May 20, 2009

Rosemary - The Herb of Remembrance

"There's Rosemary, that's for remembrance; pray, love, remember..." William Shakespeare - Hamlet. Rosemary is quite a memorable herb. Rosemary was named the Herb of the Year in 2001 by the International Herb Association. It was one of the herbs introduced to Britain by the Romans and this piny-scented plant is still particularly loved today by the Italians and the British, who use it frequently in their cooking. In ancient Greece and Rome rosemary was believed to strengthen the memory, which accounts for its being known as the herb of remembrance and fidelity.

A sprig of rosemary was often placed in a bride's bouquet or worn at funerals, and those taking examinations would twine rosemary into their hair or massage rosemary oil into the forehead and temples. This may well have worked, for rosemary stimulates the circulation, increasing the blood supply to the brain. Rosemary was also said to ward off infection and apart from the traditions associated with it and its many culinary, medicinal and cosmetic uses, rosemary makes an attractive addition to the herb garden.

The plant is native to the Mediterranean but although it prefers coastal conditions, it has been known to thrive as far inland as as the Sahara Desert. A perennial shrub, rosemary has spiky, evergreen leaves which are dark and glossy on the upper side and gray-green and downy underneath. The small, blue nettle-shaped flowers appear in May to June and are a great attraction to bees and butterflies. The shrub will grow to 4-5 ft and a few bushes planted together will make a compact, fragrant hedge.

More at home in the Mediterranean than colder climates, rosemary requires a sheltered spot in which to grow - a south or west-facing wall is ideal - and light, limey but above all well-drained soil. Seeds are difficult to germinate as well as very slow to grow and the best way to propagate rosemary is either by cuttings or from layering. A new plant can easily be produced from an old by firmly pegging down a small branch into the soil with a piece of wire or twig until the roots are established and then removing it carefully from the parent plant.

Keep the young plant moist but not too wet as the roots easily rot. The new plants should be transplanted in the early autumn to allow them to harden off before the winter, and they may need to be protected with straw where winter conditions are severe. Once established, rosemary bushes do not like to be moved. If this is attempted, the leaves will often turn brown and die, so if it is necessary to transplant try to avoid cutting any roots when doing so and retain as much of the original ball of earth as possible. If happy in its position, rosemary can last for about 30 years. Trim it lightly to maintain its thickness.

Do not use any part of a plant for food or cosmetic uses without thoroughly washing it first to remove all soil or contaminants. It's prudent not use any plant that was sprayed with pesticides as many skin rashes, irritations or allergies can result, and I would highly recommend growing your own herbs without chemical additives; many plants will thrive on a sunny windowsill, porch or deck if you have no place for an outdoor garden.

Rosemary has long been known for its therapeutic powers. Try placing a sprig under the pillow of a sleeper who suffers from nightmares - it often produces a miracle cure. Both rosemary oil and rosemary tea have many uses and the herb makes an excellent skin tonic and astringent as well as a hair conditioner, not to mention a delicious flavoring in food.

This can be used as an aid to digestion and taken at bedtime as a soothing drink to calm the nerves and induce sleep. Use about 15 ml ( 1 tablespoon ) of crushed rosemary leaves - fresh are better than dried - per cup of boiling water.

This recipe has an excellent conditioning effect on the hair, helping to control dandruff and even, it is alleged, curing baldness. Take a bunch of fresh rosemary and crush or chop the leaves; add 300 ml ( 1/2 pint ) boiling water and allow to stand for an hour, then drain. Use it as a final rinse after washing and towel - drying the hair.

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