by Madeleine Hawks
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It’s no coincidence that my earliest memories of cooking in the kitchen involve smelling rosemary. Rosemary is the herb of memory. And, as Doctor of Divinity Roger Hackett brilliantly said in 1607: “Another property of the rosemary is, it affects the heart.” In the summer, the plant grew in tall, crazy spurts in my backyard. Occasionally we’d catch our neighbor, Mr. Lucas, in the yard with kitchen scissors, snipping sprigs for grilling. In the winter, mom tucks the rosemary into an old pink bedsheet to fend off ice and snow from its branches. I can never resist peeling off a little rosemary whenever I pass by a yard where it’s growing. The smell of crushed rosemary leaves is, as I’m sure you know, sublime.
I have dabbled in my own rosemary plants for the past several years. As a semi-nomad, I have tended to stick to potted rosemaries, which are not ideal for this plant (they much prefer the great outdoors, with plenty of room for thirsty roots). My rosemaries, sadly, have never achieved the grandeur of my mom’s plant. Before Christmas this year I became enamored with the idea of getting a little rosemary tree in lieu of one of those pine needle numbers that you drape with fragile things while listening to Christmas music. I ended up rescuing one from Lowes, where all the plants on that shelf looked like they had just finished crying. Anyway, and I’m knocking on wood right now, my little rosemary tree seems to be quite happy inside and I’m pretty happy to see it in the kitchen window every morning. A couple of days ago my friend Aaron was commenting that it’s looking a little leggy, which is his way of saying it needs more sun. DON’T WE ALL!? Anyway, I took it as a compliment.
In honor of my favorite herb, I present you with Oh, hey herbs: Rosemary.
The story goes that when Mary (I’m talking about Jesus’ mom here) was fleeing to Egypt, she rested under the shade of a tall, fragrant bush with white flowers. When she laid her blue cape on the bush to air out, those white flowers turned blue: the rose of Mary. “Rosemarinus” is also a Latin derivative, meaning dew of the sea.
Of course, Mary wasn’t the first to discover the magic of the rosemary plant. In Ancient Greece, doctors prescribed rosemary for mental disorders. It has long been associated with memory improvement. Scholars would wear garlands of rosemary on test days. In 2003, a British study conducted in office cubicles found that the presence of rosemary essential oils improves both memory performance and mood. Historically, rosemary has also been associated with cures for melancholy, epilepsy, jaundice, arthritis, and varicose veins.
Rosemary also has a romantic past, dating back to at least the middle ages, when weddings incorporated rosemary as a symbol of fidelity. Rosemary sprigs were love charms worn by the bride and groom and gold-tipped sprigs were given as party favors to the guests. And remember that apple stem twisting game where you say the alphabet until the stem falls off, thereby determining the first letter of your future spouse’s name? Well rosemary has a similar trick. According to legend, if you tend several rosemary plants, each named in honor of a potential mate, the one that thrives bears the name of the one you will marry.
While the Sicilians imagine fairies (disguised as snakes, no less) living among rosemary plants, in several other countries rosemary is used to ward off evil. Specifically: nightmares and witches. Placing rosemary under your pillow keeps your dreams pleasant. Planting it by your garden gate convinces witches to go elsewhere. In the evolution of this particular tradition, rosemary planted outside a home became a symbol of the power of the woman living inside. It supposedly became en vogue for a while for men to rip rosemary out of their home gardens if they felt threatened by this symbol of power.
This is the view of my rosemary tree from the street. I can’t tell if people walk by my apartment window and think “oh what a nice little rosemary plant – I bet a powerful woman lives there”. Maybe the history of the rosemary plant and its symbology is not universal knowledge anymore. But, honestly when I pass through my mom’s garden and it smells like rosemary, I wonder how you could think of anything else.
Rock on, rosemary.