I started thinking about these herbs last night while cooking. We use these herbs in cooking all the time but there are some interesting facts about these four you may not know. Aside from being lyrics in an old song, parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme have history!
Ancient Greeks didn’t eat parsley although it’s an excellent source of vitamins A and C. Instead they used it to crown victors’ heads. They also used to scatter it over the tombs of their dead. The Romans did eat parsley but, like the Greeks, thought it could prevent drunkenness because they thought it absorbed the fumes from wine. Both Romans and Greeks would place parsley on banquet tables and some even wore garlands of it around their necks to try to stay sober!
In America parsley showed up with the colonists. Because the seeds are slow to germinate you have to plant parsley every year but it’s worth it. If you want to bring out the intensity of dried herbs sprinkle them on some parsley before you chop them up! And freezing parsley retains the essential oil better than drying so think about putting some fresh parsley in the freezer if you have an abundance!
The name of garden sage (salvia officinalis) which is what we eat comes from the Latin word meaning health or healing powers. It’s a member of the mint family. Sage was used medicinally long before it became a culinary herb. Ancient Greeks, Romans, and Europeans used sage for darned near everything. Even if you got bitten by a snake, they gave you sage. They also believed it promoted long life.
Before tea was tea people steeped sage in hot water and drank it. In America sage showed up in the 1800’s and was the most popular culinary herb until after World War II. Then oregano moved to first place.
Sage is still the number one ingredient in poultry seasoning but it isn’t very palatable when fresh. If you use sage in cooking add the fresh leaves early in the cooking process. It holds up quite well to long cooking times.
A symbol of remembrance rosemary still signifies a special love or strong friendship. Even today in some countries a sprig of rosemary is placed in the hands of a deceased person before burial. So strong was the idea of memory associated with rosemary that ancient Greek students wove wreaths of rosemary and wore them on their heads during exams!
The name of the herb has many stories behind it and one is that the Virgin Mary, fleeing to Egypt with the baby Jesus, tossed her cloak on a rosemary bush. The next day the white flowers on the bush had turned blue and the name “Rose of Mary” was born.
In the Middle Ages people slept with sprigs of rosemary under their pillows. They believed it would ward off evil spirits and nightmares. Even witchcraft, bad odors, and the Plague were thought to flee from rosemary.
Like sage, rosemary is a member of the mint family and the bushes can grow to be 5 feet tall!
In ancient Greece thyme was burned in homes to get rid of insects. I haven’t tried this but maybe next Summer I’ll give it a shot. This was because the word may come from the Greek “to fumigate.” It was also used to purify Greek temples. It is definitely an aromatic herb so these uses make some sense.
Thyme is associated with courage and a huge compliment for an early Greek is to have someone say, “You smell of thyme.” Roman soldiers would bathe in thyme so they’d be both strong and courageous. In the Middle Ages ladies would sew a sprig into a scarf for knights setting out on their quests.
In the 1600’s Europeans used thyme to fight the Plague! They really had faith in thyme! In World War I the essential oil of thyme was used as an antiseptic. Today it is believed that thyme has antimicrobial, anti-fungal, and antiseptic properties. It’s used by herbalists for a variety of things from menstrual cramps to colic.
So now you know more about parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme than just their culinary uses!