It’s been a while since I’ve profiled an herb in our newsletter, and I felt inspired to write about rosemary for the holiday season. I have been drawn to rosemary for many years. When I lived in Portland, I passed huge clumps of it on my daily walks. I couldn’t resist running my hands over each one and smelling the piney resin on my fingers.
Rosemary has a long history of medicinal and culinary use, especially in the Mediterranean region. If I had to summarize its properties using only three words, I would say: stimulating, opening, and protecting. Let’s look at these magical qualities.
Stimulating: Traditionally, rosemary has been used to stimulate the mind, the heart, the digestion, the nervous system, and the peripheral circulation. The oil is applied to the scalp to stimulate circulation to the hair follicles and promote hair growth. The herb can be taken as a tea or steeped in wine to improve overall circulation, especially when there are cold extremities, cool and pale skin, low blood pressure, weak digestion, and cardiopulmonary edema.
Rosemary wreaths were worn on the head in ancient Greece to promote sharp thinking and clear senses, and recent research supports this effect. It stimulates and “awakens” a foggy, unclear mind (for this purpose the essential oil can be used in a diffuser or the dilute essential oils applied to the temples). It can be consumed for a sluggish liver and gallbladder with low energy and a yellowish complexion. Similarly, it’s indicated for individuals with poor digestive secretions. In these cases, it stimulates the digestive organs.11
Opening: Traditionally, rosemary was prescribed for an array of conditions that could all be described as forms of congestion or stagnation. These include congestive heart failure, stagnant digestion, muddled thinking, and phlegmy conditions. Rosemary is considered by herbalists to open the heart and blood vessels; to open the digestive tract by moving its contents along, alleviating indigestion and gas (like other members of the mint family); to open the lungs, ears, and sinuses when there is congestion; to open the head (for headaches, especially when there is weak circulation), and to open the senses when they’re impaired.
Animal studies have demonstrated that rosemary is protective against the brain damage caused by stokes; it appears to help “open” the vessels of the brain, leading to less deprivation of fresh blood.10 (It appears, however, that you would have to consume rosemary on a regular basis to achieve this benefit.)
A study of healthy young adults exposed to the scent of rosemary essential oil (the aromatic portion of the plant) before taking math tests showed that rosemary improved their cognitive performance.5 This effect was attributed to a compound called 1,8-cineole, but rosemary also contains a large quantity of an aromatic compound called borneol. I learned about borneol (called Bing Pian in Chinese) in my studies of Chinese herbal medicine, which classifies it as a substance that “opens the sensory orifices.” That is, it awakens the senses and restores awareness in someone whose consciousness is impaired. Since the borneol we get comes from China and is a white crystalline powder of unknown origin (perhaps synthetic), Americans are generally hesitant to prescribe it for internal use. But in the rosemary leaves, we have a source of borneol that can be safely consumed.
Rosemary possesses several qualities that allow it to protect health, vitality, and freshness. Long valued as a killer of germs and molds, modern research has confirmed that rosemary has antioxidant and antimicrobial properties. The herb’s antioxidant compounds protect against oxidative damage to our cells (a major factor in aging and cancer) from exposure to things like UV light, smoke, pollution, fried foods, and household chemicals.
These antioxidant qualities, combined with its antibacterial and antifungal compounds, make rosemary an excellent natural preservative.8 In fact, many of the Dragontree’s body care products contain a small amount of rosemary extract to prolong their shelf life. The rosemary extract inhibits mold and bacterial growth and also protects oils from going rancid.
We’ve recently become aware that high heat cooking, especially of starchy foods, can cause the formation of chemicals known as acrylamides which are likely carcinogenic. New research shows, however, that if rosemary is in the recipe, it significantly lessens acrylamide production.3
Another way in which rosemary is protective is through its anti-inflammatory compounds. While inflammation is a necessary part of healing from an acute injury or infection, chronic inflammation is a different matter altogether. It’s not productive; in fact, it’s a likely player in many degenerative diseases. While anti-inflammatory drugs have drawbacks, the ongoing consumption of foods and herbs that possess anti-inflammatory properties is a safe way to gain some long-term protection.
