It looks like Shakespeare was on to something when he penned Ophelia's now-famous line from Hamlet, "There's rosemary, that's for remembrance..." way back at the turn of the 17th century.

Science seems to be catching up with the poet and with the many practitioners of Chinese traditional medicine, who have long touted the memory-enhancing powers and other healing qualities of this most fragrant herb.

After releasing the scent of rosemary into a cubicle in the Performance and Nutrition Research Centre at Northumbria University in the UK, researchers noted that study participants performed mathematical and visual processing tasks faster and more accurately as their blood concentration of the herb's active ingredient increased.

As reported in a 2012 issue of Therapeutic Advances in Psychopharmacology, this was the first time a chemical known as 1,8-cineole—found in rosemary—was identified in human blood samples after inhalation and linked directly to brain performance.

Previous studies led the researchers to theorize that the smell of rosemary significantly enhanced overall memory quality, alertness and feelings of contentment but in the more recent study, rosemary did not appear to affect alertness and reportedly decreased feelings of contentment.

The chemical 1,8-cineole belongs to a family of small, fat-soluble molecules known as terpenes. This particular terpene is found in other highly aromatic plants, such as eucalyptus and sage. Terpenes are able to cross what is known as the blood-brain barrier, a system in your body that prevents harmful substances from moving from your bloodstream into your brain while at the same time promoting the flow of helpful substances.

Using Rosemary in Recipes

Using fresh or dried rosemary leaves in food preparation and cooking is a safe way to release the herb's aroma. In fact, many recipes call for crushing or mincing the leaves before using to further release the natural, aromatic oils. Rosemary is often used to add deep, balsamic flavor to foods such as roast meat, poultry, and fish, especially richly flavorful and oily fish such as mackerel and bluefish. It is also commonly used to season potatoes, breads and legumes, such as white beans and lentils.

Caution: Rosemary essential oil, sometimes used in aromatherapy treatments, is not safe for consumption, and can be toxic even in small doses, according to New York University's Langone Medical Center.




Moss, M and Oliver, L. "Plasma 1,8-cineole correlates with cognitive performance following exposure to rosemary essential oil aroma" Therapeutic Advances in Psychopharmacology. 2012 Jun;2(3):103-113 Web 2013 Feb.

Moss, M. et al. "Aromas of Rosemary and Lavender Essential Oils Differentially Affect Cognition and Mood in Healthy Adults" The International Journal of Neuroscience. 2003 Jan;113(1):15-38 Web 2013 Feb.

SAGE Publications: Could rosemary scent boost brain performance? Science Daily. Web 27 Feb 2013.

University of Maryland Medical Center: Rosemary

The Literature Network: William Shakespeare