One thing I love about living in an urban area on the west coast is the shear quantity (and quality) of rosemary plants. Rosmarinus officinalis’ silvery green, upward reaching, linear leaves are in practically every other yard, growing to many feet across and high. When the breeze is just right, or when the air is cold and dry, you can be struck by its spicy smell. The flowers never stop – even now in the middle of January a few new blooms appear one after the other.
A few years ago, a fellow gardener introduced me to the idea of eating mint flowers. The only mint flowers I had ever thought of eating fresh were bee balm. Spearmint and peppermint flowers are (expectantly) divine, with a hit of a warm honey-nectar sweetness combined with the cool minty flavor present in the leaves. Motherwort flowers are (expectantly) incredibly bitter with a aftertaste of, well, more bitter. The first few seconds of eating the motherwort flower justifies the whole experience, because they too are deliciously nectary-sweet. Thyme, lavender, oregano, marjoram, anise hyssop, catnip (another favorite) and melissa follow suit. Rosemary is no exception. One little flower is so flavorful that I can still taste it an hour later. Who knows, maybe I have distorted taste buds. Try it for yourself. Matthew Wood quotes Dr. John Quincy from 1736 about rosemary flowers; [they] “abound with a subtle detergent oil, which makes them universally deobstruent and opening.”
As I walk to school, I have a habit of picking a spring or a few flowers to munch on or to crush in my fingertips while I am ruminating about the upcoming day. Usually I don’t pick other peoples herbs without permission, but this place looks like a rental and there are three huge rosemary shrubs in the yard…and I don’t think anyone would really mind.
Fast forward to this weekend. The fourth week of the term is about to start, and around this time the onslaught of information starts to pick up and don’t stop until finals. One night before bed I started reading my text for anatomy, and my mind wandered to thoughts of, “how am I gonna remember all of this stuff?” That night, rosemary popped up in a dream. Of course! Rosemary is there to help us with our memory, among other things.
David Winston talks about rosemary as a ‘nootropic’ in Adpatogens: Herbs for Strength, Stamina ans Stress Relief. Winston describes nootropics as “…enhancing emotional and mental well-being and promoting cerebral circulation(222).” From what I can gather, nootropics are like a subgroup of nervines, but with more emphasis on circulation and reducing oxidative stress. They include ginkgo, gotu kola, lavender, rosemary, bacopa, bhringaraj (Eclipta alba), yuan zhi (Polygala tenuifolia), and bai shao (white peony, Paeonia lactiflora, P. albiflora) (223). Overall, it is easy to generalize that these herbs have been used through the ages by different cultures to improve mood and the mind, among other things.
Throughout the years, rosemary has been associated with memory. Nicholas Culpepper says it is for all diseases associated with the head and that “it helps a week memory, and quickens the senses.” Ophelia said in Hamlet “There’s rosemary that’s for remembrance. Pray. you love, remember.” It is often included in so-called memory formulas with herbs like ginkgo and gotu kola, for mild brain-fogginess (with melissa, St. John’s wort), headaches (feverfew, lavender) and general feeling-down (with damiana, tulsi) (Winston, 22 ). Maude Grieve gives a number of interesting historical uses of rosemary, including burning rosemary in hospitals and sick rooms along with juniper to clear the air and prevent infection. She also says that “A sprig of Rosemary was carried in the hand at funerals, being distributed to the mourners before they left the house, to be cast on the coffin when it had be lowered into the grave.” I am not sure if the folk use of rosemary was intended to chiefly lift the depressed spirits of the sick and the mourning through it’s warm aromatic scent, to remember the deceased, or to act as a powerful antioxidant and antiseptic to prevent to spread of disease through its antiseptic volatile essential oils. Probably both, and more.
I became curious to see if smelling a rosemary sprig each day while I walk to school would enhance my memory. It’s hard to tell its effect, since I am judging it upon my own subjective hunches. I am also a very poor participant in my own ‘study’, I don’t walk to school everyday and I have so many things going on with school that I can’t really notice any improvement. Once thing is for sure, it smells soooo good and I am sure it makes me happy, even if for a few minuets.
There are a few studies out there about rosemary’s affect on memory/cognition. One from the International Journal of Neuroscience that was particularly interesting involved testing the recall and mood of 144 participants in three groups: rosemary or lavender essential oil and a control (no smell). The study found that “rosemary produced a significant enhancement of performance for overall quality of memory and secondary memory factors” although the rosemary group memory was not as fast as the control group. Not surprisingly, both the lavender and rosemary group reported better moods than the control group.
This isn’t surprising, since rosemary “warms, clears, and oxidized throughout the body (Matthew Wood, 427). It’s energetic qualities obviously include warming and drying (like it’s homeland, the Mediterranean) as well as being oily, diffusive and stimulating (Wood, 430). These energetics lend themselves to correct depressed tissue states, where things are bogged down through dampness, coldness or stagnation. Its name is derived from ros and marinus, which mean dew and sea, since it need no more watering then the morning dew from the seacoast.
Winston, David. Adaptogens: Herbs for Strength, Stamina and Stress Relief.
Wood, Matthew. The Earthwise Herbal: Vol. I, Old World Herbs.
Int J Neurosci. 2003 Jan;113(1):15-38. “Aromas of rosemary and lavender essential oils differentially affect cognition and mood in healthy adults”. Moss M, Cook J, Wesnes K, Duckett P. Human Cognitive Neuroscience Unit, Division of Psychology, Northumberland Building, University of Northumbria, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE1 8ST, UK. firstname.lastname@example.org