Rosemary is steeped in our culture, one of the most common garden plants as well as a common component in French and Italian cooking. Literally “rose of the sea,” it reminds us of the Mediterranean coast where shrubs grow 8 feet high and almost as big around. The scent is unique and unmistakable, as aromatic as oregano and as resinous as a pine tree.
Over the past couple years I’ve taught several classes about the medicinal uses of our common kitchen herbs, reminding us that the reason most of these plants came into use is because of their medicinal properties as much as their flavor. But of all the kitchen herbs, I’ve been most impressed with Rosemary, both so well loved as a garden herb and so often overlooked as a medicine.
And it can do so much! It stimulates digestion (as most kitchen herbs do), helps brain function, gets our circulation going, treats arthritis, and also has an association with the liver. Historically, Rosemary has been as much a staple of the apothecary as it is of the kitchen.
The interesting piece of this is that you can tell a lot of what this herb does based upon its taste. The aromatic property tells you it is a carminative, a fancy herbal word that I usually translate as “aromatic digestive,” because that’s what it really means. It is an aromatic herb that stimulates digestion.
But Rosemary also has a resinous property, which is easily noticed by anyone who has ever stripped the fresh needles from the branches. My hands always end up sticky black with the resin, and that delightful piney smell.
Resinous plants are often used in traditional western herbal medicine as antiseptics or antimicrobials (think Myrrh or Frankincense), or as expectorants (think Pine bark or Yerba Santa). But in Chinese medicine, resinous plants are thought of as herbs to move the blood.
Now this idea of “moving blood” means more than just stimulating circulation, although rosemary certainly does that. It also implies that the herb helps relieve pain, as all pain is caused by stagnation. So the category of “Herbs that Move Blood” is also the category of many of the pain relieving herbs.
You might not think of this as a pain relieving herb, but in the French tradition it was used as a salve topically for arthritis pain, and also to relieve menstrual cramps (“Secrets des Plantes,” Michel Pierre & Michel Lys).
It is still commonly used as an essential oil to treat certain kinds of headaches, and can be applied on the temples for this purpose. I would think of it for headaches where the person feels cold, looks pale, and has a feeling of stuckness. Avoid it for headaches with more “Heat” type symptoms where the person is agitated, irritable, and might have more redness in the face.
This circulatory stimulating property also makes it a great brain herb. It helps, like Calamus, to aromatically open the mind, clearing brain fog and helping us think more clearly. It’s a great herb to take before studying or doing intellectual work. Taken regularly it can help improve memory.
While it is a stimulant to the brain, it is also a calming herb useful for times of stress and overwork. So unlike coffee, which can make our muscles tighter and contribute to stress, Rosemary actually calms the body while stimulating the mind.
There are many ways to take this herb – I prefer to use the tincture (alcohol extract) as it is convenient and easy to carry with me. I find that I only need 10-15 drops of the extract at a time for a good dose. It also makes a nice tea, but use a about half the amount than you would for other herbs because the taste is strong.
For the relief of joint pain, the salve of liniment can be excellent but a bath is truly lovely. For the bath, you can either make a strong tea then pour it into the bathtub once you’ve drawn the bath, or just add a few drops of the essential oil.
It is truly a lovely essential oil, either diluted for topical use or put into a diffuser. But then again, the flavor is wonderful in many dishes so it makes a great cooking herb.
I hope you find a way to enjoy this wonderful and useful herb sometime soon. It’s a perfect remedy for this autumn time of year as things start getting chilly. Add in some rosemary to warm things back up!