There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance;
pray you, love ,remember.
William Shakespeare (Hamlet)
For me Rosemary (Rosmarinus officianalis) comes into its own around this time of year. As a herb of remembrance I use it extensively especially around All Hallows to adorn Ancestral Altars, in bouquets to lay upon the graves of my ancestors, in incense and so on. Rosemary is one of my favourite herbs, magically and medicinally speaking….Common though she may be, she is definitely not common by nature!
Growth & Cultivation
There are a whole host of Rosemary varieties out there each with their own peculiarities; I will (as usual) just be focusing on Rosmarinus officianalis which I grow extensively.
Like so many herbs, Rosemary was introduced to the British Isles by the Romans and is a member of the mint family although bears more resemblance to shrubby herbs like Hyssop and Lavender than the typical mints. The herb is evergreen with tough, leathery, thin needle like leaves growing around woody stems which become woodier as the plant ages. The leaves are dark green with the palest silvery green underside. The rich oil content of the leaves is incredibly aromatic and volatile, especially on a hot day where rubbing the leaves will leave a highly fragrant, sticky and oily residue on your fingers. The plant itself may be pruned to grow as a standard although most grow as shrubby bushes and I’ve seen them growing well in excess of 4 feet if left unchecked. The habit of Rosemary reminds me a little of our hedgerow and heath plants and I don’t think Rosemary would look out of place growing all gnarled and twisted over the UKs heathlands. I haven’t however ever seen it outside of gardens which surprises me as Rosemary is a very hardy herb and tolerates the British climate exceedingly well, preferring free draining soil over heavy clay although like her cousin Lavender, is not keen on cold and wet feet. Rosemary is very drought tolerant and copes brilliantly along our wind swept coast lines. One of the reasons she has been named ‘rosmarinus’ (rose of the sea) is because Rosemary not only grows in the path of the salt laden sea winds but seems to thrive, the suggestion being that she can take all the moisture she needs from the air and is largely unaffected by the salinity. The small delicate flowers have a more subtle fragrance than the leaves and appear early summer and can flower right through in a range of colours ranging from white, to pastel pinks, violets and blues. The flowers sit in small groups nestled in among the leaves close to the top of the stems, most commonly on the new season’s growth.
I grow a pot of Rosemary by the front door and another plant in the ground out back. The potted herb doesn’t ever grow as healthy or for as long as those grown in open soil, purely because she can’t get quite as much light on our west facing front step. However Rosemary is incredibly easy to propagate from softwood cuttings which I take late summer and grow on indoors over winter to replace my potted plant every few years. Cuttings root fairly quickly if kept moist (but not soaking!!) on a bright windowsill. Cover the soil surface with grit to keep off rot and if you don’t have an actual propagator, secure a clear plastic bag or clean soda bottle bottom over the cuttings to help retain moisture. You shouldn’t need to water much at all and cuttings can be moved on to a light gritty compost when new growth is showing.
Being a shrubby perennial, rosemary can be pruned although just as with Lavender you should avoid cutting into old wood, if you need to contain Rosemary grow in a pot or find a smaller or more prostrate variety otherwise you will need to embark on a strict pruning regime to stop the plant growing too much and the wood ripening. If however you love and work with Rosemary as much as I do you won’t need to worry because you will be harvesting regularly enough to keep her compact and under control.
Rosemary’s uses in the kitchen are extensive and varied. I have however a few favourite applications. The first being to flavour lamb, especially roast Lamb (shoulder or slow roasted lamb shank etc). Rosemary can be spiked into the flesh of the meat along with Garlic to give a fantastic flavour (Rosemary and Garlic are a match made in heaven!) The woodier stalks of Rosemary can also be used in the place of traditional skewers for Lamb kebabs. I also like to use finely chopped Rosemary on roast Potatoes. Once the potatoes have been part boiled I drain and add semolina to coat and a little finely chopped rosemary. Give the potatoes a light shake to fluff them up a little and coat them evenly before throwing into hot smoky oil in a hot oven (preferably Goose fat!) Perfect for Crimbo!! (A quick note on Rosemary: Less is more…Rosemary (like Sage) can be overpowering and taste very soapy)
Rosemary flowers are also completely edible with a subtle delicate Rosemary flavour. The flowers look nice thrown onto salads and the surface of soups (especially parsnip, pumpkin and squash soups) to decorate. You can also press the flowers into Rosemary biscuits (which are lovely with cheese (and gallons of red Wine!). Here is a recipe I have tried for Rosemary and Cheese Biscuits. (Rosemary is also just as good in Cheese Scones and of course one of my favourite breads….foccacia!)
Mix 100 g rolled oats, 100g plain flour, 1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary with a good pinch of salt and pepper in a mixing bowl. Rub in 50g lard using clean finger tips until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs. Mix in 100g mature grated Cheddar.
In a separate bowl, combine one small ‘squeeze’ clear honey with 3 tablespoons milk and add to the dry ingredients. Bring the mixture together to form a soft dough then roll out on a lightly floured surface to 1cm thickness. Using a 5cm cutter stamp out about 12 rounds and place onto a non-stick baking sheet.