Research also suggests that rosemary can help protect the liver from damage by certain toxins. A 2016 paper entitled, “The Therapeutic Potential of Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) Diterpenes for Alzheimer’s Disease,” theorized that compounds from rosemary could be beneficial in the treatment and prevention of Alzheimer’s, apparently by breaking down or interfering with the formation of amyloid plaques in the brain.2 Further, there has been some promising research on the use of rosemary extracts in the prevention and treatment of cancer.4 However, we’re admittedly far from knowing how to utilize rosemary extracts in a consistently effective way for these serious medical conditions.
Several times above I referred to the essential oil of rosemary, so I want to share a few words about what this is and how to use it. Essential oils – or volatile oils – are the aromatic substances that give many herbs and flowers their characteristic scent. They’re “volatile” because they evaporate and dissipate quickly. They also have medicinal qualities, both through the effect of the scent itself – what’s known as aromatherapy – and through the pharmacological effects of the complex blend of chemicals they contain, which enter the body through the skin, lungs, and (when consumed) digestive tract.
The therapeutic application of pure essential oils is a medical system in its infancy. It’s barely a “system” at all, in fact – but that’s a topic for another article. While essential oils occur in tiny amounts in most of the culinary herbs and spices we regularly consume – rosemary, cinnamon, thyme, basil, oregano, nutmeg, vanilla, sage, lavender, and peels of orange, lemon, grapefruit, lime, and tangerine – the modern extraction and availability of these oils in pure form allows us to be exposed to them in concentrations and quantities that would never naturally occur. As such, they can be potent to a degree that may be unhealthy. The key is, they should be used very sparingly – not only because it’s not healthy to use large amounts, but because it’s unnecessary. The therapeutic effect occurs with just a tiny bit. So, a bottle should last you a long time.
When oily seeds, nuts, and fruits – such as olive, almond, sesame, safflower, coconut, avocado, walnut, jojoba, and grapeseed – are pressed or processed for their oil, this oil can be called a “fixed” oil. Fixed is in contrast to volatile. These oils are oils in the traditional sense – they’re heavy and fatty, they add richness to foods, and are emollient to the skin. Fixed oils are ideal carriers for essential oils. Typically, you need no more than 2 drops of rosemary oil in a teaspoon (or more) of your favorite fixed oil for application to the skin (such as for hair growth). Or you can make your own rosemary-infused oil by taking 1 cup of rosemary needles, adding 2 cups of oil (ideally a filtered oil or one with minimal flavor of its own), and heating in a covered slow-cooker for several hours on its lowest setting. Then strain it and store it in a jar in a cool, dark place. This oil can be used on the skin or in cooking (don’t use the essential oil in cooking).
There’s a great book for aspiring chefs who endeavor to compose their own dishes, called Flavor Bible, by Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg. It’s essentially a reference guide which tells you which foods and spices combine well. Following is the very long list of foods that go well with rosemary. Bold entries are recommended by several chefs. Capitalized entries are recommended by an even greater number of chefs. And capitalized entries with a star (*) are what the book refers to as the “holy grail” combinations.
Here they are: anchovies, apples, apricots, asparagus, bacon, baked goods (breads, cakes, cookies, etc.), bay leaf, BEANS (esp. dried, fava, white, green), beef, bell peppers, braised dishes, breads, Brussels sprouts, butter, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, celery, chicken – especially grilled, chives, cream, cream cheese, duck, eggs and egg dishes, eggplant, fennel, figs, FISH – especially grilled, focaccia, French cuisine – especially Provençal, fruit, game: rabbit & venison, *GARLIC, gin, grains, grapefruit juice, zest, grapes, grilled dishes – especially meats & vegetables, herbs de Provence (key ingredient), honey, Italian cuisine, *LAMB, lavender, lemon – juice & zest, lemon verbena, lentils, lime juice, zest, liver, lovage, mackerel, marinades, marjoram, MEATS – especially grilled & roasted, Mediterranean cuisine, milk, mint, mushrooms, mussels, octopus, OLIVE OIL, ONIONS, orange juice, oregano, parsley, parsnips, pasta, pears, peas, black pepper, pizza, polenta, PORK, POTATOES, poultry, radicchio, rice, risotto, roasted meats, sage, salmon, sardines, sauces, savory, scallops – especially grilled, shellfish, sherry, shrimp, soups, spinach, squash – summer & winter, steaks, stews, strawberries, strongly flavored foods, sweet potatoes, swordfish, thyme, TOMATOES, tomato juice, tomato sauce, tuna, veal, vegetables – especially grilled & roasted, vinegar – balsamic, wine, zucchini.
