Do you know when you are empowered?
How does it feel in your body? When I feel empowered a certain sense of stability about my well being emerges, a sort of core knowing that I can rise to challenges in a healthy way, with good boundaries and also have the energetic freedom to move with the tides, to feel the changes happening around me without my emotional house blowing down. I have agency that is not rooted in my external circumstances, but in my core. And it feels goooooooooooood.
I've been working with rosemary for over a year now, as her student and her admirer. On a whim, shortly after I started taking my first couple herb classes, I mentioned to my landlord during one of his sporadic visits that a little unused square foot of dirt should "have something growing in it". I came home the following day from work to a freshly planted baby rosemary. Having recently left an abusive marriage, drove cross country with my cat and clothes to restart my life in So Cal with no savings, no safety net, just faith, the timing was wasperfect. But I didn't know that then.
She's one empowered bush.
Native to the Mediterranean, rosemary made up the garland covering Aphrodite as she emerged from the Sea. Rosemary's Latin name translates to "dew of the sea.” She is a powerhouse of the Lamiaceae (Mint) family. Later stories tell how rosemary's flowers took on their blue hues after Mary, mother of Jesus laid her blue cloak over a rosemary bush that provided protection on her journey to Egypt. Historical lore sings her praises as a powerful ally in fidelity and remembrance. Also notable is the belief that where ever a rosemary bush thrives, the woman is master of her home (this is something we will visit later in the post for sure).
♪♫♪Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme♪♫♪♫
So, if when I say Rosemary, you have images of potatoes or lamb or some other savory dish, it’s no surprise. Like other strongly medicinal herbs such as thyme or sage, rosemary has sort of fallen into the 'culinary herbs' bucket for a long time. On one hard, this is lovely because as a culinary herb, many homes could be cooking with it and accessing some of its powerful anti-oxidant, anti-inflammatory and digestive powers. But given the decline in real, fresh food & herb-powered home cooking along with the rise of chemically preserved and processed foods in the grocery stores, I am less inclined to think that her use as a culinary herb means she is saturating the bellies of lots of folks. At least not to the levels as when she was a primary source of meat preservation prior to refrigeration. The so-called culinary herbs are quite powerful in their complexity and capabilities. (next month I’ll be featuring sage!)
I'm advocating that culinary herbs not be seen as lesser than or secondary to other medicinal herbs, after all, food is one of our primary sources of nourishment, so the herbs that empower us AND taste delicious have something special going for them....ah, but I digress.....
for the belly:
Rosemary is a powerful digestive stimulant. It is heating to a cold system, moving to a stagnant system and protective to a burdened system.
Rosemary is an herb of movement, being warming and stimulating. Folks with digestion that has cooled due to stress, over eating, the fatigue of illness, over work, a diet full of cooling/acidic/heavy/moisture creating foods, or a naturally cooler and watery body constitution can benefit from the warm drying movement rosemary creates. Symptoms of a cooled digestive system could include any of or a combination of feeling backed up, bloated in the upper abdomen, having stools that float (undigested fats in stool), constipation especially with water retention, loss of appetite (hungry but just feels like too much work to eat)...feeling water logged in their body, fatigued with poor circulation...
Now, it's important not to get too far into the game of matching symptoms to an herb. Plants are complex creatures not meant to be treated like pills. Any one of the aforementioned symptoms could be related to a multitude of things. But I share these to peak your interest, to help paint a picture. In a healthy digestive system, there would be sufficient bile, produced by the liver and dumped into the stomach by the gall bladder to process our foods into bits and pieces that can be absorbed along its journey through the intestines. There would be movement in the involuntary muscles, passing the food along. There would also be enough energy (warmth) to do all of this efficiently so that the person digesting doesn't feel exhausted from the energy used just to digest the food. There would be sufficient circulation of blood to carry the nutrients and supply the digestive system with warmth and energy.
