This section is from the book "Meals Medicinal", by W. T. Fernie. Also available from Amazon: Meals Medicinal: With "Herbal Simples" Curative Foods From the Cook in Place of Drugs From the Chemist.
A good old custom of former times was to burn Rosemary (which is still cultivated in our kitchen gardens as a sweet-scented, fragrant herb) in the chambers of the sick, because of its supposed preservative powers against pestilential disorders. For the same reason a sprig of Rosemary was carried in the hand at a funeral. It was believed that smelling at the sprig afforded a potent defence against any morbid effluvia from the corpse. The shrub (Rosmarinus) has a pleasant scent, and a bitter, pungent taste, because of an essential volatile oil chiefly present in the leaves, and tops. Other fragrant active principles reside in the flowers. The name is derived from ros, dew, marinus, of the sea, in allusion to the grey, glistening appearance of the herb, and its natural locality near the sea, with an odour thereof.
It is ever green, and bears small pale-blue blossoms. "The flowers of Rosemary," says an old author, "made up into plates (lozenges, or tablets), with sugar, and eaten, comfort the heart, and make it merry, quicken the spirits, and cause them to be lively." Rosemary tea will soon relieve nervous depression; some persons drink it for breakfast as a restorative. In the French language of flowers this herb represents the power of re-kindling lost energy. Rosemary wine taken in small quantities acts as a quieting cordial to a heart of which the action is irregular, and palpitating; it will further serve to dispel any accompanying dropsy by stimulating the kidneys. This wine may be made by chopping up sprigs of green Rosemary, and pouring on them some sound white wine, which after three or four days may be strained off, and put into use. The green-leaved variety is the kind to be used medicinally; there are also silver, and golden-leaved sorts. Sprigs of the shrub were formerly stuck into beef whilst being roasted, as an excellent relish.
A writer (1707) tells of "Rosemary-preserve to dress your beef." In early times the Rosemary was freely cultivated in kitchen gardens, and it came to represent the dominant influence of the house-mistress.
"Where Rosemary flourished the woman ruled".
A spirit made from the essential oil with spirit of wine will help to renew the vitality of paralysed limbs if rubbed in with brisk friction. The volatile oil includes a special camphor similar to that possessed by the myrtle. An ounce of the dried leaves and flowers, when treated with a pint of boiling water, and allowed to stand until cool, makes one of the best hair-washes known. It should be mixed with honey-water (as distilled from honey incorporated with sand), the same being likewise of itself excellent for promoting growth of the hair. Incidentally with respect to the present fashion adopted by young men of shaving close as to whiskers, and beard, (so as to retain, it may be supposed, a juvenile look), the suggestive letter (xxxii) of Selborne in his well-known Natural History may be profitably quoted: "It is plain that the deprivation of masculine vigour puts a stop to the growth of those hirsute appendages which are looked upon as its insignia; thus eunuchs have beardless chins, smooth limbs, and squeaking voices.
But (as the ingenious Mr. Lisle testifies) the loss of such insignia of manliness as the facial hair, and its accompaniments, has sometimes a strange effect on the masculine abilities; thus he had a boar which was so fierce and venereous, that to prevent mischief orders were given for his tusks to be broken off. No sooner had the beast suffered this injury than his powers forsook him, and he neglected those females to whom before he was passionately attached, and from whom no fences would restrain him." This was a forecast of Darwin's more recent substantiated facts.
The famous "Hungary water" for outward application, was first invented for a Queen of Hungary, who by its continued use became completely cured of paralysis; it was prepared by putting one and a half pounds of the fresh tops of Rosemary when in full flower into a gallon of spirit of wine, which had to stand for four days, and was then distilled. Hoyes tells that the formula for composing this noted "water," as written by Queen Elizabeth's own hand, is still preserved in the Imperial Library at Vienna. It was further esteemed for doing much good against gout when occurring in the hands, and feet, by being rubbed into the affected limbs with some brisk friction. In the French hospitals it is customary to burn Rosemary together with juniper berries, for purifying the air, and preventing infection. This plant contains also some tannin, together with a resin, and a bitter principle. By old writers it was said to increase the flow of breast-milk; the herb is used in preparing Eau de Cologne. In olden days sprigs of the shrub were put with a corpse into the coffin, and others were thrown into the grave "for remembrance." Most probably an instinctive knowledge had even then been acquired of the anti-putrescent virtues of this herb, as well as of its protective aromatic powers against infection.
Mrs. Gaskell, in Sylvia's Lovers, has told of the same custom when describing a rustic burial: "Some sign of mourning was shown by everyone, down to the little child in its mother's arms that innocently clutched the piece of Rosemary to be thrown into the grave ' for remembrance.' " The poet Gay also alludes to the same practice when describing the burial of a country lass who had come to an untimely end: -
"To show their love the neighbours far and near Followed, with wistful looks, the damsel's bier: Sprigged Rosemary the lads and lasses bore, While dismally the parson walked before: Upon her grave the Rosemary they threw, The Daisy, Butterflower, and Endive blue." 25
It was dear old blind Margaret in Charles Lamb's first story (Rosamund Gray, 1798) who had among her half-dozen cottage volumes "a cookery book, with a few dry sprigs of Rosemary, and Lavender, stuck here and there between the leaves (I suppose to point to some of the old lady's favourite receipts)." In a well-known song which the spirited rendering of Santley has immortalized, - "Simon the Cellarer"- it is quaintly, and picturesquely told: -
"Dame Margery sits in her own still room.
And a matron sage is she: From thence oft at curfew is wafted a fume:
She says it is ' Rosemarie '! But there's a small cupboard behind the back stair,
And the maids say they often see Margery there. Now Margery says that she grows very old.
And must take a something to keep out the cold: But ho! ho! ho! old Simon doth know,
Where many a flask of his best doth go".