Rosemary Essential Oil, Part One

rosemaryRosemary has such a fascinating and rich history, that we’re making this a two-part post.  We begin with the historical uses of Rosemary (the herb), and continue next week by delving into the properties and uses of Rosemary essential oil.   Enjoy!
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Rosmarinus officinalis favors the sun, rocky hills, and sandy soil of the south of France and other Mediterranean regions. The name translates to “dew of the sea”– possibly because this drought-resistant plant could thrive in locations where water was often scarce, and needed only the moisture brought in by the ocean breeze. It’s a woody, perennial herb, with fragrant, evergreen leaves and is a member of the mint family.
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Rosemary is probably one of the most used and beloved herbs in the Western World. Its heady scent—and medicinal and culinary properties–has left it mark on the ages.
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Traces of rosemary have been found in the first dynastic tombs of the ancient Egyptians. The herb was supposedly draped over the goddess Aphrodite when she emerged from the sea, and it was burned in the shrines of the ancient Greeks. And, according to legend, the Virgin Mary spread her cloak over a white-flowered rosemary bush, thus turning the flowers blue.
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The old French name for rosemary is incensier, which refers to the herb’s use as church incense. A favorite in apothecary gardens, rosemary was used in the Middle Ages to protect against both evil spirits and the plague (which may have seemed to many to be one and the same). It was also the primary ingredient in “Hungary water”, a treatment first prepared in the fourteenth century for Queen Isabella to restore life to paralyzed limbs.
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According to a legend dating to at least the 1100’s, rosemary was an ingredient in the “balm of Fierabras.” This was a miraculous concoction allegedly used on the corpse of Jesus, which was supposed to heal anyone who drank it. In the book Don Quixote, the knight makes this balm with oil, wine, salt, and rosemary—and eighty blessings. Though, instead of healing him and Sancho Panza, it makes them horribly ill.
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Rosemary is strongly associated with both love and death. People threw sprigs of the herb into graves at funerals.  Thomas Hood writes in a poem, “Dreary rosemarye/ That always mourns the dead.” And Thomas Moore commemorated it with:  “The humble rosemary/ Whose sweets so thanklessly are shed/ To scent the desert and the dead.”
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In the Middle Ages, weddings were scented with rosemary, bringing about the herb’s extensive association with love. Brides wore a rosemary headpiece, and all others in the wedding party wore sprigs. Rosemary eventually evolved into a love charm, in a variety of ways. For example, rosemary was put into cloth dolls, to attract a certain lover.
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Its association with love and magic became so strong that, for a while, the herb became associated with witches and strong-willed women. A proverb states, “Where Rosemary flourishes, the woman rules.” In the 1500’s, men often destroyed the home’s rosemary plants, to signify to neighbors that it was he who was in charge. And John Lindley writes in The Treasury of Botany, “There is a vulgar belief in Gloucestershire and other counties, that Rosemary will not grow well unless where the mistress is ‘master’; and so touchy are some of the lords of creation upon this point, that we have more than once had reason to suspect them of privately injuring a growing rosemary in order to destroy this evidence of their want of authority.”
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But, today, rosemary is possibly best remembered as an herb signifying remembrance, no pun intended. Its reputation for enhancing memory dates back at least to scholars of ancient Greece, who threaded rosemary in their hair while studying, as an aid to concentration. And Ophelia famously and tragically speaks of the herb in Hamlet:
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“There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance; pray you, love, remember.”

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