Exploring Rosemary: History, Cooking and Health Benefits

Exploring Rosemary: History, Cooking and Health Benefits

I want to share with you a common herb with a long history and a long list of uses - Rosemary. Rosemary is my favourite herb. Why? Because it is easy to grow, smells divine, tastes yummo and can be used in so many different ways!

Table of Contents:

  1. Description
  2. Varieties of Rosemary
  3. Growing Rosemary
  4. History
  5. Culinary Uses
  6. Medicinal Properties
  7. Medicinal Uses
  8. Medicinal Preparations with Rosemary
  9. Essential Oil
  10. Household Uses
  11. Use in Garden Design
  12. Contraindications


Name: Rosemary
Botanical Name:
Salvia rosmarinus
Synonym: Rosmarinus officinalis

Family: Lamiaceae
Origin: Rosemary is native to the Mediterranean region of southern Europe.

rosemary scientific drawing

Rosemary is a perennial evergreen shrub. Its current and previous botanical names contain Rosmarinus, derived from the Latin terms 'ros,' dew, and 'marinus,' sea. This name captures its habitat as it's often found growing near coastal regions and is sometimes called the "dew of the sea." Varieties of this plant can be upright or creeping, with sizes ranging from low-lying ground covers to taller shrubs that can grow up to 1.5-2 meters in height.

Leaves: The leaves are small, resembling needles, and vary from a rich, dark green to a more muted grey-green, depending on the variety and growing conditions. Many types have dark green leaves on the top surface and a lighter, almost silver-grey on the underside, which adds to the plant's visual appeal. The arrangement of the leaves on the stem is opposite, meaning they are across from each other in pairs along the stem. When crushed or brushed against, the leaves release a strong, refreshing scent of pine, mint, camphor, and citrus. They can leave your fingers feeling sticky due to the high oil content.

Flowers: Rosemary's petite flowers are tubular and usually have two "lips" that serve as landing platforms for pollinators like bees. Flowers are generally about 1 cm in size and are clustered in small groups along the plant's woody stems. They come in shades ranging from soft pink and purple to white and various tones of blue. The flowering period is usually from early spring until summer, although some varieties may flower into autumn.

rosemary herb flower

Why the botanical name change: In 2017, a study led by biologist Bryan T. Drew examined the DNA sequences of various plant genera and found that Rosmarinus was closely related to Salvia.
Faced with several options:

  1. Do nothing - not an option if we want an accurate and evolving system.
  2. Breaking up the Salvia genus - this would mean renaming over 700 plants.
  3. Moving the five small genera, including Rosmarinus, into the genus Salvia - would mean 15 species are being renamed.

The RHS Nomenclature and Taxonomy Advisory Group in 2019 decided to reclassify Rosmarinus and four other small genera into the Salvia genus. As a result, the botanical name for rosemary changed from Rosmarinus officinalis to Salvia rosmarinus (now a synonym), though the common name remains the same.

Other Names: Dew of the Sea, Polar Plant, Compass Weed.

Afrikaans: Roosmaryn, Bengali: রোজমেরি, Chinese: Mí dié xiāng, Croatian: Ružmarin, Dutch: Rozmarijin, Finnish: Ruismariini, French: Romarin, German: Rosmarin,  Greek: Rozmarīnē, Hindi: रोजमैरी, Italian: Rosmarino, Latvian: Rosmārīns, Polish: Rozmaryn, Portuguese: Romarino, Romanian: Rozmarin, Russian: Rozmari, Spanish: Romero, Thai: โรสแมรี่, Vietnamese: cây mê điệt

rosemary herb bush

Varieties of Rosemary

There are many different varieties of Rosemary. These are some of the ones we grow. All types are used to flavour food. Smell them to find your favourite.

Tuscan Blue – upright to 2m. dark green leaves and deep blue flowers. Good for hedging. Straight stems make good skewers.
Majorca Pink – up to 1m. Grey-green leaves. Lavender pink flowers in spring. Upright but bushy, not as tight as Tuscan and Portuguese pink
Pink Flowering - up to 80cm. Semi-prostrate or weeping habit with small, needle-like leaves that are covered in a sticky resin. 
Portuguese Pink – 1.75m upright shrub with glossy green leaves and crystal pink flowers, good hedging and topiary plant.
Herb Cottage – 1.5m, upright but has a softer bushier appearance than the Tuscan Blue. Flowers - soft blue. Good flavour and is an excellent oil producer.
Salem - 1.5m upright and rounded, grey-green leaves, rich blue flowers late summer to Autumn. Good flavour. Will cope with wetter climates more than some others. Good oil producer.
Gorza - 1.4m glossy green leaves. Flowers are light lavender blue and appear from mid-spring. A favourite of Italian chefs, the flavour is sweet and soft with a touch of mint.
Golden Rain – a compact upright shrub to 90cm. Similar in growth to Tuscan Blue but smaller, the leaves are gold and green, giving the appearance of variegation. The flowers are a deep blue.
White - 80 cm. Upright, though, the structure is open and rounded. Highly aromatic, short, dark green, needle-shaped leaves. White flowers in spring and summer.
Blue Lagoon - 80cm semi-prostrate variety can be variable in size depending upon conditions. Dark green needle-like leaves. The flowers are rich mid-blue and cover the plant in early spring to summer.
Benedon Blue - a smaller rosemary up to 70cm high. Iridescent light blue flowers and graceful branches. Narrow dark green pine-scented leaves
Huntington Carpe
t – 50cm spreading form of rosemary, with sky blue flowers. It grows a little higher than the common prostrate rosemary. Suitable for hanging baskets, pots, rock walls, etc.
Prostrate Rosemary – low growing form up to 30cm, pale blue flowers. The flavour is similar to many of the upright varieties. Grow over embankments or allow to weep down over walls.

