Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Herbal Legend and Lore: Rosemary, Sage, Fennel and Marjoram

Maybe I should have followed the old song's lyrics and had parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme all together! But I did two of them yesterday, so today let's look at a few others.

Rosemary is the herb of remembrance.It is also a bringer of beauty, if one washes with it. English herbalist and writer Gervase Markham wrote in 1615 that "rosemary water (the face washed therein both morning and night) causeth a fair and clear contenance." The herb is also supposed to aid memory, and even as far back as ancient Greece students wove crowns of rosemary to wear when taking exams. A healthy rosemary plant might indicate some power struggles in families, as a good strong rosemary plant growing in the garden was thought to indicate that the woman was the head of the household. A strong plant and a weak plant might be a good plan to preserve family harmony!

In Catholic tradition, it was said that the flowers of the rosemary plant were once white, but when the Virgin Mary laid her cloak down on them, the flowers turned blue. While it is true that some rosemary flowers are blue, there are also white, pink and lavender varieties.

Ah, sage! What would sausage and stuffing be without this pungent herb? Another of the Mediterranean herbs, there is also a sage that is native to the southwestern regions of America and it is a sacred herb to many Native Americans, used in a variety of religious rituals and healing remedies. Smudging, or burning bundles of sage, is a purification ritual. 

Sage has long been considered the herb of wisdom--we refer to a wise person as a "sage" and to good advice as being "sagacious." Ancients also thought use of sage could prolong a person's life and thus it was considered the herb of immortality.

Fennel was never one of my favorite herbs. In fact, its licorice flavor did not appeal to me at all. Recently I've begun experimenting with using fennel in a few recipes and have been surprised to find that I like it. Maybe my tastes have changed? Fennel is a member of the carrot family and is yet another herb that originated in the Mediterranean region and then spread all over the world. One fairly creepy belief was reported by the Roman author Pliny who said that snakes would rub against fennel to improve their eyesight. Apparently the early Brits thought the same, for an old herbal included the following rhyme:

'Whaune the heddere (adder) is hurt in eye
Ye red fenel is hys prey,
And yif he mowe it fynde
Wonderly he doth hys kynde.
He schall it chow wonderly,
And leyn it to hys eye kindlely,
Ye jows shall sang and hely ye eye
Yat beforn was sicke et feye.'--from the website
Which says, basically, that is an adder (snake) is hurt in his eye, he needs only rub against and chew red fennel and his eye shall be healed. Hmmm. My fennel is copper fennel. I hope it doesn't attract sick snakes...

In Medieval Europe, fennel was thought to protect against ghosts and evil spirits. So, if you feel you need such protection, hang some fennel over your door and put some fennel seeds in your keyhole. Medicinally, fennel syrup was used for cough medicine, and fennel was also thought to repel fleas.

from Wikipedia
Sweet Marjoram, it was once believed, would only grow on the grave of a deceased person if the person was happy. However, if you lived in Portugal, you were likely to stay away from marjoram because smelling it could make your nose fall off!  Marjoram was used for whooping cough relief and for a mouthwash. It is another Mediterranean herb, One old love charm was  made with marjoram, marigold flowers, thyme and wormwood. These were simmered with honey and vinegar, and then used to anoint breasts, stomach and lips, repeating, "St. Luke, St, Luke, be kind to me, In dreamlet me my true love see." (Dictionary of Plant Lore). 

Marjoram was another herb considered to be the bringer of love and beauty. According to the website Mother Earth News, 

"The Greeks — who gave the plant the name Origanum, meaning "joy of the mountains" — crowned newlyweds with marjoram to wish the couple enduring happiness, and laid wreaths of the herb on graves to insure the contentment of the dead."

So there's four more of our familiar spice shelf herbs. Seems that there is much more to them than adding flavor to our spaghetti and fish!

Copyright Susanna Holstein. All rights reserved. No Republication or Redistribution Allowed without attribution to Susanna Holstein.

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