Author: Winston Craig, MPH, PhD, RD.
Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) is a gardeners delight. It is drought tolerant, requires little fertilizer and always looks crisp and graceful even on a hot summer day. The pine-scented bushy evergreen thrives in sunny locations, and loves well-drained soils. It is native to the sunny hillsides and open valleys along the Mediterranean coast of Portugal, Spain, Morocco and Tunisia.
Rosemary has strongly aromatic, needle-like foliage with small lavender-blue flowers that bloom in clusters in the late spring and early summer. The plant normally grows about 1 to 2 feet tall, but can grow as high as 6 feet. In warmer climates, rosemary does well as a hedge, or as a ground cover for slopes.
Rosemary was well known to the ancient Greeks and Romans. In the ancient world, it had a reputation for improving memory and rejuvenating the spirits. Greek scholars wore garlands of rosemary during examinations in order to improve their memory and concentration. Shakespeare also wrote that rosemary was good for the memory.
An ancient superstition led people to bind rosemary to their legs to relieve themselves of pain from gout. It was often used at funerals, in Christmas decorations, and at weddings. Rosemary was often given to the bride with the hope that she will enjoy a happy marriage.
While rosemary is associated with various legends, it finds common use today as a fragrance in soaps, shampoos, hair conditioners, and bath lotions. The oil is used in perfumery, ointments, cosmetics, and aromatherapy. The dried leaves can also add fragrance to a potpourri.
In addition, rosemary is a valuable culinary herb. It is a member of the mint family, which includes other popular seasonings such as basil, oregano, sage, and thyme. Rosemary is a common ingredient in French and Italian dishes. It can be used to flavor stews, entrees, soups, and casseroles, and may be added to various dressings. It is a component of the popular Italian seasoning.
Rosemary can also be tastefully added to dishes that feature potatoes, squash, tomatoes, peas and carrots. When used sparingly, rosemary adds an interesting flavor to cakes, baked apples and biscuits. The flavor of rosemary is at its best when the leaves are harvested at the time the plant is in bloom. The youngest stems contain the leaves that are the most fragrant.
The fresh or dried leaves and flowering tops of rosemary are used for a variety of medicinal benefits. In traditional European medicine, rosemary has been used internally as a tonic, stimulant, and as a carminative to treat flatulence. It is also used to treat dyspepsia, mild gastrointestinal upsets, colds, headaches, and nervous tension. In India and China, rosemary leaves are used to treat headaches.
Early in American history rosemary was used as an antispasmodic, to stimulate the appetite and improve digestion. Today, rosemary is recognized for its ability to stimulate bile secretion and for its anti-inflammatory properties. People gargle rosemary tea to help heal mouth ulcers and canker sores.
Rosemary oil can be distilled from the leaves of the plant, mixed with a vegetable oil, and used for massage. Applied externally this oil is used for relief from muscular and arthritic pain. In Europe, rosemary oil is used to treat rheumatic conditions, bruises, and circulatory problems. When applied externally the oil appears to stimulate an increased blood supply. In addition, rosemary oil or some freshly cut sprigs can be added to bath water to soothe aching muscles and joints.
Rosemary leaf contains important phenolic components such as rosmarinic, chlorogenic, and caffeic acids, and a host of health-promoting flavonoids that possess strong antioxidant properties. The terpenoids in rosemary, such as rosmarinic acid, rosmanol, carnosol and ursolic acid provide effective anti-inflammatory benefits, while ursolic acid conveys anti-tumor properties.
The volatile oil of rosemary has some antiseptic properties. It contains a high percentage of 1,8-cineole (providing the fresh eucalyptus-like fragrance), and other major terpenoid components including “-pinene, “-terpineol, and camphor. The pleasant fragrance of rosemary is due largely to the presence of verbenone.
Rosemary extract has been shown to produce a significant decrease in the incidence of breast tumors that were induced in laboratory animals. Dr Dannenberg recently discovered that carnosol in rosemary extract can protect against cancer. Carnosol blocks the expression of the human gene responsible for making the enzyme COX-2. This enzyme normally plays an important role in the development of colon, breast and other cancers.
The British Herbal Pharmacopoeia reports that rosemary has antibacterial and antispasmodic action. An extract of rosemary can also produce an increase in bile secretion, thus aiding in fat digestion. The German Commission E approves the internal use of rosemary leaf for dyspeptic complaints and the external use as supportive therapy for rheumatic conditions and peripheral circulatory disorders.
There have been no reports of side effects from the use of rosemary. In addition, there are no interactions with conventional drugs. Care must be taken that rosemary oil be appropriately diluted before applying externally since it can cause irritation to the skin. Rosemary and its oil should be avoided during pregnancy because it may cause an abortion. For internal usage, the normal dosage is about 5 grams of chopped leaf or leaf powder.