“Parsley sage rosemary and thyme…”
Simon and Garfunkel penned these famous lyrics to “Scarborough Fair” almost 50 years ago, in a song about finding one’s long-lost beloved amongst bunches of herbs at a traditional English market. The herbs in this iconic song are not native to England’s cold and often harsh climate where bitter Northern winds ravage the open countryside, and where rain is expected during every month of the year. However, their long-standing and well-documented use in cooking and traditional medicine has earned these herbs a well-deserved place in spice racks, medicine cabinets, and herb gardens across the world. What exactly is it that has earned these four very different plants world-wide accolade, in the domains of both gastronomy and medicine?
Parsley, like sage and thyme, is originally native to the Mediterranean region and is thought to have originated in Sardinia. It has dark green leaves and a parsnip-like root. It has been used in one form or another since the time of the ancient Greeks, who laid wreaths of the herb on the tombs of the deceased and wore garlands of it to prevent intoxication. Parsley has traditionally been used as an herbal healer and is rumoured to be able to cure a range of illnesses and ailments including urinary tract infections, heavy periods, constipation, and inflammations. It has been proven to have anti-inflammatory properties, is rich in antioxidants, and is able to prevent the formation of cancerous tumours. Parsley is also an off-the-charts source of vitamin K, which works as a clotting factor and helps your body build strong bones. Half a cup of the chopped leaves provides 554% of your recommended intake of the vitamin. As if its myriad health benefits weren’t enough, parsley is a delicious herb with a fresh green taste described as somewhere between grassy and woody. It is an eye-catching garnish, a flavorsome ingredient, and a powerful natural remedy that is all packed into a small, leafy plant.
Sage also originates from the Mediterranean and – just like parsley – grows well all around the world. Also like parsley, it has been widely cultivated for its medicinal properties. Sage is related to mint and is rich in essential oils which are believed to have the ability to perform all manner of incredible healing miracles. The ancient Romans believed sage to be so special an herb that they conducted a special ceremony before people went out to forage for it, and Arab doctors in the 10th century endorsed sage as an anti-aging herb that would promote immortality.
Sage is rich in antioxidants that help the body fight premature signs of aging, both externally, by encouraging the skin to renew itself, as well as internally, by destroying the free radicals that can trigger the early onset of heart disease, macular degeneration, and several different cancers. It has anti-inflammatory properties which are utilised in the cosmetics industry to create natural toners, and antibacterial properties strong enough to prevent E. coli bacteria from growing and cure acne. Sage has also been proven to improve the cognitive function of those suffering from degenerative memory disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease. In Western cooking, sage is most commonly found with onions stuffed inside joints of meat. Its savory taste, peppery undertones, and lingering bitterness also see it used as a flavoring and cure in Italian preserved meats, sausages, and some cheeses.
Rosemary is similar to sage in that it is related to mint and originated in the Mediterranean, but this is pretty much all these two herbs have in common. Rosemary is an aromatic herb with spiky needles attached to a woody branch, and is steeped in legend: in Greek mythology, when Aphrodite emerged from the sea, she was draped with the pungent herb, and the pregnant Virgin Mary is said to have spread her travelling cloak over a rosemary shrub. Its white flowers turned the same blue as the cloak, and the bush became known as the “Rose of Mary”. In folk medicine, rosemary is associated with improved memory, as it has been proven to contain compounds which increase the flow of blood to the brain. It was an ingredient in several variations of “Four Thieves Vinegar”, a concoction of herbs steeped in vinegar that was believed to ward off the bubonic plague. Rosemary has a woody, pine-like smell and a distinctive fragrance, and is most likely to be used as a flavoring for roasting potatoes, grilled lamb or chicken, or stuffing.
Thyme is a delicate-looking herb with a heady fragrance. It has had many different uses throughout history: for instance, thyme was used in ancient Egypt the embalming process for those rich enough to have such a treatment. The Greeks used thyme in the original aromatherapy, adding thyme leaves to bathing water for the perfume produced, as well as burning them as incense. The Romans also used it as a purifying agent in a practice that was continued right through medieval Europe, where aromatic leaves were strewn on the floor so that, when bruised from being trodden on, their cleansing fragrances would perfume and clarify the air in a room. In traditional medicine, thyme was used to treat problems of the airways like coughs, asthma, and bronchitis. A compound of thyme’s essential oil, thymol, has antiseptic properties and was used in the days before antibiotics to medicate bandages. Thyme tastes minty, peppery, and slightly like cloves. This warm herb is a vital flavor in bouquet garni and zaatar, and is used in seasoning blends for poultry, fish, stuffing, lamb and stocks, amongst other things.
When people listen to Simon & Garfunkel’s iconic song all these years later, the listeners may very well believe these to just be four herbs picked at random. As you can see, there is nothing at all random about the incredible healing properties these plants have. Nature is packed with pretty much everything we need to survive and stay healthy, and these amazing plants are no exception.