that they are materialistic; it is for people who grasp life with great intensity, or not with enough intensity.”

Culturally, rosemary is most famous for its association with memory, and by extension, loyalty and fidelity. Given its manifold healing properties, it’s perhaps no surprise that rosemary’s esoteric powers are similarly comprehensive–purification, protection, attracting good luck and repelling bad, warding off evil, healing (of course!), exorcism, increasing mental powers, ensuring faithfulness, and empowering women.

Rosemary by Charles Rennie Mackintosh

Rosemary by Charles Rennie Mackintosh

How I use rosemary

I sometimes take rosemary as a tea, and when I have a cold with sinus congestion, I’ll put a few drops of the essential oil in a bowl of hot water, put a towel over my head and inhale the steam. I currently have my mother taking half a dropperful of rosemary tincture three times a day because she has some serious edema going on, and memory problems. Actually, she has practically every problem rosemary can be used for. Unfortunately, it’s hard to get her to take tinctures because she doesn’t like the taste. She’s also a classic example of the Boomer generation attitude that medicine comes in pill form, end of. But when I can get her to take it, I notice immediate improvement in her edema.

Speaking of edema, Wood quotes a woman describing her experience with rosemary and edema (TPoTWH, p. 252):

“The difference between rosemary and lasix [sic; Lasix is a prescription diuretic] is that it is more selective. Lasix pumps out all the fluids it can get its hands on, whereas rosemary pulls out fluids that I can feel are stagnant and need to go.”

Not to put too fine a point on it, there are a lot of bad odors that come from a dying person, as well as a general sense of malaise in the house. To counteract these I diffuse essential oils. I use various blends, mostly making them up on the spot depending on how I feel, but they almost always involve rosemary. One of my favorites is:

  • 2 drops common sage EO
  • 3 drops rosemary EO
  • 3 drops tangerine EO
  • 2 drops grapefruit EO
  • 1-2 drops lavender EO (optional)

It definitely improves the overall aroma and lifts the spirits. I always feel a bit more perky, a bit more able to handle it all, after diffusing this blend. The other day one of my mom’s hospice nurses said it always smells good in our apartment, like herbs. Success!

I always put rosemary in my basic surface cleaning spray.

Rosemary is also an excellent hair tonic. I use a vinegar rinse to condition my hair (equal parts vinegar and water), and frequently use a rosemary infusion in lieu of plain water. Not only does it smell lovely but the oils from the rosemary impart a lovely shine without making your hair greasy. It is said to prevent hair loss.

In the old days herbalists recommended infusing rosemary in white wine and drinking a couple wine-glassesful per day. I haven’t tried this–I extracted my rosemary in brandy to make my usual tincture–but it sounds like it might be rather delicious. Rather than infusing the herb for a month as with a tincture, it was simply infused over the course of the day. I intend to try this when I get my next bottle of wine.

And finally of course I eat rosemary! Rosemary and lemon are a simple way to bring out the best flavor in chicken or potatoes, but they’re delicious on everything.

I mentioned that rosemary was one of the only plants in my garden that has survived. My garden was hit hard by bagrada bugs, and everything but two of my plants–a rosemary and a wooly blue curls–were pulled out by the community garden “SWAT team” who are empowered to remove any infested plants. I can’t tell you how heartbroken I was when I showed up to check on my plot, which had been overflowing with green plants a few days before, and finding nothing but two plants. Suffice to say I learned a hard lesson about what plants can withstand the bagrada bug, and it appears to be members of the mint family. So, I now have two rosemary plants, a blue curls, and a lemon tree in a pot on my patio. Because my mom’s health is growing progressively worse, I had to give up my community garden plot–I just can’t get down there often enough anymore. For the time being I’ll just be growing in containers. At least I know rosemary will continue to flourish there.

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