Herbs in History: Rosemary
Salvia rosmarinus Schleid.
Losing One’s Mind
When searching information about rosemary in current scientific literature to better understand the ancient texts, a great many articles come up (Illustration 1). Some indicate that the plant was named rosmarinus—with this classical Latin name understood as meaning sea dew in an exact translation of its two components, ros and marinus—as it allegedly grows on the seashores and is watered by the droplets of water lifted in the air by the sea waves. Or because its leaves are light grey/silver as if they were covered by salty dew. Other articles—more to the point here—indicate that rosemary is a memory booster and was associated in the ancient Greek mythology with the first-generation goddess Mnemosyne whose name exactly means memory. Along this line, some of these publications and others affirm that the effect of rosemary on memory was capitalized by students and scholars in ancient Greece who wore wreaths of rosemary when having to take an exam so as to improve their results. According to the same publications, this practice survived, and present-day students have some rosemary twig in their environment to enhance their intellectual performance. By extension, grooms are said to keep this memory booster to always remember their vows.
Illustration 1: Rosemary (Salvia rosmarinus Schleid., syn. Rosmarinus officinalis L.)
A closer examination of botany, ancient documentation, and past and present uses casts a doubt on much of this information. Rosemary does not particularly grow in, or close to, a marine environment, but rather in dry and sunny places with a poor soil. It does not need either abundant irrigation, be it direct watering or light spraying in the way of droplets from sea waves or dew. As for its role as mind booster, however promising the claim might be as a possible lead for fresh research in neurosciences in a time when brain degeneration is extensively studied, it does not appear e in the medical treatise and others of antiquity, by Pliny, Dioscorides and Galen.
If this were not enough, botanical taxonomy has recently moved rosemary from its original genus to another. Whereas rosemary was traditionally known as Rosmarinus officinalis L. as per Carl Linnaeus, Species plantarum first published in 1753, it is now identified as a member of the Salvia genus, specifically as S. rosmarinus Scheid on the basis of new phylogenetic studies.
Agricultural-botanical inexactness, uncertainty about historical texts, doubt about an apparently promising avenue for new and innovative neuro-science research, and taxonomical displacement generate some scientific dizziness and make one lose his mind, requiring restarting research from scratch in the hopes to build a new, documented, and solid history of rosemary as a source for new research.
Starting from the very beginning, the name rosmarinus tells a different story. An extensive search in Latin literature brings to light several attestations, the most ancient of which can be found in Antiquity. Their close scrutiny is revealing, particularly if it follows the chronological order of the texts. To avoid further uncertainty, these texts are exactly referred to here.
The first attestation appears in the work by the poet Virgil (70-19 BCE), Publius Vergilius Maro in his full name. It is found in his Georgica, composed after the civil wars in Rome, the restauration of the central authority, and the transformation of the ancient republic into an empire under the leading of August. The poem celebrates the pleasure of a peaceful rural life and promotes a return to agricultural activity as per the ancient Roman tradition. There (2.213), Virgil mentions rosemary as a pasture for bees. Curiously, he does not use the term rosmarinus, but only ros. Although this term usually designates the dew, its exact meaning here cannot be this, but must refer to something like the nectar that bees collect on flowers.
His slightly younger contemporary Quintus Horatius Flaccus (65-8 BCE), known in English as Horace, also contributed to the work of restauration of the Roman world fostered by August. In one of his versified Odes (2.23.16), he briefly evoked a crown made of rosemary and myrtle. Differently from Virgil, he used the term rosmarinus, which, however, he split in two elements and inverted: marinum and ros in the form marino at the end of a verse and rore at the beginning of the next, clearly for versification purposes. The meaning seems to be “sea ros”, with the latter term still needing to be exactly understood.
