• Christine Dorman

Sage, Rosemary, and Time: Herbs to Remember

In Celtic folklore and even in modern medicine, sage, rosemary, and thyme are good for more than seasoning a chicken.

“Get thee to a nunnery!” is the line from Shakespeare’s Hamlet that is most associated with Ophelia, a young woman tragically in love with the prince. But I prefer the lines spoken by Ophelia in Act IV, Scene 5. In that scene, she hands out flowers to members of the court while she announces the significance of each flower. “There’s rosemary,” she says. “That is for remembrance.” In the middle ages, each flower had a symbolic meaning. Rosemary’s association with remembering is shown as well in the medieval English folk song, “Scarborough Fair.” The song’s refrain, “Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme,” is followed immediately by the line, “Remember me to one who lives there.” All four herbs are members of the mint family and mint was associated with memory. While there is room for some debate about how the flowers and herbs acquired their symbolic meanings, many herbs simply represented the things they were used for in folk medicine and magic. This certainly is the case with sage, rosemary, and thyme.

The three herbs, even today, are reputed to cure—or at least ease—quite a list of ailments. For the most part, the three are used for similar conditions: digestive issues from gastritis to gas, inflammation, especially sore throats and tonsillitis, and in fighting infections. The herbs are said to have antibacterial properties and chemicals which boost the immune system. But the three are particularly recommended to increase mental acuity and to improve memory.

Celtic folklore says thyme gives one courage. It attracts loyalty and even romantic love.

Scientific studies say that taking sage increases alertness and improves memory in healthy adults. It also seems to improve learning, memory and information processing in people with mild to moderate Alzheimer's disease. It is thought to help with the chemical imbalances that cause the symptoms of Alzheimer’s. Rosemary has been shown to improve the memory and cognitive awareness in young adults when taken orally. It has been found to be even more effective in achieving this when it’s used in aromatherapy. At present, science says there is insufficient evidence to prove any medicinal efficacy for thyme, but that just means its effectiveness as a medicine hasn’t been studied enough yet by scientists.

Celtic folklore definitely connects rosemary and thyme to mental acuity. Strangely, it also claims both herbs help induce sleep. In addition, thyme, according to the lore, increases one’s psychic abilities.

Thyme gets quite a lot of credit n Celtic folk medicine and magic. It is said to attract loyalty, affection, and even romantic love. It can help to ease unbearable grief and provide strength and courage. Thyme is used for purification and for the banishing of evil spirits and negative forces. It also wards of nightmares. Perhaps that’s why it’s a good sleep aid.

Sage, in Celtic folk medicine was considered a cure-all. In magic, it was used to reverse curses.

In addition to improving mental powers and inducing sleep, rosemary, according to folklore, can heal, protect, and purify. The herb is considered excellent for attracting love and was use in wedding bouquets. Sadly, it also was used in burial wreaths.

Sage’s botanical name, salvia officinalis, shows that it was considered a healing herb (an official salve). In fact, the fairy doctors of Irish folk medicine and their Welsh and Scottish counterparts, the cunning folk, considered sage a cure-all. Additionally, it was burned in purification rituals and used in magic to reverse spells and curses.

So the next time you hear Simon and Garfunkel singing, “Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme,” remember the important role these herbs played in the physical and mental health—and even the love lives—of Celts.If you’d like to take a stroll down memory lane to listen to the song again (or for the first time), here is a link to a hauntingly beautiful rendition sung by Simon and Garfunkel along with Andy Williams.

In case you’re in the mood for these warm and comforting herbs, below are links to three recipes for yummy dishes featuring them.

1) Irish Stout Chicken. Chicken cooked in Guinness.What could be better?The recipe only calls for thyme, but if you want to use all three herbs, simply cut the thyme down to ½ teaspoon, then add ½teaspoon of rosemary, and ¼ teaspoon of sage.Be careful though. Sage is potent, so don’t be heavy handed with it!Here’s the link.

2) A classic Irish dish is chicken, leeks, and bacon. Click here for an easy clean up one-pot recipe for Skillet Roasted Chicken with Leeks and Bacon by Meghan Bollenback. She has a teaspoon of sage in the recipe but, again, you can cut that in half and add 1/2 teaspoon of thyme. A bit of rosemary is an option too.

3) This dish is not Irish, but it's potatoes (and it's good). Ina Garten’s Rosemary Potatoes would be great as part of a vegetarian dinner or as a side dish for the Stout Chicken. Here’s a link to her recipe.

Smoking rosemary is used in purification rituals. It also looks pretty cool in a cocktail.

Allergy Alert and Other Cautions:: These herbs are safe for most people to use in cooking amounts (such as a teaspoon or two) but too much of anything is never a good thing. Be sure to research professional herbal medicine websites to learn about the amount to use for medicinal purposes and discuss using them with your doctor. All three of these herbs can interact with certain medicines in an adverse way. For example, thyme can slow clotting time, so if you’re on a blood thinner, taking thyme can lead to bleeding. Sage, in medicinal doses can lower blood pressure, so if you’re taking a prescription for hypertension, the addition of sage can cause your blood pressure to drop to dangerously low levels. Allergic reactions to these herbs are possible as well. If you are allergic to aspirin, be cautious about taking rosemary as it has a chemical similarity to aspirin. Likewise, thyme is chemically similar to oregano. If you’ve had an allergic reaction to one, you’ll likely be allergic to the other.

Ophelia handed out herbal flowers to the court in Hamlet. Sadly, shortly after she did, she died.

Of course, almost all pharmaceutical commercials warn against taking medicines if you’re pregnant. But in the case of these herbs, it’s no joke. Currently, there is a common misbelief that if it’s natural, it’s safe. That’s not always true. Sage has a chemical in it called Thujone which, when taken at a therapeutic dose, can cause a miscarriage. Rosemary, as well, can bring on a miscarriage.

For a quick overview of the safety, drug interactions, and side effects of taking sage, rosemary, or thyme for medicinal purposes, check out WebMD’s website here.

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Slan go foil!

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