People have used rosemary for more than five thousand years. In that time many myths and legends have arisen. The Rosemary Specialist explores some of these, together with modern scientific studies, in the sections below.
Rosemary is a member of the Lamiaceae, which is a large plant family containing mints, deadnettles and sages. It is to this last group of plants, the sages or Salvias, that rosemary belongs.
Botanists have long been arguing over the status of the genus Rosmarinus. The stamens of rosemary are arranged slightly differently to those of sages, which has been enough to keep the two genera apart. The scientists that use genetics to determine plant and animal relationships (phylogenetics) were publishing data more than 15 years ago that indicated that rosemary really was a sage.
Plant taxonomists (scientists that group plants together because they have certain features in common) are always looking to make a name for themselves and they usually do this by "splitting" a group of plants into smaller groupings. However, in the case of rosemary it has now been "lumped" with sages. So, since 2017, rosemary is no longer Rosmarinus officinalis but is now listed by the International Association of Plant Taxonomists as Salvia rosmarinus.
In the UK, it is usual for nurseries to label plants according to Royal Horticulural Society (RHS) naming. The RHS is not adopting the new name until 2020. We will be using up our old stocks of labels and in 2020 the plants we send out will start to have Salvia rosmarinus labels but they are still the same, much-loved, rosemary plants!
There is little or no evidence to indicate that the Romans introduced rosemary to the UK. Rosemary does not feature much in Roman food or medicine.
Numerous archaeological examinations of Roman sites in the UK and Europe failed to find rosemary although other herbs were common (coriander, mint, oregano, summer savoury).
Even in the well-preserved remains at Herculaneum rosemary has not been found.
Rosemary may have first come to Britain in the early 14th century. The Countess of Hainault sent an account of the virtues of rosemary, and presumably a plant of it, to her daughter Queen Phillipa, the wife of King Edward III of England.
By the 16th century, rosemary was well known and Sir Thomas More wrote:
As for Rosmarine, I lett it runne all over my garden walls, not onlie because my bees love it, but because it is the herb sacred to remembrance, and, therefore, to friendship; whence a sprig of it hath a dumb language that maketh it the chosen emblem of our funeral wakes and in our buriall grounds.
Perhaps the most famous quote is from Ophelia’s speech in Hamlet where Shakespeare writes:
There's rosemary, that's for remembrance; pray, love, remember:
In his Materia Medica, written in the first century CE, Dioscorides mentions rosemary in passing:
Libanotis the Romans call rosmarinus and those who plait wreaths for the head use it. It is boiled in water and [drunk] before exercise. It is also mixed with remedies for the removal of fatigue.
It would appear that the myth of Greek scholars wearing rosemary has been extrapolated from the above comment.
By the 16th century rosemary was used as a token of remembrance but why this was so is not known. Apparently, rosemary grew prolifically on the Gallipoli peninsular, which is why it is used as a token of remembrance on ANZAC Day.
However, it turns out that there are compounds in rosemary oil that may be responsible for changes in memory performance. One of them is called 1,8-cineole, which may act in the same way as the drugs licensed to treat dementia, causing an increase in a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine. The effect, observed by the BBC’s Trust me I’m a Doctor programme (July 2015), was only moderate, so best to stick to conventional uses for rosemary!