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
Sometimes your favorite herbal concoctions come out of nowhere. One day a woman came into the herb shop with an ambiguous book under her arm called something like “Herbal Cleansing” and a list of about twenty herbs she needed for a such a cleanse. Hours after I helped this person with her herbs, I found a little scrap of paper with a formula called simply “Detox Bath”. It sounded so yummy I made it up right then and tried it out that evening. I call it “Refreshing Bath”, because I feel renewed after a soak in its freshness.
- 1 part Juniper berries, ground coarsely
- 1 part Rosemary, coarsely cut
- 1 part Calendula or comfrey
- 2 parts Peppermint
Directions: Steep 3/4 cup herbs in 6 cups just boiled water, covered, for 30 mins. Strain. Add to bath and adjust water temp.
Alternate directions: Tie 3/4 cup herbs in a thin cotton flour sack towel or place in a muslin bag, position under the faucet, and run hot water through to “steep”. Adjust water temperature, soak and enjoy.
Juniper (Juniperus communis) is an antiseptic diuretic rich in volatile oils and tannins. By itself, juniper is quite strong, but luckily it blends well with other cooler aromatic herbs. And no, it does NOT smell like gin, gin smells like juniper! Juniper is not recommended for internal use during pregnancy or severe kidney infections or disease (you don’t want to over-stimulate delicate kidneys) and I would extend those basic guidelines to external use.
Calendula (Calendula officinalis) and comfrey (Symphytum officinale) are great herbs to add to just about any bath because of their topical healing properties. Pick one, or both. I often choose calendula because it adds color to the mix (quite beautiful with dark purple juniper berries!) and is a gentle lymphatic. The other herbs in the recipe, rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) and peppermint (Mentha piperita) are wonderfully aromatic and stimulating members of the mint family that add to the experience.
Vinegar is acidic and a little drying, which makes it a great astringent. Apple cider vinegar is often the vinegar of choice for herbal body care, as its fermented goodness is full of life and enzymes. Sage-steeped apple cider vinegar (doubly astringent!) is a wonderfully toning deodorant splash or spray.
The hair cuticle is like a bunch of overlapping scales. According to a cosmetologist friend, alkaline hair products cause the cuticle of the hair to be coated, which makes cuticle stand up and feel think, coarse, or sticky. Because of this, hair products are slightly acidic to keep the hair smooth.
Some years ago I switched to natural and organic shampoos and conditioners, about the last time I cut my hair really short. As it grew, I expected my hair to be healthier than ever, with the positive diet changes I had made, decreased washing (daily washing can strip hair of its natural, protective oils) and of course the use of natural shampoos. As time went on, it was clear that my hair was not healthier, indeed it was in its worst state ever. It was full of split ends, dull, limp, and growing slowly.
Another cosmetologist friend looked at the ingredients of the shampoos I was using and explained that some of the ‘natural’ ingredients are wax-derived and can accumulate on the hair shaft, weakening and weighing it down and may even lead the hair shaft to break. How do you know if this is the case for your hair? Tightly and tautly grab a chunk of semi damp hair, run a sharp and clean scissor blade down the length of the hair and check the blade for any residue. Be careful and use common sense–I don’t recommend this for really curly hair.
This is where vinegar rinses come in handy! An herbal-infused vinegar rinse is incredibly helpful in treating residue-laden hair; they leave your hair softer, cleaner and invigorated. It is incredibly simple to make a herb-infused vinegar: cover dried or fresh herbs with apple cider vinegar and cap. Label, shake occasionally, and steep for four weeks. Strain, re-bottle, and use!
The vinegar should be diluted for use; a tablespoon to one cup water. Pour the vinegar-water solution through the hair, massage into scalp, then rinse with clean water. Another method is to dip your hair in a bowl of the vinegar-water solution (make sure the water is warm-unless you like cold rinses!), following with a plain water rinse.
Dina Falconi has a ‘Garden Blend Vinegar’ (60) recipe that is for all hair colors and is a great place to start.
- 1 tablespoon nettle
- 1 tablespoon comfrey root
- 1 tablespoon basil
- 6 ounces organic apple cider vinegar
Steep for four weeks or so, strain, and enjoy. Makes 4 1/2 ounces. For any herbal vinegar, if you wish to add essential oils, do so in a small amount (start with three drops) after it has been strained. I am not exactly sure how often one should do a rinse, but I find that once a week to once a month can make a difference.
Nettles are high in minerals that lend themselves to promoting hair and skin health, comfrey root (and to a lesser extent the leaves) is soothing and moistening with lots of mucilage, while basil is aromatic, cleansing and invigorating. Use your senses to find what herbs would be best suited for your vinegar rinse; chamomile for blond hair, black walnut husks for dark hair, rosemary for hair growth stimulation, oregano or thyme for anti-microbial action.
One of my favorite hair rinses is simply dipping my head in a bowl of a strongly steeped tea of nettle, rosemary, comfrey and birch leaves. This is less defunking and more conditioning than the vinegar rinses, and it does not need to be followed with a clear water rinse. Use the leftover tea to water plants. I was prompted to add the birch leaves after reading Matthew Wood’s entry of birch (139):
“While in Australia a woman brought her fourteen-year-old daughter to see me about something or other. I commented that she had some of the healthiest,thickest hair I had ever seen. The mother commented that her daughter’s hair was originally spindly and thin. For several years they rinsed it in nettles and birch”
Falconi, Dina. Earthly Bodies and Heavenly Hair.
Wood, Matthew. The Earthwise Herbal (Old World).