First Friday Focus On: Rosemary
Rosemary is one of those wonderful culinary herbs—so wonderful it’s easy to not pay even the remotest attention to all the other wonderful things you can do with it. After all, when you can cut up a few snips of a plant into a little olive oil, salt, and pepper, toss them with cut up potatoes, and roast them in a 400 degree oven for half an hour or so, why even look for anything else?
Well…because for those of us looking for non-pharmaceutical non-chemical ways to stay healthy and keep our hair and skin looking and feeling nice, this fabulous herb is a real powerhouse.
For those in temperate climates, it’s a really easy plant to grow—those of us who live further north (anywhere the winters get below 30 degrees for very long) need to either protect it well over the winter or bring it inside; those of is in places where the ground freezes solid for a few months of the year don’t even have that choice—the plant must come in. (My mom digs a hole in the yard that’s the size of the pot and keeps it in-the-ground-in-the-pot through the temperate seasons, and then pulls the pot out and brings the plant in over winter.) It does need good sunlight even indoors, though, or it won’t be happy in there…it’s worth the trouble, though. A few snips of fresh rosemary are so far and away superior to any dried version of the herb that it’s just a really good thing to have around.
Aside from its obviously well known uses in cooking, it has a lot of cosmetic and medicinal uses. A powerful antioxidant, it is said to stimulate memory, relax muscles (including those in the digestive tract, making it an effective remedy for menstrual cramps), and even may fight cancerous tumor cells. A rosemary infusion (i.e. tea) is a good toner for oily skin and can help in fighting acne, and it has been used in hair care products for probably millennia. I like to steep a little rosemary in warm olive oil, massage it into damp hair, cover it with a towel for an hour, and then wash out—it has great softening effects.
Rosemary essential oil is a great thing to have around, although as always be very careful to use it carefully—never use it directly on the skin (always dilute in some carrier oil), and never take it internally unless under the care of a licensed aromatherapist. (And I’d hazard a guess that no license aromatherapist would prescribe Rosemary oil internally anyway—it’s an especially powerful oil. But I could be wrong.) Remember that essential oils are highly concentrated substances and can be toxic even in small doses! Rosemary EO is great in diffusers, though, and it can be good for respiratory ailments, asthma, and so forth.
Something to mention, as long as I’m talking essential oils—and this applies to anything I say about any herbs in these First Friday posts…with plant medicines (as with any medicine!), the line between “helpful” and “toxic” is usually all about quantity and concentration. Think of it this way. Within any plant, you have a balance of different substances (or "alkaloids") that affect our bodies in different ways. An ordinary edible plant, you could eat pretty considerable amounts of and probably not get sick because of the comparatively low concentration of whatever in it might be toxic in high doses—it often wouldn’t be possible to eat enough to be really dangerous, because of stomach size and such, and you’d feel the beginnings of symptoms before anything really serious could go wrong. (I'm talking "edible" plants here, you get that, right? Like Rosemary? And that plants that aren't edible, you can totally eat enough to make yourself sick or worse? Just being clear here...) Take that edible, non-dangerous plant and infuse it in hot water, pulling out some of those dissolvable compounds, and you’ve got a slightly more concentrated version. It would be easier to have too much tea than too much actually-eaten-straight herb, right?--but still pretty hard to do real damage, because our bodies process the water and filter it out, and the concentration never gets too high. (For example, I've never been told that pregnant women shouldn't eat rosemary potatoes, but I've definitely heard that pregnant women shouldn't drink rosemary tea.) Now consider what happens if you infuse the herb in alcohol for 6 weeks and make a tincture; this pulls out way more of the alkaloid compounds from the plant, and in addition is usually in an alcohol base, which has its own side effects—so in this concentration it would be very conceivable to get way too much of whatever it is in the plant you wanted, which is why tincture doses are measured in maybe teaspoonfuls.
Now move on to essential oils. It takes 68 pounds of rosemary plant to make 1 pound of essential oil. You do the math. See how something that might be very healthful in its natural state can become something to pay a lot of attention to as it becomes more and more concentrated? Remember that, even though we natural-med-loving folks may dig tinctures and essential oils a lot, they are, essentially processed versions of the original plant. And need to be treated with care.
End of lecture. J
So, I’ll throw it out there to you now—anyone have any favorite rosemary recipes or tips? How do you use it?
--Jenn the Greenmom