 rosemary bush

Growing Rosemary

Position and Needs

Location: Choose a location with good drainage and at least 6 to 8 hours of direct sunlight daily.
Sunlight: Rosemary loves the sun. However, it can also tolerate partial shade.
Soil: Rosemary prefers well-drained, sandy, and loamy soil. It is tolerant of poor soil conditions, including rocky, sandy soils.
pH: Soil pH should be between 6.0 and 7.0 for optimal growth.
Frost Tolerance: Rosemary is reasonably frost-tolerant but will appreciate some protection during extreme cold snaps. Consider growing rosemary in pots in colder climates and moving them indoors during the winter.
Watering: Rosemary is drought-tolerant but still needs occasional watering. Pots will need regular watering; when the soil feels dry, when you poke your finger into the potting mix, water it well and ensure the water drains away.
Fertilising: Rosemary doesn’t require much fertilisation. In pots, fertilise every couple of months. In the ground, fertilising in spring should be sufficient. We suggest using a certified organic pelleted fertiliser such as organic xtra or Searles 5 in 1.


Propagation is best done by cuttings. Propagation by seed can be slow, with a poor germination rate.

  1. Cut fresh softwood cuttings approx 6cm long from a healthy mature plant.
  2. Remove the bottom leaves and put them into a small pot or tube of potting mix. Water in well and keep moist.
  3. Place in a warm, well-lit position but out of direct sunlight. Roots should appear in 2-4 weeks.
  4. Put in the sun for a day or two to harden up before planting out.


Rosemary's history begins in the Mediterranean, its native land, where ancient Greeks and Romans were among the first to employ its diverse qualities. In these early societies, rosemary was valued for its culinary uses, medicinal properties, and spiritual symbolism. Greek scholars donned garlands of rosemary during exams to bolster memory and focus. The Greeks and Romans also believed that the herb could ward off evil spirits, leading to the saying that rosemary would not flourish in the gardens of wicked people.

rosemary in the middle ages

The herb's reputation expanded further as time moved on to the Middle Ages. It was believed to offer a defence against the plague. Rosemary also entered the rituals of birth and death, being associated with weddings as a token of love and fidelity and with funerals as a symbol of remembrance.
Shakespeare immortalised this cultural sentiment in his play Hamlet, writing, "There's rosemary, that's for remembrance."

During the Renaissance, figures like the Swiss physician Paracelsus touted rosemary to remedy various conditions affecting the liver, heart, and brain. In the 14th century, an intriguing legend tells of Queen Elizabeth of Hungary, who used a rosemary potion to treat her rheumatism and gout. This potion not only restored her health but also caught the attention of the 26-year-old King of Poland, leading to their marriage. Known as Hungary Water, this rosemary-infused concoction was a beauty staple for women for centuries. The recipe for Hungary Water was rather straightforward but precise. It involved mixing aqua vitae, a four-times-distilled liquid, with rosemary tops and flowers. After being allowed to stand in a warm location for 50 hours, it was then distilled in an alembic. A dose of one dram was taken weekly as both a food additive and a topical treatment. Hungary Water Variants included aromatic herbs like lavender, orange, and mint.

In the Christian tradition, rosemary was often called the "Holy Herb" and was linked with the Virgin Mary. According to Spanish folklore, Mary draped her cloak over a rosemary bush while the Holy Family fled to Egypt, changing the flowers' hue from white to blue.

Fast forward to modern times, the tradition of using rosemary as a symbol of remembrance has extended to ANZAC Day, where sprigs of the herb are worn to commemorate those who have fallen. Today, rosemary continues to be a culinary favourite and is the subject of scientific investigations for its potential health benefits.

rosemary and roast vegetables

Culinary Uses

A popular culinary herb with a robust flavour reminiscent of pine, mint, camphor and citrus. Rosemary can be used both fresh and dried, though the flavours are somewhat different. Fresh rosemary has a more potent, pine-like flavour, while dried rosemary is more subdued but concentrated.