The next attestations are in two works by Ovidius (43 BCE – 17/18 CE), Publius Ovidius Naso in his full name: the Metamorphoses about episodes of classical mythology, and the Ars amatoria (Art of love) about seduction. These are versified pieces in the first of which rosemary is said to be intertwined in the hair of a female personage, together with violet, roses and lily (12.410). In the second work, rosemary appears in a description of nature (3.690), characterized by scented plants. Just as in Horace, the phytonym is not rosmarinus, but a two-terms one. However, the two terms here are slightly different from what they are in Horace, and they explicitly identify rosemary as the “ros of the sea” (maris ros), and not the “marine ros” as in Horace.
Following our chronological order, we then encounter rosemary in the technical compendium of agriculture by Lucius Junius Moderatus Columella (4 – ca. 70 CE). In a first passage about bee pasture (9.4.1), Columella first referred to Virgil’s verses in the Georgica mentioned above, which he fully reproduced, thus identifying rosemary with the single term ros. Shortly afterwards (9.4.2), he cited rosemary again, but as rosmarinum, which is the first time the full word, made of the assemblage of the two components as above, appears in the Latin literature. Nevertheless, further on in his work, when discussing culinary herbs (9.4.6), Columella listed rosemary with the two-terms form used earlier, ros marinum. Similarly, in a passage on the ways of aromatizing wines (12.36), he recommends introducing a bunch of rosemary twigs, using the two-words form ros marinum.
Finally, the most recent of our authors, the encyclopedist Pliny (23/4-79 CE), Gaius Plinius Secundus, who died in the Vesuvius eruption, deals with rosemary in his Natural History encyclopedia. He describes rosemary and lists its medicinal uses (24.99-100). Following Columella’s one-word use, he identifies it as rosmarinum, adding, however, that “this is the way the plant is called”.
As this survey indicates, the terms ros (Virgil), and the groups ros marinum (Horace) and ros maris (Ovid) are poetical uses. The designations ros and ros marinum appear again later, in Columella, where, however, they are in competition with the compound term rosmarinus of which this is the first appearance in Latin literature. This term is used by Pliny, with the note cited above seemingly indicating that this was a new usage. It is thus clear that ros (with or without marinum and maris) is a poetic use, that was introduced by Virgil and was shared by the three poets, Virgil, Horace and Ovid. We should not be surprised by this as all three frequented the same milieux in Rome and probably were informed about each other’s compositions. What is more curious is that this poetic usage entered the scientific literature (Columella), with rosmarinum in Columella and Pliny.
Expanding the search, ros appears to designate dew in classical Latin literature, but also, and by expansion, a liquid, including tears for example. Bearing in mind that rosemary leaves are covered by an oily exudate—particularly under the summer sun—, the use of the term ros by Virgil can be understood as an audacious transfer of meaning based on an implicit comparison: rosemary leaves are covered by a light superficial liquid that may, indeed, recall dew.
Regarding marinum (marine) apparently introduced by Horace and maris (of the sea) used by Ovid possibly as a variation on Horace’s creation, research indicates that the term should not be literally interpreted as referring to the sea, but figuratively as identifying a bitter taste, like that of salty water. The clearest example of this meaning in the ancient literature is provided by a species of wormwood growing in the desertic region of Cappadocia (current central Turkey) and identified as marine to be distinguished from other species in the same genus (Dioscorides 3.23 and Pliny 27.53). Another confirmation will come later, with the explicit mention of a salty taste of the plant by Pliny. The introduction of this term marinum by Horace might thus be understood as referring to the taste of rosemary, which is indeed bitter if eaten fresh. At any rate, no ancient text mentions that rosemary grows close to the sea or that dew covers its leaves.
Only later, the text known as Pseudo-Apuleius, Herbarium, of uncertain period (possibly 4th century CE), mentions this (80). But the information is clearly an addition resulting from a simple, face-value interpretation of the name rosmarinus. On this basis, the plant is said to grow “in marine places [locis marinis] and in gardens”.
Back to the Sources
Contradictorily, whereas the Herbarium attributed to Apuleius brings us back to the starting point of our inquiry with this reference to a marine environment, it also provides a key information to locate more data on rosemary in the ancient literature. As it puts it, indeed:
Before incense was known, humans placated the gods with this herb (= rosemary).