If a system is slowed down, literally like a cold engine, it isn't operating at an efficient capacity which can add some wear and tear on the system as a whole: fatigue, depressed mood and lack of desire/passion, sluggish digestion, etc. Folks with naturally cooler (and damper) constitutions, you know, those "I love warm weather!" "My hands and feet are always cold" "I sweat just thinking about sweating," folks can greatly benefit from the warmth and movement of rosemary. Folks with weakened digestion due to illness, who have trouble with circulation, the thin, pale folks who look like they could use some color and/or have lowered blood pressure tend to respond well to rosemary in therapeutic doses when needed and as a staple in their diets. What we are asking of rosemary is to use her gifts of warmth, strength and movement to help bring an individual into a more balanced state.
Rosemary is contra-indicated in folks with high blood pressure, using blood thinning medications, during pregnancy or nursing in medicinal doses. Use to season foods is generally regarded as safe for all folks.
I don't want to be overly dramatic about rosemary being only for a cooler person; I have successfully used rosemary to assist individuals with a sluggish digestive system who were warm/pitta types who would naturally have a tendency towards overheating their digestion. But sparingly, and part of a regimen that balances her fiery qualities, adding cooling and moistening herbs so that we can experience the movement and the powerfully antioxidant qualities without over heating or over drying the person. If they have damp heat, rosemary can be used with other drying herbs that are cooling (hibiscus, violet leaf!) to help create movement and drying of the excess moisture. I’m talking a few drops of rosemary tincture in some nettles + dandelion tea.
Speaking as a seriously crackly dry and easily over heated person, combining rosemary with violet leaf and/or meadowsweet when I struggle with digestive pain and sluggishness has been wonderful. Rosemary, Meadowsweet & Violet leaf tea (equal parts) with some honey helps this hot dry girl get some antioxidant power without burning up.
rosemarinic acid: what a creative name they came up with
Speaking of antioxidants, rosemary is a powerhouse of rosemarinic acid, the name scientists gave a constituent found abundantly in her leaves (among many others). Many of the Lamiaceae family plants have rosemarinic acid. Lisa Ganora says dried Lemon Balm is also a great source (Herbal Constituents, 109) . Rosemarinic acid, let's just call it RA for short, is a molecular constituent that acts as a strong antioxidant, lending its electrons to molecules who have become free radicals (compounds that, in excess, float around the body and wreak cellular havoc).
Free radicals can contribute to inflammatory processes in the body, which add to the stress load of the body's hormonal, energy, and immune systems. Neutralizing excessive free radicals is good and rosemary's capacity to help reduce oxidative stress is powerful.
Also in abundance is carnosic acid, a powerful antioxidant which is an “aromatic bitter principle,” (Herbal Constituents, 139) that has significant protective powers for cells. Carnosic acid helps to prevent lipids from going rancid, helping nerve growth in the brain and being protective of arterial and cardiovascular tissue. Interestingly, carnosic acid seems to be activated by need: it doesn't just neutralize every free radical it comes across (these little radicals do have some benefit to our immune system) but instead it detects free radicals that are creating damage to healthy tissue and deals with them. These protective constituents are created so that rosemary can protect herself from powerful rays of the sun and other natural forces. When we consume rosemary, we are harnessing the tools she uses for self protection.The concentration of these molecular powerhouses are at highest in younger leaves and during the hottest of months of summer when the days are the longest.
I live in Southern California where we have In-N-Out Burger. So good. They make their fries fresh. Those delicious fries are still a BIG BOWL FULL OF CELLULAR DAMAGE. Most heated oils (particularly any one from a fast food joint) are full of cell damaging free radicals that taste great with ketchup. Especially if they are made with vegetable oils as opposed to the more heat stable saturated fats. These fats lovingly pleasure your taste buds and wreak havoc in your bloodstream. So I love to follow up a meal like that with some rosemary tea. Rosemary, nettles and fennel tea help my In-N-Out belly regain itself.
Rosemary is a carminative, and can help the fartiness that comes from digesting slowly or poorly. If you think you have a headache that is caused by a sluggish digestive system, that 'ugh, it all hurts and I just need to lay down under the covers' feeling, try some rosemary tea or tincture in a little water on your way there.
