Rosemary, a herb whose botanical name is Rosmarinus officinalis, is a sun-loving shrub, native to the south of France and other Mediterranean regions. It is widely cultivated for its aromatic and medicinal properties.

This pine-scented evergreen of the Lamiaceae, or mint, family, can grow to 5 ft (1.5 m) in height in favorable settings. Rosemary thrives in chalky or sandy soil in full sun. The herb grows wild on dry, rocky slopes near the sea. Its name is derived from the Latin ros marinus, meaning “sea dew.”

Other common names for the herb include polar plant, compass-weed, or compass plant. The specific name, officinalis, refers to the herb’s inclusion in official Western listings of medicinal herbs. Rosemary was a favored herb in early apothecary gardens.

Legend abounds around this lovely perennial known as the “herb of remembrance.” It is said that rosemary will grow particularly well in gardens tended by strong-willed women. Young brides traditionally carried a sprig of rosemary in their wreaths or wedding bouquets.

The young couple may even have been brought together with the magic of a touch of rosemary, as in the refrain of an old ballad: “Young men and maids do ready stand/With sweet rosemary in their hands.” Greek scholars wore a bit of the pungent herb in their hair when engaged in study as an aid to increase concentration.

The fragrant herb was exchanged between friends as a symbol of loyalty, and tossed onto the graves of departed loved ones. Gypsy travelers sought rosemary for its use as a rinse for highlighting dark hair, or as a rejuvenating face wash.

In the fourteenth century, Queen Isabella of Hungary used an alcohol extract of the flowering herb to treat gout. In ancient Egypt the herb was buried with the pharaohs. Rosemary was believed to have magical powers to banish evil spirits. It was burned in sick rooms as a disinfectant, and was used to ward off the plague.

Rosemary’s deep, woody taproot produces stout, branching, scaly, light brown stalks covered with simple, sessile narrow leaves about 1 in long and opposite, growing in whorls along the square stalks.

Rosemary leaves are dark green on top and pale green on the underside with a distinctive mid vein. They curl inward along the margins. Tiny two-lipped, light blue or violet flowers grow in a cluster of five to seven blossoms each on a pair of short, opposite spikes.

Each pair of flower spikes alternates along the sides of the stalk. This graceful aromatic herb blooms in late spring and early summer bearing two tiny seeds in each flower. Bees are attracted to rosemary flowers.

General use

Rosemary can be used to make an essential oil, a fixed oil, or teas and tinctures. These different products have different uses.

Potted Rosemary
Potted Rosemary

Volatile oil of rosemary

The volatile oil in rosemary leaves and blossoms, called a “sovereign balm” by the seventeenth-century herbalist Nicholas Culpeper, has a long history of medicinal uses in the West.

Other chemical constituents of rosemary include bitters, borneol, linalol, camphene, camphor, cineole, pinene, resin, tannins, and rosmarinic acid, which acts as an antioxidant. Research has yielded promising results regarding the cancer-inhibiting effects of this antioxidant component of rosemary oil.

In addition, rosemary is a circulatory stimulant. It has been shown to increase coronary blood flow, and is useful in treatment of blood pressure problems. A flavonoid known as diosmin in the volatile oil of rosemary can restore strength to fragile capillaries.

Many of the traditional uses for this healing herb, discovered through trial and error and passed down through the generations, have not been clinically verified. Rosemary is still, however, officially listed as a medicinal herb in the United States Pharmacopoeia.

Essential oil of rosemary

The essential oil of rosemary has potent antibacterial and antifungal effects. It was burnt as an incense in rituals, and used in sick rooms to provide protection from disease and infection. The herb has also been used as a digestive stimulant and liver tonic.

It increases the flow of bile through its ability to relax the smooth muscle in the digestive tract and gallbladder. Rosemary’s astringent properties, due to its tannin content, may help in the treatment of diarrhea, and reduce excessive menstrual flow.

Rosemary can be used as a carminative (gas-relieving medication) to ease the discomfort of colic and dyspeptic disorders. The pungent herb has an energizing effect; it is used in aromatherapy to improve memory and focus, dispel depression, and relieve migraine headache.

An external application of essential oil of rosemary, as a component in liniments, can ease pain in rheumatism. An infusion of rosemary, combined with sage (Salvia officinale), makes a good sore throat gargle. When used as a hair rinse, rosemary will stimulate hair follicles, and may help to reduce dandruff.

A poultice of the herb may be applied to soothe eczema, or to speed the healing of wounds. Essential oil of rosemary is a component of many commercially available lotions, perfumes, liniments, soaps, and mouthwash preparations. Lastly, dried rosemary is used widely as a culinary herb.

More recently, carnosol, a naturally occurring antioxidant compound found in rosemary, has been studied for its anticancer properties. Carnosol appears to be effective against cancer by reducing inflammation and by inhibiting the expression of cancer genes.

Carnosic acid, another compound found in rosemary, appears to reduce the risk of skin cancer by protecting skin cells against the effects of ultraviolet radiation.


dried rosemary
dried rosemary

Dried: Rosemary leaves and blossoms may be harvested during the second year of growth. Carefully trim the branches in 4 in (10 cm) lengths, leaving at least twothirds of the shrub intact.

Strip the leaves from the stems and spread out on a tray, or hang the branches in bunches away from direct sunlight in a bright, airy room. Store the dried herb in tightly sealed dark containers.

Infusion: In a glass teapot, combine 1 oz (28.35 g) of fresh or dried flowering tops with 1 pt of non-chlorinated water that has been brought just to the boiling point. Steep the mixture in a covered container for 10–15 min. Strain. Drink the tea warm up to three cups per day.

Oil infusion: Pack a quart jar with fresh rosemary leaves and flowering tops. Pour enough olive oil in the jar to cover the herbs completely. Seal and place on a sunny windowsill for 2–3 weeks. Strain the oil through cheesecloth into a large glass container. Squeeze the remainng oil from the cloth.

Pour this first oil infusion over additional fresh herbs in a jar to cover. Seal and place on a sunny window sill for an additional two weeks. Strain again through cheesecloth. Store this second oil infusion in tightly sealed, clearly labeled, dark glass containers.

Compress: Soak a cotton pad with the hot infusion of rosemary leaf and apply to bruises or sprains, or as an aid in the healing of wounds and skin irritations.


Rosemary should not be used in medicinal preparations during pregnancy or breast-feeding, although it is safe to use in cooking in small quantities to season foods. Persons with high blood pressure, epilepsy or diverticulosis, chronic ulcers, or colitis, should not take rosemary internally for medicinal purposes.

Rosemary acts as an emmenagogue, stimulating the flow of menstrual blood. The essential oil of rosemary was once used in folk practice in attempts to induce abortion. As with all essential oils, only small amounts of it should be used, either topically or internally.

An overdose of essential oil of rosemary may lead to deep coma, vomiting, spasms, uterine bleeding, gastroenteritis, kidney irritation, and even death, according to the PDR for Herbal Medicines. No documented cases have been reported, however.

Side effects

No side effects are known when rosemary is used in designated therapeutic doses, properly harvested, prepared, and administered. Some persons, however, may be allergic to rosemary or its oils, and experience nausea and vomiting.


Relatively few interactions between rosemary and Western pharmaceuticals have been reported. Rosemary appears to increase the effects of doxorubicin, a cancer medication. Although further studies are necessary, as of 2002 patients taking doxorubicin are advised to consult their physicians before taking rosemary.