R is for Rosemary

Written by Kerry E.B. Black

An English/Scottish ballad dating back as far as the late sixteen hundreds asks a haunting question and presents impossible tasks for a former lover. “Are you going to Scarborough Fair?” Simon and Garfunkel presented their take on the song in the 1960’s. “Parsley, Sage, Rosemary, and Thyme…” The references to the herbs probably dates to later adaptations of the song.

Rosmarinus officinalis belongs to the mint family, and its Latin name translates into “Dew of the Sea.” Evergreen and aromatic, rosemary produces tiny white, blue, or pink flowers. The perennial shrub’s needles make pungent additions to recipes and cooks often pair it with lamb. It is incorporated into spa products and potpourri. Rosemary garlanded Christmas boar’s heads. Banckes Herbal advises “take the flowers and put them in a chest among your clothes or books, and moths shall not hurt them. Also take the flowers and made a powder thereof and bind it to thy arm in a linen cloth and it shall make thee light and merry.”

One myth tells of a tired Virgin Mary who spread her cloak over the white-flowered shrub. When she woke in the morning, the flowers turned blue in her honor, and so some say the plant is “Rose of Mary.” The ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans honored the plant.

During the Middle Ages, brides wore headpieces of rosemary, and the groom and special guests wore a sprig of the plant. In medieval times, waters scented with rosemary or other ingredients served for hygiene and perfume. Wealthy folks washed their linens in boiled, scented water. Boccaccio’s “Decameron” mentions washing waters. Rosemary water taken in the morning and before bed freshened the breath.

According to Culpepper and Diocorides, rosemary helps ease tooth ache pains, liver and abdominal complaints, and is effective as a poultice for open wounds. Serapio “witnesseth that rosemarie is a remedie against the stuffing of the head, that comment through coldnesse of the braine, if a garland therof be put about the head.”

Rosemary “belongs to the sun” according to alchemy, and is under the celestial Ram. It warded off the evil eye and purged evil intentions from witchcraft. Putting rosemary needles under the pillow prevented bad dreams. Its smell restored vitality and preserved youth. Rosemary is a component in love and memory charms. “Where rosemary flourishes, women flourish.”

William Shakespeare’s Ophelia says in Hamlet, “There’s rosemary. That’s for remembrance.” He also mentions it in “The Winters Tale.” “There’s rosemary and rue. These keep seeming and savor all the winter long.” Philosopher Sir Thomas More wrote in the early 1500’s, “As for rosemary, I let it run all over my garden walls, not only because my bees love it but because it is the herb sacred to remembrance and to friendship.” Grace and remembrance be to you.” It symbolizes those lost during wars and at funerals in Europe and Australia.

Hungary Water mixes rosemary into preparation to “renovate vitality of paralyzed limbs” and treat gout. In Don Quixote, a healing balm is made of rosemary. John Skelton wrote a poem “To Mistress Isabel” saying, “…the ruddy rosary, the sovereign rosemary…” Other names for Rosmarinus Officinalis include Rosmarinus, Polar Plant, Compass-weed, Compass Plant, Incensier, and Bopen.

Hollywood filmed (and later remade) “Rosemary’s Baby,” a horror tale set in New York. Famous women named Rosemary include Rosemary Kennedy, Rosemary Clooney, and Rosemary Forsyth.