Sprigs of rosemary are excellent for infusing flavour into roasted meats like chicken, pork, and lamb. Simply place them on top or insert them into slits in the meat. You can also combine it with olive oil, garlic, and lemon juice, to make a marinade for meats and vegetables.

Varieties such as Gorza and Tuscan blue have long, firm stems and can be used as skewers for vegetables or meat, imparting a subtle flavour to grilled foods.

Pumpkin and rosemary is an excellent combination whether in a creamy pumpkin soup or pumpkin scones, cake or biscuits. Chop fresh rosemary into bread dough with some black olives for a tasty, savoury bread.

Season sauces, stews, soups and pasta with sprigs of rosemary. Be sure to remove the woody stems if using fresh sprigs.

Potatoes love rosemary; try it on a potato and garlic pizza or cut wedges of potato, drizzle with olive oil, sprinkle with rosemary leaves, and bake, or you can sprinkle a handful of fresh rosemary over a mix of vegetables before grilling.

Don’t forget desserts. Rosemary goes great with citrus fruits. Try whole orange and almond cake with a sauce of orange and rosemary. Lemon and rosemary butter biscuits or lemon and rosemary sorbet. Add some rosemary to your marmalade for an interesting twist. Chocolate or cacao with rosemary is a melt-in-your-mouth combination. Try a chocolate cake with chocolate rosemary icing or a cacao, and rosemary smoothie.

rosemary cake

Herbs that pair well with Rosemary

Thyme: Both herbs have a woody flavour that complements various dishes.
Sage: Particularly good for poultry and pork dishes.
Garlic: Garlic and rosemary together are a classic combination.
Oregano: Often used with rosemary in Mediterranean cooking.
Parsley: Adds a fresh, lighter note when used with the heavier rosemary.
Basil: Particularly when cooking with tomatoes and in Italian recipes.
Mint: An unusual pairing, but it can work well in some lamb dishes and sauces.
Lavender: Used sparingly, it can complement rosemary in some Provençal dishes.

Medicinal Properties

Historically, rosemary has been associated with the Sun and the sign of Leo, reflecting its warm, fiery nature. Rosemary is generally considered a warming herb. It stimulates circulation, making it beneficial for those who feel cold or have poor circulation. Its taste is bitter, astringent and aromatic.


  • 1,8-Cineole: Found in rosemary essential oil, it's known for its ability to support respiratory health and cognitive function.
  • Carnosic Acid and Carnosol: These phenolic compounds are mainly responsible for rosemary’s antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
  • Rosmarinic Acid: Another phenolic acid that is known for its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects. It's also found in other herbs like oregano and thyme.
  • Camphor: Known for its aromatic properties and potential to relieve skin irritation and muscle aches.
  • Ursolic Acid: This compound has shown promise in cellular regeneration and is often studied for its potential anti-cancer properties.

Medicinal Uses

Rosemary has been used traditionally for various medicinal purposes, and modern research has begun to support some of these uses. Here are some of its reputed medicinal properties:

Antioxidant: Rosemary is rich in phenolic compounds like rosmarinic acid, carnosic acid, and carnosol, which possess antioxidant properties. They work by neutralising free radicals in the body, thus preventing oxidative stress and cellular damage. These compounds can help protect the brain from oxidative stress.

Anti-Inflammatory: Certain components in rosemary, including the aforementioned phenolic compounds, have anti-inflammatory effects. They may inhibit the production of pro-inflammatory cytokines. It may be helpful for relief of rheumatoid arthritis pain.

Cognitive Support: Rosemary has long been associated with memory improvement. Some studies suggest that its active compounds, particularly 1,8-cineole, may enhance cognitive function by inhibiting acetylcholinesterase, an enzyme that breaks down the neurotransmitter acetylcholine.

Antimicrobial: The essential oils of rosemary, particularly those containing compounds like camphor and 1,8-cineole, have been shown to possess antimicrobial properties against a range of bacteria and fungi.

Digestive Aid: Traditionally, rosemary has been used to treat gastrointestinal issues like indigestion and bloating. Some of its compounds may stimulate bile flow, aiding in digestion.

Cardiovascular Health: Rosemary has been studied for its potential to improve lipid profiles and circulation, although more research is needed to confirm these benefits.

Anti-Cancer: Some studies have suggested that the phytochemicals in rosemary, particularly carnosol and carnosic acid, may have anti-cancer properties by inducing apoptosis (cell death) in cancer cells and inhibiting tumor growth.

Respiratory Health: Due to its anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial properties, rosemary is also used in treating respiratory infections. Inhaling rosemary essential oil may relieve symptoms of congestion.