Rosemary also has an abundance of flavonoids, the cool substances in plants that have helped dark chocolate and berries gain notoriety as health foods. The flavonoids are pigments in the plants that are known to be cardio-protective, anti-inflammatory, anti-aging (cellular protective), protective against cancer growth and antioxidant. Luteolin, a flavonoid found in rosemary is able to bind to a certain types of nuclear receptors on cells and minimize an excess of estrogenic activity, meaning it helps regulate normal cellular growth and development, an essential part of preventing mutagenic cells from becoming tumors. Flavenoids are typically water soluble and made available in an infusion (tea as I refer to it, though typically tea would actually have tea leaves...sorry tea purists!) I love a tea made from rosemary leaf, lemon balm and rose to get a lovely dose of antioxidants.
The antioxidant properties are strong enough to act as a preservative for both food and cosmetic/skin care use. There is current research being done on how rosemary extracts can replace preservatives such as BHT/BHA. Traditionally rosemary was one of the herbs used to preserve meats prior to refrigeration. The low polarity of the molecules responsible for many of the preservative actions make them easy to extract in oils at home.
You can infuse olive oil to cook with, add dried or fresh rosemary to an oil you are making with a fresh plant to help prevent spoilage too. Also, oil infused with rosemary is yummy. And anti-microbial. Slowly roast some parsnips or potatoes or carrots with it.
that is, if you remember too.
Because, you know, we all have a to-do list of like 300 things by Monday afternoon. While we are praising the molecular virtues of rosemary, we should address the ones that help prevent the break down of acytelcholine, a neurotransmitter involved with memory and particularly significant in preventing the onset of Alzheimer's disease. Acetylcholine plays an important role in the conduction of our nerve signals that process, store and transmit memory. The breakdown of healthy acetylcholine actions in these impulses are believed to be one of the ways memory and other information is missed, not transmitted properly from nerve to nerve.
I really get a snicker from articles that preface how amazing it is that rosemary's long tradition of being "for remembrance" (as Ophelia recounted in Shakespear's Hamlet) is backed up by actual science. Yes, scientifically, rosemary has lots of interest and studies exploring both its antioxidant and neuroprotective properties. I am glad we are having a dialogue about how the chemical constituents of a plant can show why a plant might live up to its historical reputations, but I also know that the plant creatures are far more complex than the molecules they can be broken down into. Many plants in our herbal arsenals do things that science can't figure out, and not for lack of trying. Science seems have shown that the molecular constituents in rosemary actually pass through the blood brain barrier and directly impact the brain when inhaled and taken internally, but do not have a fully clear explanation as to why that helps in memory, alertness and cognition.
Rosemary is for remembrance....and then some...
The aromatic use of rosemary has a long history of use in aiding students, scholars, and (less documented but totally possible) mothers who can’t find their purses. Greek scholars and students used to wear crowns of rosemary during their studies. Culpepper says that the decoction of rosemary in wine helps "cold diseases of the head and brain, the giddiness or swimmings therein, drowsiness or dullness of the mind and senses like a stupidness, the dumb palsy, loss of speech...help[ing] a weak memory..." while recommending internal use as well as the "bathing of the temples." Rosemary is a wonderful ally in aromatherapy, acting quickly to warm, awaken and stimulate the nervous system and the mind.
Because essential oils require large amounts of plant material, processing, bottling and transporting, see if you can meet your aromomatic needs through a simple sprig freshly picked from the plant or some dried needles.
Historically, rosemary was tossed into the open grave at burials as a sign of remembrance between the living and the dead. Brides carried rosemary at their weddings to bless a union with fidelity, ensuring the vows two people make will be remembered throughout their lives. Sprigs of rosemary are also offered as gifts to the guests in gratitude for their love and support. Rosemary also makes a lovely incense with antimicrobial benefits.
Rosemary allies us with the power of presence.
Memory is complex process by which the content of an experience is perceived and recorded through a combined effort of several body systems. The heart is one of our largest organs of perception, outpacing the brain in reaction to stimuli and producing chemical messengers that assist the amygdala, pituitary and hippocampus in processing information that is stored as memory. We tend to think of memory as a sort of movie that is stored in the brain and played back as we recall it, but memories can be stored in many different parts of the heart and brain. Memory can also be stored as fragmented pieces (I'll discuss that a bit more below).
