Rosemary – Herb of the Year 2000

Madeline Wajda
Adams County Master Gardener

The first week of May is National Herb Week, this year celebrating the rosemary, designated by the International Herb Association the Herb of the Year 2000. Rosemary is a magnificent plant with a long history; in fact, it is one of the oldest recorded herbs in history. References to rosemary were found written in cuneiform on stone tablets dating from the 5th millennium B.C. Dioscorides, the 1st century Greek physician, recommended it for its "warming faculty"; ancient Greek students wore garlands of rosemary to improve their memory. The Latin name, "Rosmarinus," means "dew of the sea"; it was so called because it grew around the Mediterranean and became associated in ancient Rome with Venus, the goddess of love who was supposed to have sprung from the sea foam. Because of that legend, it became the symbol of fidelity in love and was used at weddings and funerals.

Christians called rosemary the "Holy Herb" and associated it with Mary, who, according to Spanish legend, draped her cloak over a rosemary bush on the Holy Family’s flight to Egypt, turning the color of the blossoms from white to blue. Rosemary—along with juniper and thyme—was burned in medieval hospitals as an antiseptic. It was widely grown in kitchen gardens in England at that time; an old folk saying was that "Where rosemary flourishes, the woman rules." Down through the ages, it acquired a reputation for aiding memory. In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Ophelia says, "There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance…"

Rosemary was brought to America by the early colonists and was highly prized in the first settlements because the plants had to be carefully stored inside during the cold New England winters.

Today, we think of rosemary primarily as a kitchen herb. It is outstanding with lamb or chicken, great with baked potato spears, and makes a refreshing summer drink. Rosemary has other uses as well—as a Christmas decoration , potpourri or moth repellent ingredient, or in aromatherapy (its scent is thought to be stimulating.

There are many varieties of rosemary from which to choose, but let’s first look at two basic types. Rosmarinis officinalis commonly refers to the upright varieties of rosemary. These usually grow 18-24 inches high. While they may get bushy, their main direction of growth is vertical. R. officinalis prostratis refers to prostrate or creeping rosemary which, as its name suggests, tends to grow close to the ground. It is a useful plant for rock gardens and hanging baskets. Both varieties are great for cooking.

About two dozen upright and a dozen creeping rosemarys are commonly for sale. The upright varieties include Miss Jessup, Tuscan Blue, White, Benenden Blue, and Pink. Miss Jessup is one of the most vertical varieties and has rather larger leaves than the others. It has excellent blue flowers. Tuscan Blue and Benenden Blue also have blue blossoms, but their leaves tend to be smaller than Miss Jessup, something you may want to consider if you need to chop a lot of rosemary for a recipe. The White and Pink varieties are interesting for their unusual flowers.

One of the most interesting prostrate rosemary is Collingwood Ingram (also sold simply as Ingram). A vigorous grower, it has exquisite almost purple flowers. It usually flowers in August and is an excellent plant for a hanging basket.

Most rosemary is hardy to 15-20 degrees. In regions of the country where temperatures permit, rosemary makes a superb landscape plant. In southern California, creeping rosemary is commonly used as a ground cover; at the North Carolina Botanical Gardens in Chapel Hill some long-lived upright varieties are four feet high and five or six feet in diameter. A few varieties – Arp, Hill’s Hardy, and Fourneaux Hardy – are hardy to minus 10 degrees. They benefit from being planted in a protected location next to a wall or fence, or from being wrapped or mulched for the winter. Good drainage is also important. Rosemary originated in southern Europe where is survives well in well drained sandy and rocky soils. If your soil is heavy clay, mix in a shovel full or two of sand before you plant your rosemary to improve drainage. In March, these plants should be trimmed back by about one third and shaped. Give them a little balanced fertilizer and watch them grow!

Less hardy varieties can be over wintered indoors. However, it can sometimes be difficult. In this area bring in those plants inside in early December and thin them out to let light into the center and to allow good air circulation. (Most plants indoors benefit from moving air. If you can, place a small fan near them.) Rosemary wants all the light it can get, so be sure to put it in a south window. Do not over water! Put these Rosemarys back outside in early March.

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