The Botany of Memory

If our present is in progress and the future is unwritten, then isn’t our memory what we have to anchor us to who we are? Our stories create a landscape as we navigate life and give us context in the world. Both short and long term memory help us to gauge our day to day — from the mundane to the profound aspects of living. Who would we be without our memories?

Rosemary (Rosmarius officinalis)

“There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance.” — Ophelia in Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

Most of us are pretty familiar with this old kitchen favourite. Rosemary is a member of the mint family, with a wide range of medicinal benefits including:

  • Antioxidant activity
  • Powerful anti-inflammatory (with an affinity to the musculo-skeletal system and in gout treatment)
  • Relaxant to the nervous system
  • Digestive aid
  • Liver and gallbladder tonic
  • Hair/scalp tonic (used topically to stimulate hair growth)

Rosemary’s reputation of helping to stimulate memory has a long history in Europe. Research has recently confirmed its effectiveness where test subjects had improved memory and recall using the essential oil. It’s probably one of the most practical memory supports. By diffusing the oil in a room where someone is studying, or bringing a bottle or a handkerchief impregnated with the oil into exams, anyone can improve their mental performance.

Even a sprig of rosemary bruised or crushed between the fingers can release the oils and give an immediate effect, both improving memory and stimulating the mind generally. It’s absolutely one of my favourite scents and tastes – no garden should be without it!

Side effects and Cautions
Do not use Rosemary essential oil if you are pregnant. Do not ingest the essential oil.


Gotu kola (Centella asiatica & cordifolia)

The herb Gotu kola belongs to the botanical family Umbelliferae. This family also includes carrots, parsley, celery, fennel and angelica. The two most common species of Gotu kola in Australia are Centella asiatica and Centella cordifolia. Centella cordifolia has a circular, heart shaped leaf that is toothed around the edge. Centella asiatica has a more kidney shaped leaf. The leaf sizes can vary from 1cm to 7cm. Both C. cordifolia and C. asiatica are very similar in their appearance, growing habit and medicinal value.

Gotu kola has a long history of use to improve memory. It is native to Madagascar, India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, China and South Africa. In China it is known as ‘the fountain of youth’. In India and Sri Lanka, apparently elephants that graze on the leaves have developed reputations for long memories.

Many people may have this growing in the yard, totally unaware that this ‘weed’ that crops up everywhere is indeed so useful. Half of my lawn is taken up with it, and it’s a persistent opportunist in my garden beds. A dosage of between 2-10 leaves a day is all that is required to reap its benefits. I put a couple in my smoothie every day, but they can be eaten in a salad or sprinkled as a garnish on cooked foods.

Aside from enhancing memory and increasing vitality, Gotu kola is also used for:

  • Improved blood flow to the extremities (specifically the legs). It’s also used to treat varicose veins and blood clots
  • Topically as a compress or in an ointment for the healing of wounds, eczema and psoriasis by stimulating collagen production
  • A digestive aid, stimulating the healing of ulcers, reducing stomach pain, treating diarrhoea and indigestion
  • It was traditionally used to treat leprosy, tuberculosis, cholera and a range of infections from the urinary tract to the common cold
  • Relieving the symptoms of arthritic pain by acting as an anti-inflammatory. It has also been used in autoimmune conditions such as systemic lupus erythematosus
  • Some preliminary trials have also found it to be useful in the suppression of tumour cells. Research into its use as an anti-cancer treatment is underway

Side effects and Cautions
Gotu kola is considered safe, however like many herbal medicines, rigorous research is lacking. It is believed that excessive amounts can cause drowsiness and stomach upsets. Do not exceed the recommend dose of 2-10 small leaves per day. Also, if you are taking pharmaceutical sedatives it is suggested you avoid taking Gotu kola.

There is also a suggestion Gotu kola may have an adverse effect on the liver if taken in large doses or for long periods of time. Those with liver diseases such as hepatitis, or those on drugs which harm the liver, should err on the side of caution and avoid eating Gotu kola until more is known. As for the rest of us, get into it! It is easy to grow, so use it regularly to gain many benefits. Gotu kola is not recommended during pregnancy or breastfeeding.


Gingko (Ginkgo biloba)

Gingko is probably the most famous of the memory herbs… and maybe the most interesting. You see, Ginkgo is the ONLY plant alive today from its family, Ginkgoaceae. It is an ancient tree, with the earliest fossils dating back 270 million years. All fossil records of this family disappeared from both North America (seven million years ago) and Europe (2.5 million years ago), and it was considered extinct by European botanists until it was discovered in Japan in 1691. It had been cultivated in the monasteries of China by Buddhist monks since the early 1100s and was then brought to Japan. It is known to be the oldest living seed plant — almost unchanged these millions of years — and a precious link between the present and our prehistoric past. As the paleobotanist Sir Albert Seward remarked in the 1930s,

“It appeals to the historic soul: we see it as an emblem of changelessness, a heritage from worlds too remote for our human intelligence to grasp, a tree which has in its keeping the secrets of the immeasurable past.”

Individual trees can live to be 3000 years old or more, and are able to withstand intense natural disasters and events. An amazing example of this relates to the Hiroshima bombing of Japan in World War II. Close to the epicentre of the bomb site, everything died. Buildings evaporated, metal structures melted, all plant life died. That is, except for six Ginkgo trees that were living right in the heart of the bomb affected zone. These six trees survived, and are now seen as symbols of strength, hope and resilience by the communities left behind.

Why is all this important, aside from being an interesting story?

In herbal medicine tradition, there is a theory called ‘the doctrine of signatures’. This is the idea that plants give us a clue as to their medicinal benefits by the way they grow, the way they look and how they live. It’s not a scientifically supported theory, sure, but one that has been around as long as the hills and has helped our ancestors learn about different plants and how they can be both heal and harm.

In the case of Ginkgo, the doctrine of signatures seems to coincide with what we know about its medicinal applications, as a herb used to enhance memory and prevent decline of cognitive ability in old age. Its other many benefits include:

  • Antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activity; protective and anti-aging qualities
  • Tonic herb of the circulatory/venous system, strengthening blood vessels and thinning the blood; helping to normalize blood pressure.
  • Increasing cerebral blood flow, enhancing memory and cognition in both the old and young. Also, due to increased blood flow to the head, it has been used in macular degeneration, glaucoma and ear disorders, particularly tinnitus.
  • Increasing peripheral circulation and aiding in restricted blood flow often seen in diabetes and other conditions.
  • The leaf is the commonly used part of the tree, as the seed, though used in Chinese medicine is known to contain some toxic compounds and should be avoided.

Side effects and Cautions
Ginkgo interacts with many medications, so if taking any be sure to consult your health care practitioner for advice before using Ginkgo. Also tell your doctor if you are going to be having any surgeries and stop Ginkgo at least two weeks before the procedure as it has a blood thinning action. Ginkgo is not recommended during pregnancy or breast-feeding.

It is excellent used as tonic as we age, or even in a single therapeutic dose close to an exam or similar situation where we may want to enhance our mental ability. The best way to take Ginkgo for medicinal purposes is a liquid extract or tincture (which you can make yourself or buy already made) or in a good quality tablet.

Hey people, The Planthunter is not in the business of giving medical advice. Don’t do anything wild with herbs/plants without getting personalised information and guidance from a qualified practitioner. The advice given in this article is general in nature and is no substitute for professional medical advice. Got it?

ps. The plant featured in the main slider image is Gingko biloba. Image by Georgina Reid
Botanical images sourced from