Rosemary is For The Holidays
Rosemary is For The Holidays
Rosemary is one of my favorite herbs for the Christmas season. In the mild climates of California where rosemary is a sturdy evergreen, it can be used fresh as a culinary, fresh cut green in wreaths and fragrant bouquets, and internally and externally as a medicine. Its importance is often overlooked because it is always present in our environment - planted along driveways, in parking lots and the ‘hell strips’ of streets. We tend to look for something new and exciting to plant in its place because it is so widely planted, and it gets overlooked in its usefulness in the kitchen and medicine cabinet. Rosemary is just such a common plant in our lives, even a gardening neophyte recognizes it.
Rosemary represents good health, fidelity and remembrance. It has a long history and folklore for many cultures. The ancient Druids believed that if rosemary grew well in a family’s garden, the woman ruled the home. In ancient Greece, students would wear garlands of rosemary on their heads to increase their memory. In the Middle Ages, sprigs of rosemary were placed under pillows to ward off evil spirits and bad dreams. The famous ‘Queen of Hungary’s Water’ was the first perfume ever made during the Middle Ages, with rosemary being the most important ingredient. It was used for everything from curing rheumatism to warding off the plague. One story says that the flowers of rosemary were originally white, but changed to blue when the Virgin Mary hung her cloak over a rosemary bush while fleeing from Herod’s soldiers with baby Jesus. During the 16th century rosemary and sugar would be ground together and heated over the coals to scent the home.
Oddly, some of this folklore is not misplaced. Rosemary does increase blood circulation. Including fresh leaves or a drop of essential oil in a foot bath during the winter can warm up the body quickly, and a drop or two of essential oil on a cotton ball or in a humidifier help stimulate blood flow and aid in focus. Rosemary is anti-fungal, anti-viral and anti-bacterial, so its use externally, as a steam, or in bath water, or internally as a tea, are all common. Rosemary is believed to assist with the treatment of depression, headaches and muscle spasms. It is beneficial to the immune system and is excellent for treating winter illnesses such as clearing congestion. And in December, when over indulgence in rich foods is an American pastime, rosemary tea or perhaps some rosemary bitters in mineral water would be a wonderful, festive and unusual way to cure indigestion.
Rosemary, Rosmarinus officinalis, is native to the Mediterranean region. Its botanical name is very descriptive of where it grows and its usefulness. The Latin ros means “dew” and marinus means “sea”. Rosemary commonly grows on the rocky hillsides just above the Mediterranean sea. The name officinalis refers to “of the shops”, or “medicinal”, signifying its long importance in our medicine cabinet.
Rosemary is easy to grow in our mild California climate, preferring full sun and well drained soil. Over watering tends to be the main problem for rosemary, both in the ground and in containers. Allow rosemary to dry between watering, and maintain air circulation around the plant. If you are growing rosemary in very cold climate areas, the variety ‘Arp’ will be hardy to 5 degrees F.
If you are planning to bring your potted rosemary inside for the winter (for example, if you live in Truckee or Lake Tahoe) be sure to keep your plant near a window and away from heat vents. Upright varieties of rosemary such as Tuscan Blue (growing to 6 ft), Blue Spires (3 ft) and ‘Spice Island’ (4 ft) are perfect selections for culinary and medicinal use. Trailing varieties that are more useful for groundcover, such as ‘Huntington Carpet’ and ‘Lockwood de Forest’, tend to have smaller leaves with less of the volatile oils that give rosemary its distinctive fragrance and flavor, so I don’t usually suggest using those varieties for cooking unless you are in a pinch.
One great thing about rosemary is there is a perfect sized variety for your space, whether it is in a container, as a topiary, in a mixed herb garden or as a hedge. Prune rosemary lightly throughout the year – cutting 4 inch stems for cooking generally maintains a healthy, full plant. If your plants begin to look spindly, you can prune up to 20 percent of the plant at a time to initiate side growth. For container plants monthly fertilizer should be applied, while rosemary planted in the ground or raised beds generally only needs fertilizer applied in the spring, and perhaps again in early fall to maintain healthy growth.