Because of its strong camphorous-piney flavor, it’s natural to think that opportunities to use rosemary are uncommon, but as you can see by that list, it goes well with so many things. I use it at least a few times a week. Combine these culinary occasions with its many medicinal uses and you’ve got a valuable botanical ally. I encourage you to get to know this remarkable plant and use it to spice up your holiday season.
- Eissa, F. A., Choudhry, H., Abdulaal, W. H., Baothman, O. A., Zeyadi, M., Moselhy, S. S., & Zamzami, M. A. (2017). Possible hypocholesterolemic effect of ginger and rosemary oils in rats. African journal of traditional, complementary, and alternative medicines : AJTCAM, 14(4), 188-200. doi:10.21010/ajtcam.v14i4.22
- Habtemariam, S. (2016). The Therapeutic Potential of Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) Diterpenes for Alzheimer’s Disease. Evidence-based complementary and alternative medicine : eCAM, 2016, 2680409.
- Hedegaard RV, Granby K, Frandsen H, Thygesen J, Skibsted LH. Acrylamide in bread. Effect of prooxidants and antioxidants. Eur Food Res Technol. 2008;227:519–525. doi: 10.1007/s00217-007-0750-5.
- Moore, J., Yousef, M., & Tsiani, E. (2016). Anticancer Effects of Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis L.) Extract and Rosemary Extract Polyphenols. Nutrients, 8(11), 731. doi:10.3390/nu8110731
- Moss, M., & Oliver, L. (2012). Plasma 1,8-cineole correlates with cognitive performance following exposure to rosemary essential oil aroma. Therapeutic advances in psychopharmacology, 2(3), 103-13.
- Murino Rafacho, B. P., Portugal Dos Santos, P., Gonçalves, A. F., Fernandes, A., Okoshi, K., Chiuso-Minicucci, F., Azevedo, P. S., Mamede Zornoff, L. A., Minicucci, M. F., Wang, X. D., … Rupp de Paiva, S. A. (2017). Rosemary supplementation (Rosmarinus oficinallis L.) attenuates cardiac remodeling after myocardial infarction in rats. PloS one, 12(5), e0177521. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0177521
- Naimi, M., Vlavcheski, F., Shamshoum, H., & Tsiani, E. (2017). Rosemary Extract as a Potential Anti-Hyperglycemic Agent: Current Evidence and Future Perspectives. Nutrients, 9(9), 968. doi:10.3390/nu9090968
- Nieto, G., Ros, G., & Castillo, J. (2018). Antioxidant and Antimicrobial Properties of Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis, L.): A Review. Medicines (Basel, Switzerland), 5(3), 98. doi:10.3390/medicines5030098
- Page, K., & Dornenburg, A. (2011). The flavor bible: The essential guide to culinary creativity, based on the wisdom of Americas most imaginative chefs. New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company.
- Seyedemadi, P., Rahnema, M., Bigdeli, M. R., Oryan, S., & Rafati, H. (2016). The Neuroprotective Effect of Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis L.) Hydro-alcoholic Extract on Cerebral Ischemic Tolerance in Experimental Stroke. Iranian journal of pharmaceutical research : IJPR, 15(4), 875-883.
Wood, M. (2008). The earthwise herbal, a complete guide to Old World medicinal plants. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.