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Spice Girl: Rosemary, Baby

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By Lorette C. Luzajic

Rosemary, or ‘dew of the sea,’ is just as at home in literature or an apothecary as it is in your mother’s kitchen. It’s true that no meal with lamb should ever go without the distinctive savory perfume flavour of a fresh rosemary sprig. But its usefulness is widely healing, used in both folkloric and modern medicine, in treating cancer, circulation, rheumatic disorders, lady troubles, and Alzheimer’s. Shakespeare’s Ophelia said it a long time ago in Hamlet: “There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance; pray love, remember.” Sir Thomas Moore also declared, “As for rosemary, I let it run all over my garden walls, not only because my bees love it but because it is the herb sacred to remembrance.”

The idea of rubbing rosemary oil into the scalp or sipping an aromatic tea while studying, or planting rosemary sprigs on graves in memoriam, seem quaint traditions. But contemporary research once again confirms that much of the witchy wisdom our ancestors instinctively worked with is based in science. Rosemary contains compounds that salvage the brain’s acetylcholine supply, the chemical responsible for nerve cell transmissions in the memory and communications department. Additionally, rosemary improves circulation of blood throughout the body, and especially to the brain.

There are several varieties of the Mediterranean sun-soaking perennial shrub, but the most beloved and widely used grows less from one to three feet high and produces delicate periwinkle flowers. The leaves are strikingly aromatic, prized for a strong flavour that persists even when dried. The leaves curl tightly when dehydrated, becoming crisp like pine needles. A mere sprinkling of these needles imparts an impressive and fragrant bouquet on cuisine- difficult to describe or compare to another perfume; woody, savory, astringent, peppery, with notes of lavender or camphor.

The voodoo priestess and the gypsy might both prescribe the burning of rosemary, or ‘smudging,’ to clean a space of evil and infection, but so did courts, prisons, and hospitals in history. In the Middle Ages and onward, English and French institutions used this method to prevent the spread of disease. The smoke, or essential oils inhaled, killed pathogens in the air.

Rosemary’s healing properties extend to antioxidant benefits, preventing cancer-causing chemicals from forcing mutations at the cellular level, protecting our DNA. This remarkable feat has been observed in both human and animal studies. The herb inhibits carcinogenic aflatoxin from binding to liver cells and other toxins from binding to respiratory cells. It also stimulates liver enzymes that help ward off various carcinogens.

Legend has it that rosemary is the sacred plant of the Virgin Mary, and older legends place the herb in the realm of older goddesses like Venus or Aphrodite- recall the name means ‘dew of the sea.’ Some species of the shrub bear white flowers, but in legend, the flowers were white only until the Virgin Mary, fleeing Egypt with Jesus, threw her blue robe over a rosemary bush while they rested beneath it, turning the plant into the colour of her robe. Hence, the humble shrub became the sacred sheltering Rose of Mary.

That the plant protects women- and their anatomy- is also legendary and more accurate than this lovely myth may be, as the herb’s fungicidal properties help flush away yeast infections. Interestingly, it only rids the body of the guilty bacteria and not of the other naturally occurring and necessary germs. Rosemary is also a uterine stimulant, helping ease menstrual cramps by clearing debris quickly and efficiently from the womb and then relaxing the muscles. While quantities in cooking are more than likely safe, it is still recommended that pregnant women avoid it for this reason- contracting and relaxing the uterus could hypothetically harm a fetus. In older times, this was a sacred, secret tonic for protecting defenseless women who had no access to birth control. Certainly no one should rely on rosemary for this kind of protection, but in different times, it was far more trusty than nothing at all, and this may be one reason for the proverb of unknown origin: “Where rosemary flourished, women ruled.”

For all of its soothing properties in memory, memoriam, or medicinal baths, always use rosemary products as directed, and never apply essential oils or tinctures directly to the skin, and never drink them- they can be very irritating both externally and to the lining of the digestive tract. And while the ritual circle and the healing touch would both be incomplete without the Rose of Mary, do not forget this lovely plant’s most gorgeous gift: its flavour.

For an easy but impressive side dish, simply grill or roast potatoes, carrots, zucchini, parsnips, and eggplant with olive oil and rosemary. Bake some into your scones or bread, with black olives if you like. And while the adventurous spice guru Ian Hemphill recommends using it liberally with venison, rabbit, and kangaroo, his favourite is the classic and universal leg of lamb. Stuff garlic, and rosemary sprigs, into slits in the meat, roast, and serve.


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