Aromatherapy: The Magic of Rosemary

Rosemary is an evergreen shrub native to the Mediterranean coast but now cultivated worldwide for ornamental, culinary, medicinal and perfumery purposes. The plant can still be found growing wild in vast masses on the uncultivated hills of Provence. It is also common in parts of Spain, Hungary, Italy, Greece, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco and Corsica.

rosemary botanical

The essential oil is captured by steam distillation of the flowering tops, Rosemarinus officinalis being the variety most often used in aromatherapy. The oil is a colourless to pale yellow liquid with a piercing, camphorated, woody-balsamic aroma.

The precise nature of the scent varies according to the plant's habitat. French rosemary oil, for example, is highly camphorated. The Corsican oil has a gentler quality. While the Tunisian variety is fresher, with a peppery overtone. Despite regional variations the odour effect of rosemary is generally perceived as refreshing, yet warming and invigorating.

Clears the Mind

Rosemary has impressive healing properties, an is also an excellent nerve tonic. A few drops of the essential oil in the bath restore flagging energy levels after a period of prolonged stress. It can also be used in a burner to help concentration. Since the beginning of civilisation, rosemary has been associated with the mind and improving the memory. Garlands of rosemary were worn by the ancient Greek and Roman students during their exams. The modern equivalent is to dab essential oil onto wrist bands or a hairband to boost mental power.

The essential oil reflects most of the uses of the herbal remedy and studies have shown that as well as being a stimulant to the nervous system, rosemary essential oil is primarily antiseptic and anti-bacterial. The warming and stimulating effects of rosemary help clear phlegm from the head and chest, which is why it has traditionally been used as a remedy for upper-respiratory ailments, such as acute bronchitis, catarrh and colds. For such complaints it can be used in steam inhalations, diluted in grapeseed or sweet almond oil and applied as a chest rub, or simply added to the bath.

Pre-exercise Massage

Rosemary's analgesic properties mean that it can be used in baths and massage blends to ease rheumatic and arthritic pain, and to soothe overworked muscles. In combination with lavender, rosemary makes an excellent conditioning massage oil to use before athletics or any strenuous activity. It warms and loosens the muscles and joints, thus helping to prevent cramps and injury.

Rosemary has long been considered a tonic for the heart and nervous system. A Renaissance herbalist from Strasbourg, Wilhelm Ryff, said of rosemary tea, 'the spirits of the heart and entire body fell joy from this drink which dispels all despondency and worry'. For centuries herbalists have used the remedy for skin complaints, poor circulation, jaundice, painful periods, fainting, nervousness, anxiety, exhaustion, headaches and migraines. Applied as a compress, it also heals wounds.

Bancke's Herbal

The pungent aroma of rosemary was believed to ward off disease and it was often burned as incense to purify the air in sick chambers. And, according to Bancke's Herbal of 1525, 'the leaves laid under the pillow deliver one from evil dreams'. The publication also suggests 'smell it oft and it shall keep thee forever young'. Interestingly, rosemary has always had a reputation for promoting lustrous hair growth and skin rejuvenation.

Essential oil of rosemary is an ingredient of authentic eau de cologne, and a major ingredient in Hungart water - a tonic formula which was especially popular in Victorian times. The elixir was named after Queen Elizabeth of Hungary who, it is said, was given the recipe by a hermit in the late 14th century. She took a few spoonfuls a week, washed her face with the mixture every morning and rubbed it all over her body. It made Elizabeth so youthful, so the story goes, that the King of Poland asked for her hand in marriage when she was 72. Indeed, recent research has shown that rosemary is a powerful antioxidant and may indeed slow the ageing process.

However, Napoleon was more interested in harnessing rosemary's power to focus the mind. Records show that he used about 60 bottles of rosemary cologne a month. It reminded him of his boyhood in Corsica, where rosemary still grows wild on the cliff tops, and he believed its piercing aroma enabled him to plan his army manoeuvres. Intriguingly, odour researchers in the USA using high tech scanning devices have discovered that sniffing rosemary enhances results in increased electrical activity in the part of the brain associated with logical thought processes. In other words, it has the power to light up the mind.