Skin Health: Topically, rosemary oil is sometimes used to treat conditions like eczema, stimulate hair growth and relieve pain.

Medicinal Preparations with Rosemary

Rosemary Infusion/Tea: Pour 1 cup of boiled water over 1 tsp dried or 2 tsp fresh rosemary cover and steep for 10-15 min. Strain and drink. Useful to help improve digestion and enhance memory and focus.

Rosemary Gargle: For sore throats, a rosemary infusion can also be cooled and used as a soothing gargle.

Rosemary Tincture: Fresh or dried rosemary leaves can be soaked in alcohol for several weeks to make a tincture. A typical dosage is a dropper full of tincture diluted in water or juice, usually taken before meals to aid digestion.

Rosemary Infused Oil: Rosemary sprigs, partially dried, can be placed in a jar of olive oil for several weeks, allowing the oil to absorb the rosemary’s properties. This oil can be used topically for muscle pain or as a scalp treatment for dandruff.

Rosemary Inhalation: Boil a pot of water and add a few rosemary sprigs. Lean over the pot with a towel over your head and inhale the steam. This can help with respiratory issues and sinus congestion.

Rosemary Bath: Adding a handful of fresh or dried rosemary to a hot bath can provide a relaxing experience and may help alleviate sore muscles.

rosemary essential oil

Rosemary Essential Oil

Rosemary essential oil is a concentrated form of rosemary and should be used sparingly. It is used for aromatherapy and can be diluted with a carrier oil for topical applications. It is beneficial as a natural pain reliever for sore muscles and joints. It can also help alleviate headaches and migraines, making it a great natural alternative to over-the-counter pain medication. Additionally, rosemary oil is a popular choice for skincare, as it can help reduce acne, improve skin complexion, and promote hair growth.

rosemary crafts

Household Uses

Rosemary can make natural air fresheners, disinfectants, and cleaning solutions. It's also used to deter pests from the garden and home.

Rosemary and Orange Peel Cleaning Vinegar

  • 1 cup of chopped fresh rosemary
  • Peel from 1 orange
  • 1 litre of white vinegar

Mix and let soak for at least 24 hours. Use straight for dirty surfaces or dilute 50/50 with water in a spray bottle for general cleaning. This mix is great for greasy surfaces. For hard-to-move stains, try sprinkling some bicarb of soda on the surface before lightly spraying and scrubbing.

Rosemary is antibacterial, antifungal and antiviral, and its fragrance is also very refreshing.Oranges have extraordinary cleaning power in the oils of their skin and form the base of many environmentally friendly cleaning products.

Rosemary Hair Rinse
Boil rosemary leaves in water and allow it to cool.
Use this water as a final rinse after shampooing to add shine and potentially stimulate hair growth.

Pet Rinse
Boil rosemary leaves in water and allow it to cool.
Use this water as a final rinse to help deter fleas.

Laundry Freshener
Add a few drops of rosemary essential oil to a damp washcloth and throw in the washing machine's final rinse or dryer to scent your laundry.

Sprigs of rosemary can be pressed and glued onto cards, bookmarks and tags. A sprig of fresh rosemary looks nice tucked into the ribbon on gifts and tied napkins for a special occasion.

rosemary garden

Use in Garden Design

Rosemary is a versatile plant that can serve multiple functions in garden design. Its aromatic foliage, attractive flowers, and hardy nature make it a popular choice for various landscaping needs.

  • As a hedge, the different growing heights of rosemary can offer lower hedging for garden paths, through to screen hedges, with the larger growing varieties reaching 1.5 to 2m high.
  • Larger, more upright varieties can serve as focal points in the garden. Its needle-like leaves provide a textural contrast to plants with broader leaves or softer forms.
  • Rosemary is a great herb to trim into shapes such as large round balls or spirals and is often used in the craft of Topiary. Smaller pots of rosemary can also be shaped into cones or balls for table decorations.
  • Rosemary pairs well with other Mediterranean herbs like lavender, sage, and thyme, making it a good choice for herb gardens or mixed borders. They look great mixed into cottage-style gardens and add wonderful fragrance.
  • The prostrate varieties can be used as edging plants and to hang down over walls. They also grow well in hanging baskets or pots.
  • Bees and other beneficial insects enjoy rosemary flowers, while the fragrance also deters cabbage moths and some other annoying insects in the vegetable garden.
  • Rosemary is a companion plant for cabbage, beans, carrots, garlic, parsnip and sage.


While generally safe for use in amounts typically found in food, rosemary can cause allergic reactions in some people. It's also not recommended to take medicinal doses during pregnancy as it may potentially stimulate menstruation or affect the uterus, leading to miscarriage.

Please note it's essential to consult with a healthcare professional or a knowledgeable herbalist before starting any new herb or supplement, particularly if you have any pre-existing health conditions or are taking other medications.