Rosemary is an herb derived from an evergreen shrub, Rosmarinus officinalis , related to the mint or Lamiaceae family of plants. Rosemary is a native of the Mediterranean regions of Europe and the Near East; Tunisia is a major modern-day source of the plant. Rosemary can grow as tall as 5 ft, producing strongly scented, leathery leaves used in perfumes and seasonings. Its Latin name, Rosmarinus , means "ocean dew." Other names for rosemary include compass weed, compass plant, or polar plant. An interesting tradition about rosemary is that it grows best in gardens tended by forceful or strong-willed women; a Spanish folk saying has it that "where rosemary thrives the mistress is master."
The major chemical compounds found in essential oil of rosemary include eugenol, borneol, camphene, camphor, cineol, lineol, pinene, and terpineol. Compounds found in rosemary that are considered to be highly effective antioxidants include monoterpenoid ketone compounds, such as thujone, camphor, verbenone and carvone, as well as such phenols as methylchavicol, carvacrol, eugenol and thymole. Rosemary extract also contains numerous polyphenolic compounds that possess high antioxidant activity, including rosmanol, rosmaridiphenol, rosmarinic acid, carnosol, carnosic acid, and ursolic acid.
Although rosemary is most familiar to contemporary Westerners as a kitchen herb used to add a spicy or slightly medicinal flavor to some foods, it was traditionally used as an antiseptic, astringent, and food preservative before the invention of refrigeration. It was burned in sickrooms to disinfect the air. Rosemary's antioxidant properties are still used to extend the shelf life of prepared foods.
Rosemary is also a well known "middle note" in the making of perfumes and aromatherapy products. The aroma of its essential oil lasts about two to three days, and is regarded as having energizing and invigorating qualities. It is thought to improve memory and the ability to concentrate, and has been used to relieve migraine headaches. Its astringent qualities make it appropriate for use in facial cleansers for oily skin. Rosemary is frequently added to compresses to heal bruises and sprains, and in topical salves, lotions, or creams to relieve muscle cramps or improve circulation. It is a favorite ingredient in hand creams for gardeners or for use in cold weather. The herb contains a flavonoid called diosmin, which has been shown to strengthen capillaries in the circulatory system. Some research studies are investigating the usefulness of rosemary in the treatment of varicose veins and hemorrhoids. The German Commission E has approved the use of rosemary for low blood pressure, and for painful joints or muscles. In addition, rosemary is still listed as a medicinal herb in the official United States Pharmacopoeia.
Several of the compounds in rosemary have been shown to have anti-inflammatory effects. As a result, some cancer researchers are studying rosemary as a natural non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug, or NSAID. Since the use of NSAIDs is associated with a lowered risk of certain types of cancer in the general population, these researchers are investigating the possibility that rosemary may act as a cancer preventive.
Essential oil and extract of rosemary are prepared for use in aromatherapy by steam distillation from the leaves and flowers of the plant during its second year of growth. The leaves can also be stripped from the stems of the second-year plant and dried for internal use. Although rosemary is more commonly used to flavor dishes rather than as a separate item in the diet, it can be taken as a tea.
Rosemary tea is made by pouring 1 cup of boiling water into a cup containing 1 teaspoon of the dried leaves. Tea made from fresh rosemary leaves require .35 ounces–.52 ounces of the herb. The tea may be taken up to three times daily.
Essential oil of rosemary should not be used full-strength on the skin, as it has been reported to cause skin irritation. When it is diluted, as in a carrier oil for massage or in a salve, hand cream, or facial cleanser, it is safe for use as often as desired. In aromatherapy rosemary oil can be used in burners, potpouri, or in sachets.
Rosemary tea should not be taken by pregnant or lactating women, although they may safely use it in cooking to season food. Children under six months of age also should not be given rosemary tea. Rosemary should not be taken by persons with epilepsy, ulcerative colitis, or high blood pressure.
When rosemary is harvested appropriately and used within recommended guidelines, side effects are minimal. A few instances of allergic skin reactions to topical preparations containing rosemary have been reported.
Recent European research has shown that rosemary interferes with the absorption of iron in the diet, which indicates that it should not be used internally by persons with iron deficiency anemia.
Rosemary is not known to interact with any current Western prescription medications.
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American Botanical Council. PO Box 144345. Austin, TX 78714-4345.
National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy (NAHA). 4509 Interlake Avenue North, #233, Seattle, WA 98103-6773. (888) ASK-NAHA or (206) 547-2164. <www.naha.org> .
Rebecca J. Frey, Ph.D.