Friday, August 30, 2013

There's Rosemary, that's for Remembrance

Species name: Rosmarinus officinalis

Common name: rosemary

Location: teaching lab at Western

Rosemary is an incredibly unusual plant in the mint family (the Lamiaceae) because of its almost cactus-like lifestyle. The Latin name of this plant actually comes from its unusual ability to acquire nutrients in a hostile environment: "ros" for dew, and "marinus" for ocean. Not only is this plant incredibly salt-tolerant (with much of its native range in marine spray habitat), but it can acquire almost all nutrients it needs to sustain life from the air, where droplets of dew condense on the hairs and waxy coating of the leaves, where they are absorbed and used by the plant to make energy. In fact, rosemary is so drought-tolerant it can go without being watered for months. This makes me seriously wonder how I managed to kill my rosemary plant in a single month; something tells me I over-watered and should only have been misting it. It was one of those strange rosemary Christmas trees, so it might have also been root-bound. Yep, let's blame it on being root-bound. Then it's not my fault. :) Rosemary is native to the Mediterranean, where it still commonly grows in the wild. It is also a popular ornamental species, and some rosemary plants are hundreds of years old.

Rosemary is one of the most popular herbs to use in cooking, especially in meat dishes because it has such a distinctive flavour. In fact, what most people don't know about rosemary is that the flavour is best brought out of the herb when you "spank" it (for a refresher on why you might want to spank an herb, refer to my blog post about mint HERE) and then burn it. Yep, that's right. Burn it. One of the best ways to use rosemary is on barbecued meats where you poke some sprigs of rosemary into the meat and just let them singe and burn until the meat is cooked to desired done-ness. Take the burnt pieces out of the meat with some tongs before serving (or just eat it. Burnt rosemary won't kill you), and voila! Smoky rosemary-infused meat. Yum, yum. Rosemary also pairs really well with mustards, because the acidity in the mustard also brings out the flavour in the rosemary leaves. Interestingly enough, mustard is native to almost the same geographic region that rosemary occupies. There might be something to this mustard-rosemary pairing...

As the Latin name suggests, rosemary has been used for centuries (some people have argued for many millennia, but the evidence for rosemary use only dates back to about 3,000 years ago. Yeah, "only.") as a medicinal plant, mainly to improve memory. It wasn't just used to improve "brain memory," either, but also to improve muscle memory. After someone suffered a stroke in the Middle Ages, a salve of rosemary leaves ground into wine was applied to the site of muscle paralysis as it was believed that doing so would help the body "remember" how to move the paralyzed muscles. It probably didn't work very often, but at least you would smell good :) That type of concoction was also consumed orally to treat gout (it was most famously used in this manner to treat the Queen of Hungary Elisabeth of Poland in the 1300s). Don Quixote also used rosemary leaves in his miraculous balm of Fierabras, which was reported to heal anyone that drank it. This very likely had at least SOME effect on the body, as the secondary compounds of rosemary are highly antimicrobial. Back in the 1100s and 1200s, before the discovery of penicillin, any kind of wound that got an infection would almost certainly lead to death. By either drinking this highly antibacterial (and antifungal) beverage or applying it directly to the wound, it would help protect it from infection. For some wounds it would have been irrelevant as they would be severe enough to kill you anyway. But for other more minor wounds, it might have made the difference between life and death. It's always nice to know when some of the folklore of popular tales is actually biologically possible!

Because of its historical medicinal use in improving memory, rosemary sprigs also play a leading role in wedding and funeral traditions around the world. In funeral bouquets that are scattered on graves, rosemary serves as a sign of remembrance for the dead and a way of honouring their memory. Across much of Europe, rosemary is still incorporated into the wreathes in Remembrance Day ceremonies, and also in war commendation ceremonies (especially if these are to commemorate the brave acts of a soldier who died in battle). In wedding ceremonies, they represent remembrance of loved ones that passed before the time of the ceremony and also to remember the life the couple spent apart before they were united in marriage. This eventually caused the evolution of rosemary from an herb of remembrance into an herb of love, and now sprigs of rosemary are considered to mean love and good luck in marriage. The sprigs of rosemary in the bride's bouquet would be planted in the ground, and if they grew it would be a sign of good prosperity and good luck. If they didn't grow...well, I guess it sucks to be you. Hint: dip it in some rooting compound first and problem solved. See, there's always a way to coerce luck into working out in your favour. Just takes some work!