Cook for 15 minutes in an oven preheated to 180°C. Allow to cool slightly on the tray then transfer to a wire rack to cool completely. Store airtight for up to 1 week.
Rosemary is a well-used nervine and stomachic. Certainly in my household Rosemary is used always after a night of excess in a tea with Fennel Seed. A good sprig of rosemary and a teaspoon of lightly bruised fennel seed steeped in water just off the boil for 5 minutes. The Rosemary helps stimulate and clear the head and Fennel settles the stomach. Perfection… and it actually tastes rather nice but honey could be added if you like. You can of course omit the fennel if it’s just the head that hurts!! This works well for tension headaches and headaches resulting from colds / flu especially….not just alcohol induced headaches! Because of the dense volatile oil content of Rosemary do make sure you cover the vessel the herb is steeping in to retain those precious oils.
The essential oil of Rosemary is wonderful for aching muscles although please be warned that the essential oil is incredibly potent and should be diluted 2 drops to 5 ml base or carrier oil (such as Almond or Sunflower) otherwise it can be very irritating to the skin (feels like ‘Deep Heat’ muscle rub!) The diluted oil can be massaged into muscles or neat added to soaps or shower gel. It’s also a good tonic for the hair and scalp so try a single drop of the neat oil into a squirt of your normal shampoo. I add Rosemary herb and essential oil along with exfoliating oatmeal to a ‘Grubby Hands’ Gardeners Soap. Here’s the recipe inspired by ‘Neal’s Yard Remedies’ (it’s ideal for mud encrusted hands following winter gardening when hands are chilled to the bone!)
In a glass heatproof bowl dissolve 2oz Caustic Soda in 4floz water (warning water will get hot as soda dissolves so add gradually and keep stirring with wooden spoon). Leave to cool and in a double boiler melt together ½ pint olive oil with 6 ½ Oz Coconut oil. Beat in the cooled Lye Mix (caustic solution) and whisk hard until trace point (takes on a thick ribbon like consistency). Stir in 1 tablespoon green clay, 1 tablespoon oatmeal, I tablespoon finely chopped rosemary leaves and 30 drops Rosemary essential oil. Pour into moulds or a tray lined with clingfilm. Leave for 24 hours, turn out and cut into bars. Leave for about 2 months to mature before use.
As Shakespeare rightly points out in ‘Hamlet’ “There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance” and its true that Rosemary is very good for assisting the memory, I have heard of people using Rosemary oil when studying or trying to recall information in exams etc…again the essential oil diluted in carrier oil and a little rubbed into the temples will keep the head clear and the memory sharp and focused!
Sticking with the remembrance theme (again Magic mirroring life mirroring magic), Rosemary is a key feature on all my ancestral shrines, and offerings especially around this time of year. Not only does it symbolise and represent ‘remembrance’ in its more abstract form, medicinally it does help with memory recall. Plus the herb being evergreen makes it a wonderful ‘all in one’ symbol for the beloved immortal and mighty dead.
Rosemary also has valuable cleansing and purification attributes and was a traditional strewing herb especially in winter when other strewing herbs (Wormwood and so on) weren’t available fresh. It can be added as an ingredient to Thieves Vinegar and other household washes or burnt in incenses designed to cleanse and purify space. I always include rosemary (along with Hyssop, Mugwort and so on) in cleansing herbal bath sachets. Rosemary was the original component of ‘Hungary Water’ which was the first alcohol based perfume. Its benefit wasn’t just pleasing to the nose but had all the healing and health benefits assigned to Rosemary. Here we see the ancient belief in action that bad smells carried illness…if however it smells good, then it must good for you.
Rosemary is said to have gotten its name ‘Rosemary’ because it is the ‘Rose of Mary’ and sacred to the Virgin Mary. Legend has it that Rosemary’s flowers were originally white and became blue after Mary laid her cloak to dry upon Rosemary bushes. It is likely this sparked the idea that in gardens where Rosemary grows in abundance, the Lady of the house is in charge!
It’s not just Mary however, there are connections too with Christ and it is said that the bushes never grow taller than Jesus stood. Lore like this is interesting but not very practical so I look to Mr Culpepper who assigns Rosemary to the Sun and Aries; interestingly the Sun is exalted in Aries (which basically means it at its best in Aries). Kabbalists assign Aries to the Hebrew Letter ‘He’ which corresponds to expression via thought, speech and action. The Path on the Kabbalah assigned to the letter He (and Aries) links the sphere of the Sacrificial God (the Christ -Tiphareth) to the Sphere of the Benevolent King (Chockmah). What’s interesting is the Letter ‘He’ is considered the Queen or Bride in the formula IHVH (the tetragrammaton)…and here we come again full circle to the biblical symbolism associated with Mary (or rather the Mary’s).
Rosemary is a generous and powerful ally to familiarise one’s self with and if new to the study of herbs Rosemary is definitely an excellent place to start! Everyone should nurture at least one pot of Rosemary (preferably by the front door to make the most of her protective aries-eque powers) and I can say with 100% certainty that whilst she expects very little, her rewards are great!!