English folklore advises slipping rosemary into the pocket of an errant lover to help them remember their vows, while Ophelia confirmed the herb is ‘for remembrance’ in Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
Now scientists have shown that the plant really is linked to better memory.
A study of pensioners found that simply being in a room diffused with the smell of rosemary boosted memory test scores by 15 per cent.
Although it might not seem much, academics at the University of Northumbria say it could mean the difference between remembering to take medication, or not, which could prove life-saving.
Dr Mark Moss, head of the department of psychology at Northumbria, said: “I think that received wisdom through the ages is based on naturalistic observations of behaviour.
“We once had herbalists in every village who would have handed out lavender to sleep or chamomile to calm and their effects would have been documented over centuries and millennia. So I think people in the past did realise that rosemary had an effect on memory.
“We once had herbalists in every village who would have handed out lavender to sleep or chamomile to calm”
Dr Mark Moss
“My working hypothesis is that when you inhale rosemary its compounds are absorbed in the blood through the lungs and then are sent to the brain where they can actually act on your brain chemistry.”
Previous studies on brain tissue in the lab have shown that the compounds in rosemary can stimulate activity.
To test whether it had an impact on older people, the researchers randomly allocated 150 pensioners to a room scented with rosemary, lavender or no aroma. They were then asked to pass on a message at a given time during the procedure, and to swap tasks at a specific time, to test their memory.
Those in the rosemary room were found to perform far better on the memory tests than the other two.
Post-graduate student Lauren Bussey said: “This is the first time that similar effects have been demonstrated in the healthy over 65’s. Further investigation is required to understand the potential benefits of these aromas throughout the life span.”
A separate experiment by the same team, also found the peppermint tea could boost memory.
A total of 180 participants were randomly allocated to receive a drink of peppermint tea, chamomile tea or hot water.
After a twenty minute rest the participants completed tests that assessed their memory and a range of other cognitive functions. Following the tests participants completed another mood questionnaire.
Analysis of the results showed that peppermint tea helped improve long term memory, working memory and alertness compared to both chamomile and hot water.
Chamomile tea significantly slowed memory and attention speed compared to both peppermint and hot water.
Dr Moss added: “It’s interesting to see the contrasting effects on mood and cognition of the two different herbal teas.
“The enhancing and arousing effects of peppermint and the calming/sedative effects of chamomile observed in this study are in keeping with the claimed properties of these herbs and suggest beneficial effects can be drawn from their use.”
The research was presented at the British Psychological Society’s annual conference in Nottingham.