Here is sort of the crux of what I want to share about rosemary: while I have heard that rosemary has a primary affinity for the head (due to its effects of memory and cognition), I will argue something a bit more complex. I believe rosemary is an herb that helps create alignment between the three primary systems of perception and understanding in our bodies: the gut, the heart and the mind which inherently then leads to being more in the present, with the capacity to healthily integrate new information and access previously stored information. Rosemary is an herb that restores systemic balance and form so that the natural movement of life can be experienced. This is one of the reasons she would assist a more watery, lax or cold tissue state: they benefit from some structural reinforcement which allows more flow of emotion, energy and nutrients: transforming ponds to rivers, ice to water. Give too much rosemary in medicinal quantity to an already hot person and you will see their streams turn into steam. No good. My close herbal ally and dear friend, Alexis from Worts and Cunning Apothecary shared that rosemary, being ruled by the sun, is an herb of will, of power that comes from the solar plexus. It makes sense then, that rosemary sort of dries up the stagnant and overly cool energies which prevent us from creating movement in our lives.
some notes on my personal journey with her
I first started working with rosemary in late 2013 when I was in Sean Donahue's Plant Magic course. By working, I mean sitting next too, talking too, watering and feeding, touching as I would walk by, picking a leave or two hear and there and nibbling them. I really, really wanted to have deep communication with this specific little bush outside my apartment. I mourned when the landscapers used a chainsaw to turn her into a lollypop looking little bush.
I would sit with her and I wanted her to give me something but felt very guilty if I harvested from her. Teach me something. Talk to me. Anything. Me, me, me is how I approached her. I got no deep aha, no real insight into her personality or her medicine. I felt like I was doing something wrong, and eventually, I decided that we were just going to be buddies. That we didn't have to go deep. I respected that. I began operating around her very differently, making offerings that were much less a big hoopla of emotion and desire, but a gentle and quick daily acknowledgement. I developed a deep sense of respect for her as having her own boundaries, her own wishes and her own wise judicial use of her wisdom. I began to see her as a very empowered plant. I began to feel more empowered around her.
In mid 2014, when I found the right clinician to help me address the C-PTSD I had been struggling with un-diagnosed for 30 years, I learned that a large part of healing my flashbacks and dissociative disorder would be pulling the traumatic memory fragments stored within me to conscious awareness. Then begins the work of processing the somatic (bodily sensation), auditory, emotional and visual pieces into a coherent whole that can be experienced, mourned and released.
HOLY SHIT IT IS A LOT OF WORK. Its exhausting, terrifying and rewarding. I have a strong ability to dissociate out of my body and out of reality, and I started bringing sprigs of rosemary with me to my sessions. Her ability to stimulate presence just through inhaling her leaves has helped me to remain present as we started talking about the harder stuff and as I am learning to welcome somatic and emotional experience in the presence of vulnerability. But it was my feelings of deep respect for her that began to shift my relationship with myself and give me motivation to believe that their is, inside me, a girl who remembers life before trauma. A girl who has boundaries, body wisdom and a warm heart. I began to see who I wanted to be mirrored in rosemary. I wanted to be EMPOWERED.
It was during this shift that I received my first direct teaching from her. Sitting next to her one day, not really thinking anything, but lost in a curious wonder about how her leaves are needle like and if they were actually called leaves, that she asked me a question.
“Do I blow in the wind?” She asked.
Wha-what? I said, suddenly awakened.
“Do I blow in the wind?”
Well, no, not really, I muttered.
I began to look closely at her form and realized that rosemary has a powerful balance of both structure and movement. That her teachings can be about the power of presence and the ability to change, grow and maintain personal and structural integrity. Sure, she is wonderfully able to assist us in the ability to remember the details of our tests, our to-do lists, but in reality what she is teaching us is to be present, both still and in movement at the same time. What she really helps us remember is the part of ourselves that exists beyond the conditioning we have experienced in life, that core essence that makes each of us, 'us.' That part of us which doesn't sway in the winds of life, it is always there.
