Saturday, June 24, 2006



The flower for Messidor 6 on the French Republican Calendar is Rosemary (Romarin in French). I’m not sure this is the right place for Rosemary—I think of it as a plant of winter, when it features prominently in Midwinter revels, plus it blooms in April and May in Seattle (and I think it will bloom again in December). Still it’s an easy plant to like and gives me another chance to remember Chester the Dog.

“There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance! Pray, love, remember.” The famous line from Hamlet. And we will remember Chester tomorrow when we celebrate his wake, with toasts and stories about the exploits of the Demon Dog from Hell (one of his nicknames).

The name “rosemary” comes from Latin rosmarinus, meaning the rose of the sea, which is supposedly due to the blue color of the flowers, or, according to Jeanne Rose, because it grows by the sea. There are also legends which associate this blue color with the Virgin Mary by saying that she threw her cloak on the plant while fleeing Herod (with the Baby Jesus) and the flowers which were formerly white turned as blue as her cloak. Its other common names polar plant and compass weed are not explained. In Spain, it is called “Romero,” the pilgrim’s flower. In Germany, it was called "elf leaf" [F&W].According to Mrs. Grieve it’s sometimes called “incensier” in France because it was burned as incense.

Rodale’s says that perfumers in the 16th century would bet rosemary leaves and sugar together, put the mixture in a perfuming pan and heat it over hot coals to create a pleasant scent in the air. Rosemary branches were burned in Europe during the 14th and 15th centuries to keep away plague. And more recently, rosemary leaves and juniper berries were burned in French hospitals during World War II to kill germs. According to Rodale’s, scientists have verified that rosemary has antibacterial qualities.

Mrs. M. Grieve has a thorough discussion of rosemary.

She quotes Thomas More:
“As for Rosmarine, I lett it runne all over my garden walls, not onlie because my bees love it, but because it is the herb sacred to remembrance, and, therefore, to friendship; whence a sprig of it hath a dumb language that maketh it the chosen emblem of our funeral wakes and in our buriall grounds.” This refers to a custom, still common in Wales according to Mrs. Grieve, of distributing rosemary at funerals so each mourner can hold a sprig and toss it into the coffin, as a pledge of remembrance.

Rosemary also was frequently added to bridal bouquets. Mrs. Grieve writes “a Rosemary branch, richly gilded and tied with silken ribands of all colours, was also presented to wedding guests, as a symbol of love and loyalty.” Sounds like a lovely custom to revive. William Langham said of it in The Garden of Health: “See thee much rosemary and bathe thee therein to make thee lusty, lively, joyful, likeing and youngly.”

Gerard wrote that “Rosemary comforteth the braine, the memorie, the inward sense,” and Roman students supposedly wore wreaths of rosemary while studying for exams to enhance their mental abilities. Modern research verifies that rosemary improves circulation and stimulates the brain.

Mrs. Grieve mentions the use of rosemary in Hungary Water. It was prepared by putting 1 1/2 lb. of fresh Rosemary tops in full flower into 1 gallon of spirits of wine, this was allowed to stand for four days and then distilled. Legend says it was given to a Queen of Hungary by a hermit who told her it would preserve her beauty.

I went rattling around the Internet for a while, looking for a recipe for Hungary water and finally found this scholarly article which convinced me that most of the recipes you will find online are not authentic but that you can create a reasonable facsimile: this web site

Contemporary herbalist Rosemary Gladstar created her own version, using fresh herbs and vinegar. I found the recipe at this web site: (

6 small handfuls lemon balm
5 small handfuls calendula flowers
4 small handfuls rose petals
3 small handfuls comfrey
1 small handful each rosemary, lemon peel, and sage
organic apple cider vinegar, as needed
rose water or witch hazel extract, as needed

Place the herbs in a large glass jug that will hold at last a gallon of liquid. Cover the herbs completely with organic apple cider vinegar, leaving about 2 inches to spare in the jar. Screw the lid on tightly. Let it set for 4 to 6 weeks. Strain. Divide the mixture into smaller jars, and dilute to half its strength with rose water or witch hazel extract. Dab some on your fingers, and massage into your face. Make sure to avoid your eyes. Rinse with warm water if desired.

You can also make rosemary vinegar by putting a few sprigs of the herb in a jar of apple cider vinegar and leaving it out in the sun for a day or so. Mary Preus recommends using this for a hair wash, pouring it into your bath, or using it to marinate chicken or add flavor to fried potatoes. One of my favorite local restaurants, 22 Doors,
serves a wonderful plate of fries that come scattered with rosemary leaves and accompanied by a tartar sauce containing snipped rosemary leaves. The Welsh make cooking spoons out of rosemary wood as they make everything more nutritious.

Mrs. Grieve recommends Rosemary Tea, for headache, colic, colds and nervous diseases. And a conserve of Rosemary, made by beating up the freshly gathered tops with three times their weight in sugar, which will relieve nervous depression. I think I will try making both today.

I’ve been told (I believe in a novel by Elizabeth Goudge) that you should never buy rosemary but receive it as a gift. That's why I didn't have any rosemary for years. Finally when I got a plot in my local community garden, I found the previous gardener had left a thriving rosemary behind (they do love our climate here in Seattle). Alas, this summer I moved plots and had to leave the rosemary behind. Folklore also says that wherever rosemary thrives, the mistress is master.

Good article on growing rosemary and cooking with rosemary:
includes a page on folklore:

Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Follore, Mythology and Legend, edited by Maria Leach, Harper & Row 1972
Preus, Mary, The Northwest Herb Lover’s Handbook, Sasquatch Books 2000
Rodale’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of Herbs, edited by Claire Kowalchik and William H. Hylton, Rodale Pres 1987
Rose, Jeanne, Herbs & Things, Grosset and Dunlap

1 comment:

Endment said...

I have Rosemary growing on my deck. It is wonderful to walk past and smell the fragrance.
These posts are wonderful Thank you