How we remember them: Rosemary

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Commemorative ceremonies such as Anzac Day and Remembrance Day, share many customs and traditions stemming from Australia’s long history of war service. In this series, through the last year of the Anzac Centenary, we explore the origins of these customs and traditions to cement the importance of remembering our service men and women for future generations. The first tradition we feature in our series is the use of rosemary at commemorations.

The humble rosemary plant has an especially long connection to Anzac Day and Remembrance Day. If you look closely at the clothing or lapel of veterans and the public attending Australian commemorations and ceremonies, you may notice a small sprig of rosemary.

Since ancient times it has been believed that rosemary has properties that improve memory. Because of this, rosemary has become an emblem of remembrance across cultures and countries and in literature and folklore. In ancient times, rosemary also had a connection to funerary rites and Egyptians used it more than 2,000 years ago to place on tombs.

Since the First World War, rosemary has had particular significance for Australians.

The plant is botanically named ‘rosemarinus officinalis’ with ‘ros’ referring to dew and ‘marinus’ referring to the sea and its native home in seaside regions of the Mediterranean, Levant and North Africa.

One of those locations is of course the Gallipoli peninsula where it grows wild on the rugged slopes and ravines that the ‘Diggers’ fought the Ottoman Army.

It is a wounded soldier from Adelaide, repatriated to the Army Hospital at Keswick in 1915, who is thought by some to have initiated this tradition in Australia. The wounded digger reportedly brought back a small rosemary bush from Anzac Cove which was planted in the hospital grounds.

Cuttings from this original Gallipoli rosemary plant are claimed to have been grown in nurseries and today can be found all over Australia. It is this original Gallipoli strain of rosemary that we see at today’s ceremonies.

Around Australia RSL Sub Branches, Legacy and other likeminded organisations arrange sprigs of rosemary to be provided to attendees of Anzac Day and Remembrance Day commemorations.

In 2015, for instance, on the one hundredth anniversary of the ANZAC landing, Legacy in Sydney requested the public donate sprigs for Operation Rosemary in their mission to prepare 150,000 sprigs for distribution.

In Canberra, the Brownie contingent of the Girl Guides have coordinated the collection and distribution of free rosemary sprigs for commemoration ceremonies since 1977.