Reference is made here to the ancient use of burning rosemary as a substitute of incense. Whether the historical sequence (knowing rosemary before incense) is correct or not, this short phrase allows to discover that Pliny’s Natural History reported such usage on several occasions about a plant that he named libanotis. He does write about it that it “smells incense” (19.187 and 20.172) and he also compares its seed to that of squill—Drimia maritima (L.) Stearn, syn. Scilla maritima L., Squilla maritima (L.) Steinh., and Urginea maritima (L.)—of the leaves of which he interestingly notes that they have a salty taste (26.82).
With this organoleptic note we return to the starting point of this investigation and the adjective maritimum introduced by Horace as a determinative of the poetic term ros used by Virgil before him. The circle seems closed and the history of rosmarinus (both the plant and the term) becomes increasingly clear. Not all is solved, however, as we still do not have much information on rosemary, particularly its medicinal uses in ancient times.
Illustration 2 a-b: Rosemary in the manuscript of Dioscorides, De materia medica, New York, NY, Pierpont Morgan Library, M 652 (10th century, Constantinople)
This is where the phytonym libanotis used by Pliny is of interest. Before coming to the botanical and medical data provided by ancient texts about libanotis, we should mention that the phytonym is the adaptation of the Greek term libanotis (λιβανωτίς), which designated rosemary in the ancient Greek World. It is worth noting that, in classical Greek, this term is built on that of incense, libanos (λίβανος). Through this derivation, rosemary was identified as a cognate of incense, which it is obviously not from a botanical viewpoint (as the description of the two plants already in the ancient texts makes it clear), whereas it was a sort of cognate of incense by its use in fumigation. On this point, the historical sequence proposed by the Pseudo-Apuleian Herbarium is probably not correct: rosemary was not used in religious rituals in the ancient world before incense was known; instead, it was a substitute for incense, which was expensive as it came from the most southern part of the Arabic Peninsula, the region corresponding to current Yemen. In addition to being available in small quantities, incense was traded through a long terrestrial and maritime road that increased the costs. Whatever the case, this use of rosemary in fumigation might not have been just religious as we will see.
Coming to libanotis, it is not present in the therapeutic arsenal of the most ancient Hippocratics (5th/4th century BCE), something that might suggest that rosemary was not assimilated into learned medicine until a recent time, not appearing before the Historia Plantarum by Aristotle’s student and successor, Theophrastus (4th / 3rd cent. BCE). There it is described with two supposed species differentiated by the presence or absence of fruit, both with small leaves and a root smelling incense, and growing in poor, rocky soils.
A more precise description is provided by Dioscorides in the 1st century, with representations of two species in the manuscripts of De materia medica (Illustration 2 a and b), and, running through the centuries, in the Pseudo-Apuleian Herbarium referred to above; in the encyclopedia compiled by the Arabic pharmacognost of Andalusian origin ibn al-Baytar (12th/13th cent.); and, in the Renaissance, by several herbalists: the German Leonhart Fuchs (1501-1566) in his 1542 Stirpium Historia (History of Medicinal Plants), the Belgian Rembert Dodoens (1516/7-1585) in the Cruydt-Boeck (Book of Herbs) first published in 1554 and later re-edited and translated into Latin, and the English John Gerard (1545-1612), especially in the 1636 revised edition of his 1597 original Herball.
In the Renaissance, rosemary had also entered daily life. In England, particularly, it was designated by the name that it still has, and he gained a new meaning through a re-interpretation of its name as a reference to the Virgin Mary (Rose Mary). It also entered literature with a meaning of interest here, for example in Hamlet by William Shakespeare (1564-1616):
Ophelia to Laertes:
There's rosemary, that's for remembrance.
Pray, love, remember. And there is pansies,
that's for thoughts ...
Hamlet, Act 4, Scene 5, vv. 174-176.
Recovering One’s Mind
As early as Theophrastus, rosemary root is recommended in the Greek World in external use for the treatment of wounds and in gynecology, administered internally with wine as a draught. Its seed is prescribed in a way that is not specified against strangury, otalgia, ophthalmia, and ulcerous wounds, and also to increase milk production in breastfeeding mothers. A domestic use is mentioned, which consists in putting it among clothes to prevent moth.
Dioscorides characterizes rosemary as warming and offers different uses, with the treatment of jaundice, a draught (probably energizing) for athletes before exercise and a bath afterwards, as an analgesic, and also as a body ointment. Interestingly, he stresses in the very first line of his description that rosemary is used by crown-makers, without providing additional explanation.
His Latin contemporary Pliny is more complete, proceeding by parts from root to seed. After repeating Theophrast’s use of the root for the treatment of wounds, he adds anal prolapsus, condyloma and hemorrhoids. Like Dioscorides, he recommends it for the treatment of jaundice (sap of the root and the fruit) and, like Theophrastus again, he prescribes it in ophthalmology, and to increase acuity of vision. Passing to the seed, he lists more uses: chronic chest pain, female intimate hygiene, regulation of menstruation, gout (in external application), skin care (eliminating freckles), warming (provoking sweat), and convulsions in addition to milk production. The fruit alone has similar indications, in addition to counteract venoms and poisons. The whole plant is good to clean infected wounds and to treat cough when taken with honey.
Galen (129-after [?] 216 CE), as for him, is more theoretical. According to his system, rosemary is emollient and diaphoretic (probably as a warming agent). The sap of its root and leaves mixed with honey treats amblyopy in eyes infected with thick matter (pus?). The species used for crowns helps in the treatment of jaundice, and the fruits have cleaning and cicatrizing properties.
This set of data was transmitted through the centuries with some variations, additions, and omissions depending on the authors. For example, ibn Sina (980-1037), best known in the West as Avicenna, did repeat the ophthalmologic use, adding that rosemary is “dissolving” and that it is “beneficial for the brain”, without repeating any of the other uses of the classical corpus. ibn al-Baytar, instead, did follow the tradition, considering rosemary as warming like Dioscorides, adding that it is dry (probably because of its warming property). He recommended it against strangury, amenorrhea, liver and spleen inflammation, pulmonary infections, cough, spasm, and dropsy. At the end of the entry, he reports a daily-life use of hunters, who introduce rosemary in animals’ belly “in order to avoid putrefaction”, implicitly implying an antiseptic use of rosemary not explicitly stated in the literature unless it is referred to in the recommendation to apply rosemary onto wounds.
The Renaissance walked in the footsteps of the classical authors, with some important innovations, however. In the title of his chapter in the Historia stirpium (History of Medicinal Plants, 1542), Fuchs transcribed the Greek name (libanotis), adding at the same time a reference to crowns: On coronary libanotis (De libanotide coronaria). In the body of the text, he just translated Dioscorides and Galen (Illustration 3). He did not stop there, however, but added an Appendix in the conclusion of which he wrote that there are “many other uses that it would be superfluous to mention” as if they were well known. Indeed, this Appendix seems to report current practice and knowledge more than information coming from learned medicine. There, Fuchs reports that rosemary is burnt in the houses to clean the air infected by pestilence and that it “restores the brain, the senses, memory, and the heart”.
Illustration 5 a-b: John Gerarde, The Herball or General Historie of Plants ... Very much enlarged and Amended by Thomas Johnson ... London: Adam Islip Joice Norton and Richard Whitakers, 1636
Dodoens followed suit, shifting, however, from Greek to Latin in the title of the entry, though keeping a reference to crowns: On coronary rosemary (De Rosmarino Coronario) (Illustration 4). In the list of uses, he particularly developed the brain activity:
It [= rosemary] is also indicated, particularly the flowers, to all problems affecting the head and the brain because of cold and humidity; they dry the brain, indeed, increase senses acuity and memory, and reinforce the nervous system.
In his chapter Of Rosemary (Illustration 5), which departs from tradition as this title already indicates, Gerard introduces references to contemporary literature. Nevertheless, he repeats Dodoens’ statement about rosemary activity on the brain and the senses, with two key supplementary elements, however: this usage comes from the Arabic World and the brain activity is triggered by wearing crowns made of rosemary. And, repeating himself, he adds:
Rosemary comforteth the braine, the memorie, the inward senses, and restoreth speech unto them that are possessed with the dumbe palsie, especially the conserve made of the floures and sugar, or any other way confected with sugar, being taken every day fasting.
Arrived here, we recover our senses and eventually have a new understanding of the whole history of rosemary in which the apparent reference to the sea, dew, and a marine environment, together with poetry intrusion and designations, mythological references, ancient texts alluded to without exact identification, and taxonomical transfers made us lose our mind. From a certain point in time, a brain-activity booster of rosemary is attested, which is conceptualized as a drainage of the brain that reinvigorates it, brings it back to a drier, denser, and more concentrated state, and refocuses it on its substance and activity.
All of sudden, we also realize that rosemary is omnipresent in the current Mediterranean environment, be it as hedge in the orchards or as an apparently ornamental plant in pots on the sill of windows or around the houses. And we understand that it is there as a daily brain booster in a usage that probably goes way back in time and has been handed down in an untold tradition daily reactivated by local people who rub their hands on the leaves of rosemary when they cross it, enter the house, or sit outside, chatting and sipping wine in the shade, also breathing the rosemary-scented air in the heat of the summer.
In this realization, we also understand that the ancient burning and fumigating of rosemary was not a substitute to compensate for the rarity and expensiveness of incense. It was a way to inhale rosemary brain-boosting components and, at the same time, to clean the air and the body thanks to its antiseptic properties. This usage persisted for a long time: if we have to believe Dodoens, the inhabitants of Gallia Narbonica (the region of Narbonne in France) at that time did not burn any other wood than rosemary, probably not just because it abundantly grew in the region, but because it cleaned the body and the mind.
European Medicines Agency
European Union herbal monograph on Rosmarinus officinalis L., folium.
Draft – Revision 1, 22 November 2022.
Assessment report on Rosmarinus officinalis L., aetheroleum and Rosmarinus officinalis L., folium
Draft – Revision 1, 22 November 2022.
List of references supporting the assessment of Rosmarinus officinalis L., aetheroleum and Rosmarinus officinalis L., folium
Draft – Revision 1, 22 November 2022.
Revision of the genus Rosmarinus
Drew, B. T., J. G. González-Gallegos, C.-L. Xiang, R. Kriebel, Ch. P. Drummond, J. B. Walker, K. J. Sytsma 2017). Salvia united: The greatest good for the greatest number. Taxon, 66(1) (2017): 133–145.
Articles (selection, chronological order)
Raffo A. et al. 2023.Exploring volatile aroma and non-volatile bioactive compounds diversity in wild populations of rosemary (Salvia rosmarinus Schleid.). Food Chemistry 404, Part A, 15 (March 2023): 134532. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0308814622024943?via%3Dihub
Nazar N. et al. 2022. Challenges in Medicinal and Aromatic Plants DNA Barcoding—Lessons from the Lamiaceae. Plants 11(1) (2022): 137.
Paloukopoulou Ch., A. Karioti 2022. A Validated Method for the Determination of Carnosic Acid and Carnosol in the Fresh Foliage of Salvia rosmarinus and Salvia officinalis from Greece. Plants 11(22) (2022): 3106.
Melero-Bravo E. et al. 2022. Variability of essential oil in cultivated populations of Rosmarinus officinalis L. in Spain. Euphytica 218 (2022): 65.
Satoh T. et al. 2022. Potential Therapeutic Use of the Rosemary Diterpene Carnosic Acid for Alzheimer's Disease, Parkinson's Disease, and Long-COVID through NRF2 Activation to Counteract the NLRP3 Inflammasome. Antioxidants 11(1) (2022): 124.
