Synonyms for Costmary include Alecost, Balsam Herb, Mint Geranium, Bible Leaf,and in Latin, Chrysanthemum balsamita and Tanacetum balsamita
Costmary is a herb belonging to the Composite plant family. Other members of this family include daisies, dandelions, marigolds and sunflowers. The composite family are composed of dicotyledonous plants which have several florets arranged to look like one single flower.
Costmary is oriental in origin but now grows all over southern Europe. Henry Lyte (1529?-1607), botanist and antiquary mentioned it as commonly grown when he wrote in 1578. Costmary is no longer commonly used today and few people have seen a plant.
Costmary is probably a native of western Asis or even further east.
The name of the plant is a combination of two words “costus” meaning an “Oriental plant”, and “Mary” referring to the Virgin Mary. Its linkage with the worship of the Virgin in the Middle Ages also caused it to be called “Herbe Saint Marie”.
The herb was common in Europe between the 16th to the 18th century. It was then taken to the US as well where it was commonly planted. Its popularity only declined with the discovery of the properties of Tansy and other members of that plant family. Costmary though similar to Tansy in spiciness, but it is less bitter.
The herb is also called “Bible leaf” because its long leaves were used as book markers in Puritan places of worship where the sermons were very long. A leaf was placed between the pages of the Bible; when the person was fatigued the leaf was sniffed or chewed in an effort to keep the worshipper awake. It still makes a delightfully scented and intersting bookmark and is more useful because it also repels insects, especially the small ones like silverfish that like to feed on paper.
Costmary was also a fixture in the traditional English Knot Gardens. (A medieval formal planned garden usually set in a square, planted with aromatic and fragrant herbs.)
As early as 1616, there is a mention of the herb in the publication “The Countrie Farmer”. The leaves are said to have been used to flavour ales and other beverages. The name “alecost” arises from this association.
As previously discussed, using costmary as a culinary ingredient and flavouring condiment is now almost unknown. It may however be used in the following manner:-
Only young tender leaves should be used. The leaves may be added, like mint to fruit and green salads, cold soups, sauces and light dishes like egg and shrimp dishes. Costmary can also be used to flavour meat and vegetable dishes, especially veal.
The mint like flavour is delightful in drinks like lemonade.
An interesting manner of using the herb involves using them to line cake pans to flavour cakes as is done with geranium leaves. They may be layed out in the baking pan before pouring in the batter.
Dried leaves may be used for tea. Since the leaves are bitter, very few should be used. Costmary is usually used dried.
Costmary is no longer used medicinally.
It was used to prepare a tonic that was bitter, aromatic, astringent, laxative, induced sweating, had a calming, anti-anxiety effect and was useful for the stomach and the lungs. Costmary was used in the treatment of liver function disorders and indigestion.
An ointment of costmary made with an olive oil base was used for dry, itchy skin, parasites, and skin ulcerations.
Costmary was also listed in the British Pharmacopoeia till 1788 as useful for the treatment of dysentery and digestive problems, the treatment of gout, headache, amenorrhea, colds, flu, fevers, flatulence, and also used as a diuretic. The infused oil was used to treat gout, sciatica, and joint pain.
Bruised leaves were used to relieve insect bites and stings.
Costmary is used to prepare an astringent and antiseptic. An infusion made from it was used as skin lotion after cleansing and also used as a hair rinse. Added to bath water it had cooling and pleasing qualities.
Dried leaves of costmary are used in potpourri, sachets, and herb baskets.
An infusion to perfume linen can be prepared and added to the final rinsing water. the rinse may be prepared by steeping 150 grams of fresh leaves or 2 tablepoons of dry costmary leaves in 1/2litre boiling hot water for 2 hours. This can then be strained and added to the final rinse when laundering linens.
Costmary leaves are also used in the same manner as Lavender to keep the linen cubboard scented and fresh.
Costmary was once used as a strewing herb. A strewing herb was scattered on the floor in medieval Europe where it would release its fragrance when trod on. Bad smells were common, especially in public places and fragrant herbs played a large part in disguising odours.
Strewing herbs also often had medicinal properties and these helped keep infections at bay.
- The Book of Ingredients: Philip Dowell and Adrian Bailey; Penguin/ Mermaid Books 1993