Regardless if you have had a pretty 'normal' life or one fraught with trauma and neglect as I have, we both have within us a piece that is inherently incorruptible and able to be known and summoned as we need. One of rosemary's lessons is to recognize and nourish that piece.
Protect it, not through hiding it, but through having healthy boundaries, healthy movement and an ability to accept the eventual damages of life by dropping those needles and growing new ones. Doing that helps us to develop a powerful presence, one that is both rooted in the here and now daily details and encounters, as well as the larger, deeper needs and questions of our lives.
that's deep. real deep. now let me use a big word called vagotonia because i like it.
Vagotonia. Such a cool word. I definitely wondered if my vagina had it after I heard the word. I was relieved to find out that my vagina was off the hook. Vagotonia is a fun name describing an imbalance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems where the parasympathetic (rest and digest) has taken prominence. While I am just discovering and diving into the world of vagotonia and don't want to over reach my understanding of it, what I can share is that many of our body's functions that we would not normally associate with the nervous system are actually quite affected by it.
Good digestion depends on sufficient break down in the stomach and intestines, which relies on movement (peristalsis). When the balance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems are off, food can move too rapidly or too slowly through the digestive system. Rosemary has a natural tendency towards restoring balance: helping to tone the parasympathetic while stimulating the sympathetic nervous system. Rosemary helps awaken the smooth muscles in the digestive tract/urinary and reproductive tract and relax the voluntary muscles we use for movement. This compliments rosemary's circulatory stimulation by allowing the dilation of blood vessels.
Those of us type A folks who are hot-blooded, reactive, tend to digest things way too fast and get headaches that pound want to be cautious of over consuming rosemary as these indicate a strong abundance of sympathetic activity in the nervous system (so, not vagotonia) and would possibly explode with too much more stimulation, or maybe they would just dry up and crackle...I know this from personal experience :) Folks who could use the energetic teaching s and qualities of rosemary but are too hot or dry to take rosemary internally, I turn to the flower essence as an ally. You can be strong willed, have sluggish digestion and be not present in your body. Folks who are hot but can't seem to direct their will or heat into their own lives but instead seem to be smoldering benefit greatly from rosemary flower essence. It has a strong ability to connect one to their body. This is particularly true if you are one of those hot tempered types, typically running warm but still have cooler hands and feet. We want that heat evenly distributed, we want the will to be directed positively as opposed to inwards or suppressed.
So, back to her question to me about if she blows in the wind: the answer is no, while being wildly warm and stimulating, rosemary is not dancing about in a frenzy. She is a plant of strong structural presence balanced with an inherent sense of movement. She needs little water and dislikes being flooded at the roots. Someone who is stuck in the crosshairs of depression and emotional overwhelm, who feels like they are wasting away or disappearing under the weight of their stress, illness or circumstances (as opposed to aggressive or anxious with a desire to run from it). Especially if coupled with tension headaches and/or digestive upset.
Tincture, particularly in a bitters or added to tea helps stimulate digestion and is a great method of taking rosemary. The tincture can be very strong, so monitor the subtle changes in health/digestion/energy and take a day off every couple days during use.
oh yeah, headaches!!!!!!!
I have already made this post a novel, and I'm not quite done, so here is what I am going to say about headaches: if the headache is hot, throbbing, feels like there is too much blood in the head, don't use rosemary. If they say they want to roll a cold bottle of water on their head, or that their head is pounding with their pulse, don't use rosemary. Well, maybe you could in a balm or oil on the temples that also has some peppermint essential oil in it. But use caution and care and avoid thinking or saying things like "rosemary's great for headaches!" because there are a lot of different types of headaches.
If you have a headache where you feel constriction, like something is pinching off the vessels to your head and all you want to do is close your eyes and get under a warm blanket, or put one of those heated microwave rice bag things on your head, you probably are a good candidate for some rosemary tea and if you are so lucky, some rosemary oil on the temples and base of the neck. Craving heat is a good sign that the blood vessels are constricted and they would benefit from rosemary's circulatory stimulation and opening of the blood vessels, as well as helping to relax/balance the nervous system. If they crave touch or massage, too, that might indication constriction.