Pieracci Y. Et al. 2021. Antimicrobial Activity and Composition of Five Rosmarinus (Now Salvia spp. and Varieties) Essential Oils. Antibiotics 10(9) (2021): 1090.
Ahmed H. M., M. Babakir-Mina 2020. Investigation of rosemary herbal extracts (Rosmarinus officinalis) and their potential effects on immunity. Phytotherapy Research, 34(8) (Aug. 2020): 1829-1837.
Allegra A. et al. 2020. Anticancer Activity of Rosmarinus officinalis L.: Mechanisms of Action and Therapeutic Potentials. Nutrients 12(6) (2020): 1739.
Brindisi M. Et al. 2020. Chemical Profile, Antioxidant, Anti-Inflammatory, and Anti-Cancer Effects of Italian Salvia rosmarinus Spenn. Methanol Leaves Extracts. Antioxidants 9(9) (2020): 826.
González-Minero F. J., L. Bravo-Díaz, A. Ayala-Gómez 2020. Rosmarinus officinalis L. (Rosemary): An Ancient Plant with Uses in Personal Healthcare and Cosmetics. Cosmetics 7(4) (2020): 77.
de Oliveira J. R., S. E. Afonso Camargo, L. Dias de Oliveira, 2019. Rosmarinus officinalis L. (rosemary) as therapeutic and prophylactic agent. Journal of Biomedical Sciences 26(1) (Jan 9 2019): 5.
doi: 10.1186/s12929-019-0499-8 https://jbiomedsci.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12929-019-0499-8
Sousa Borges R. et al. 2019. Rosmarinus officinalis essential oil: A review of its phytochemistry, anti-inflammatory activity, and mechanisms of action involved. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 229 (2019): 29-45.
Franciosini M. P. Et al. 2016. Effects of oregano (Origanum vulgare L.) and rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis L.) aqueous extracts on broiler performance, immune function and intestinal microbial population. Journal of Applied Animal Research 44(1) (2016): 474-479. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/09712119.2015.1091322
SHabtemariam S. 2016. The Therapeutic Potential of Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) Diterpenes for Alzheimer's Disease. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine eCAM, 2016: 2680409.
Hanson J. R. 2016. Rosemary, the beneficial chemistry of a garden herb. Science Progress 99(Pt 1) (2016): 83-91.
Petiwala S. M., J. J. Johnson 2015. Diterpenes from rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis): Defining their potential for anti-cancer activity. Cancer Letters 367(2) (Oct. 28 2015): 93-102. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.canlet.2015.07.005
Fernández L. F., O.M. Palomino, G. Frutos 2014. Effectiveness of Rosmarinus officinalis essential oil as antihypotensive agent in primary hypotensive patients and its influence on health-related quality of life. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 151(1) (Jan. 10 2014): 509–516. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jep.2013.11.006
Miroddi M. et al. 2014. Rosmarinus officinalis L. as cause of contact dermatitis. Allergologia et Immunopathologia 42(6) (Nov.-Dec. 2014): 616-619.
Begum A. et al. 2013. An in-depth review on the medicinal flora Rosmarinus officinalis (Lamiaceae). Acta Scientiarum Polonorum. Technologia Alimentaria 12(1) (Jan.-Marc. 2013): 61-73.
Papageorgiou V. et al. 2008. Variation of the Chemical Profile and Antioxidant Behavior of Rosmarinus officinalis L. and Salvia fruticosa Miller Grown in Greece. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry 56(16) (2008): 7254-7264.
Bozin B. et al. 2007. Antimicrobial and antioxidant properties of rosemary and sage (Rosmarinus officinalis L. and Salvia officinalis L., Lamiaceae) essential oils. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry 55(19) (Sep. 19 2007): 7879-7885.
Luqman S. et al. 2007. Potential of rosemary oil to be used in drug-resistant infections. Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine 13(5) (Sep.-Oct. 2007): 54-59.
Haloui M. et al. 2000. Experimental diuretic effects of Rosmarinus officinalis and Centaurium erythraea. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 71(3) (Aug. 2000): 465–472.