20 November 2013

Rosemary for remembrance

Photo credit: Nefi / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA
A recent study at St Louis University found that enhanced extracts of antioxidants found in rosemary and spearmint plants could reduce the deficits caused by mild cognitive impairment in mice with age-related cognitive decline. The rosemary extracts were most effective. Which is a long way from saying that rosemary can prevent Alzheimer's disease, as some headlines have suggested. A lot more research is needed.

It does seem, however, to offer some weight to the old saying "Rosemary for remembrance" (quoted by Ophelia in Shakespeare's Hamlet as "Rosemary, that's for remembrance"). Greek students are said to have worn wreaths of rosemary on their heads during exams as an aid to memory. Sprigs of rosemary have been used at weddings and funerals to symbolise the importance of remembrance for centuries.

Rosemary sprigs also have a special place in the Anzac Day commemorations in Australia, not only because of the association with remembrance, but also because rosemary plants grew wild in the Gallipoli peninsula.

Rosemary has long been associated with good health and healing. It contains compounds that are antiseptic and anti-inflammatory. A distillation of rosemary and alcohol, known as Queen of Hungary water, is said to have been first made in the late 14th century. It was used for rubbing on the skin, inhaling, and drinking, and was supposed to ward off illness and produce longevity and a youthful appearance. One legend says that the Queen of Hungary found it so effective that at the age of 72 she married the king of Poland, a man aged 26.

Later, with the addition of other herbs and flower extracts, Hungary Water was used as a perfume, similar to eau de cologne. Rosemary is often used in shampoos and hair tonics, due to its reputation for strengthening the hair and even preventing hair loss and greying.

"el bálsamo de fierabrás"
Photo credit: M. Martin Vicente / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND
In Cervantes novel "Don Quixote", the injured Don Quixote instructs his faithful sidekick Sancho Panza on how to make the Balm of Feirabras, based on a mixture of oil, wine, rosemary and salt. Although that may sound like a recipe for a decent salad dressing, the balm had dramatic effects on Don Quixote, and less desirable though equally dramatic effects on Sancho Panza. Perhaps the eighty Pater Nosters and other prayers said by Sancho as he prepared the brew had some influence.

For those looking for love, rosemary has some interesting traditional uses. For instance, if several sprigs are planted in pots and named for potential lovers, the one that grows the strongest is said to indicate the ideal spouse. Alternatively, a sprig under your pillow at night could lead to dreams of your true love.

Photo credit: Mr. Greenjeans / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA
Photo credit: Mr. Greenjeans / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA
Traditions and myths aside, rosemary grows amazingly easily from cuttings, even in misnamed 'soil' of Western Australia. It can be grown into hedges and clipped into shapes, and is drought and insect resistant. We'll have to wait and see if the extracts can truly have an effect on Alzheimer's disease, but "a rosemary hedge" could some day have more than one meaning.

References and further reading:
Health Benefits of Rosemary
The History of the Magical Rosemary Plant
Historical Uses of Rosemary

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