Rosemary, lavender and oatstraw is a lovely headache tea in these cases. A balm or oil made from rosemary, lavender and spearmint essential oils makes a wonderful aromatic blend to massage onto temples and neck in these cases. I find these blends also help the person whose anxiety causes a freeze reaction too. Like they can't think, they aren't really having a panic attack and they sort of just go blank. In these cases it is wonderful to stimulate thought and circulation while complimenting with tension relief (you can use skullcap instead of lavender here too).
Rosemary has a long history of external use due to her warming and stimulating abilities. She is used topically either as liniment/tincture applied directly to the skin or joint as well as in balms or diluted essential oil. This can be particularly helpful in arthritic conditions or pains due to the constriction of blood. In arthritis, the inflammation causes pain, but also minimizes healthy blood flow and movement. Rosemary massage oil can be both relaxing and pain relieving to sore muscles and the nervous system while keeping the mind present and stimulated. Or, if you are going bald, rub some rosemary infused oil on that head of yours and see what happens.
Lots of oral history and tradition of use indicates rosemary as an aid for many aging processes including helping the hair follicles to not give up. Can't speak personally on that one but I would love to hear your experiences! Rosemary infused apple cider vinegar makes a wonderful rinse (when diluted to about a 1:4 ratio of vinegar to water) for hair and skin. I tried it once and loved the tone it gave my skin, but because I am a hairy welsh girl, I don’t want any more hair follicles to be stimulated! A hot foot soak with a couple handfuls of rosemary is a wonderful friend for sore, tired tootsies.
so, getting back to that whole notion of being an empowered bush.......
There's a picture that has been coming to me for the last six weeks or so as I began to pre-write this love letter to rosemary from one of Tori Amos's (<- is that right grammar?) albums. There's a saying about rosemary that I have no clue about how far back it dates, but it speaks to something deeply at the core of rosemary's strengths to me: it says that rosemary will not grow well where the mistress is not 'master,' and tells of "lords" aka husbands secretly harming rosemary bushes to assert their dominance over their household publicly. Um, that's funny on multiple levels.
The pic of Tori standing in front of a barren home bleeding, holding the bible indicating that she is resisting or making seen the shame we women (and lets extend that to marginalized folks) experience resonates with me when I consider rosemary's reputation for growing near women 'lords.'. Being considered inferior, weak, less than and secondary is a DAILY experience for marginalized folks. Its not a fleeting frustration, its something we craft ourselves around and in reaction too and also assert ourselves against.
So, focusing on the patriarchy here, rosemary has a bit of a history as having an affinity for a home where the 'mistress' of the house wears more than just skirts. Rosemary has emmenagogue (can bring on menses) qualities when taken in high doses and midwives and healers would have known about this. Ann Hibner Koblitz, in her book, Sex and Herbs and Birth Control references the refrain ♪parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme♪ in the Old English hymn Scarborough Fair as indicating traditional knowledge about the use of herbs as abortifacents, allowing women to bring on their blood when it comes late (122).
Having autonomy over reproductive choices makes us a bit of the 'masters' in our own houses. Especially when we consider the millions of healers/midwives/witches that were tortured and killed for having knowledge and power that did not originate from the 'church.'
Rosemary's ability to summon active presence, enhancing memory and learning, creating movement and circulation to a frail or cold system and ability to protect tissue from going rancid speak to her ability to inspire an empowered state of health. Digest your food. Be active. Be strong. Be awake. Be Present. Don't be easily swayed by external forces. Protect yourself. Be beautifully you.
♥ That's being an empowered bush. ♥
References, Resources, Further Learning & More:
Books: (please note if it links to Amazon, then I get a few cents if you decide to purchase. Every cent helps me offer services with sliding scale and donation options, so thank you!)
Conversations with/ Lessons From:
Alex Cunningfolk's Lunar Apothecary ecourse + conversations
Sean Donahue's Plant Magic course + email correspondences
Great Article with Recipes + How-Tos: