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HERBS & SPICES >  Rosemary


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by Joan Russell, Freelance Food Writer

See also: Rosemary Quotes

Rosemary is a popular garden herb used worldwide. Rosemary has been grown through the centuries for culinary, medicinal, and decorative uses. It was named as herb of the Year 2000 by the International Herb Association. A native to the Mediterranean area, it is cultivated outdoors in mild areas and grown indoors in harsher regions.

Botanical Description
Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis L.) is a tender evergreen herb that is known for the fragrance of its foliage. Rosemary is native to the sea cliffs of Spain, Italy, France, and Greece. Its original Latin name of "ros-marinis" means "mist of the sea" or "dew of the sea." It generally forms a dense shrub 2-4 feet in height, which can at times reach up to 7 feet. It has linear leaves 1-2 inches in length that are glossy green above and white/silver below. The leaves are long needle like and narrow with a spicy resinous smell.


     There are many varieties of rosemary, having similar leaves but different color flowers and habits of growth. A popular landscaping variety is R. officinalis humilis. This low growing prostrate rosemary sprawls low along the ground. It is best grown in a rock garden or used to cover a wall. In contrast to prostrate rosemary, R. erectus pyramidalis is more straight and upright in growth than the ordinary type. Other varieties differ only in the flower that blooms in the summer. One variety, R. albiflorus is similar to the regular type but with white flowers. R. angustifolius has very narrow leaves and large blue flowers.

     In early herb gardens, rosemary was commonly associated with lavender. It is closely related to this herb and both are members of the mint family. Rosemary is grown as a shrub or often as an edging plant or small hedge around a vegetable garden. Botany recognizes many false rosemary, such as marsh tea (Ledum palustre) whose branches and leaves are similar. It is used to perfume Russian leather and to season some Nordic beers.

A Brief History
     The earliest of rosemary mention its association with remembering significant events. Sprigs were thrown into graves by ancient Greeks and Romans to signify their desire to remember the departed. Rosemary was also used in ancient Greece to strengthen the memory. Students wore springs of the herb in their hair when they studied.


     In English Tudor times, the bridesmaids gave sprigs of rosemary to the bridegroom. Brides wore it to show they would always remember their families. Rosemary was added to wine which was then used to toast the happy couple and ensure that the toast would come true. Rosemary was so strongly associated with fidelity that if a man was indifferent to the aroma of rosemary it was believed that he was incapable of giving true love.

     Rosemary oil was first extracted from the plant by distillation in about 1330 by Raymundus Lullus. One of the famous cosmetics preparations of the fourteenth century was Queen of Hungary water, a blend of rosemary, orange, chamomile, and bergamot. Apothecaries of the 16th and 17th centuries prescribed rosemary for relief of gas and as a digestive aide. It was used for toothache, headache, gout, coughs and even baldness. The aromatic scent of rosemary was valued as a disinfectant. Rosemary was burned in sick rooms to kill germs and serve as protection against infectious diseases.

     Rosemary oil is still extensively used in perfumery. Oil of rosemary is used for a range of preparations including water, tinctures, conserves, syrups etc. It is used in preparations for bath oil and hair rinse. Sometimes the oil may be used externally as an insect repellent.

     Like many other herbs, rosemary has gathered a few legends along the way. One legend associates rosemary with the Virgin Mary. During the flight of Mary and Joseph to Egypt with the baby Jesus, the refugee family stopped briefly to rest. Mary threw her blue cloak over a rosemary bush to dry, giving the plant its pale bluish flowers. In Sicily, the tale is told of the tyranny of Circe, an evil sorceress who also made a guest appearance in the tale of Ulysses. This sorceress caused volcanoes to erupt, plants to die, and otherwise sane men to hurl themselves into the sea. One blue-eyed woman was so distraught at the loss of these men that she was turned into a rosemary bush, clinging to the cliffs in a reminder to the men to cling to life. 

Propagating & Growing
     Rosemary thrives best in a sunny location in light well drained soil. In the U. S. it thrives in California and similar Mediterranean climates. It is especially adaptable to climates near the ocean with frequent breezes. In colder climates rosemary can be cultivated in pots in a warm sunny location outside from spring to fall. During the winter it should be brought indoors to a light cool 35 to 40 degree temperatures at night in a greenhouse, cellar or sunroom.

     Like most perennials, the best time to plant rosemary is early spring or fall. There is little preparation except digging deep to provide loosened soil for the roots. Heavy clay soil should be amended with compost, leaf mold, and sand. Rosemary grows best in soil with a pH of 6.0 to 7.5. The plant should be pruned annually after the flowers have faded. This give the shrub time to make new growths before the winter. Pruning keeps the bushes compact and prevents them form becoming leggy or bare at the base.

     Propagation of rosemary is done by cutting off the firm shoots in later summer or early autumn. Cut branches about 9 inches and remove the leaves from the lower half. Insert this portion into the growing medium. In mild climates they may be inserted in 5-inch trenches outdoors or in a cold frame. During the following autumn the rooted plants are set out 1 foot apart in a nursery bed. Another method used to propagate rosemary is to take the trimmings of the plant 6 inches then place in a small jug of water taking care to change the water every few days. The roots will appear on these trimmings in about four weeks. They can be then planted in a pot or outside if the weather is mild. Plant cutting dipped in hormone rooting powder can be put into a sandy soiled pot or directly into a shady spot in the garden to grow.

     In growing rosemary, be sparing with water. The biggest cause of death in rosemary is overwatering. Because of its adaptation to those warm, dry hills of the Mediterranean, rosemary just doesn’t like wet feet. This herb is also susceptible to a mildew-like fungus which often appears when rosemary is overwatered, especially from sprinklers.
Using In Foods
     Rosemary has a pungent piney flavor. It goes well with poultry, fish, lamb, beef and game especially when roasting. Rosemary enhances tomatoes, spinach, peas, and mushrooms. When using the herb in food the leaves should always be chopped finely unless you are using whole sprigs, which can be removed from the cooked dish. Rosemary mixes well with other herbs like thyme, parsley, and chives.

     Whole sprigs can be added to oil and vinegar to make condiments or marinades for meat or cheese. Mediterranean cooks especially Italians use rosemary with roast meats, fish and some tomato sauces. In Central Europe a suckling pig is stuffed with rosemary sprigs before being roasted on a spit. Rosemary is often cooked with meat as it counteracts the richness and fatiness. The tough leaves do not soften during cooking so its best to use a whole sprig then remove it after cooking.

     Rosemary is used by Italians in a bread called schiacciata. This bread is baked in a large shallow dish then cut into wedges or chunks. The bread is eaten with meats or salads or may also be split and filled with something. 

     Rosemary is an interesting herb that has been with us for centuries. Use rosemary when cooking roasted meats, and as a flavoring with vegetables or sauces. You can grow it outside in your garden for decorative purposes. The scent of the leaves is refreshing.

Everett, T.H, "New Illustrated Encyclopedia of Gardening, Greystone Press.
Landry, Robert, "The Gentle Art of Flavoring, Abelard-Schuman, New York 1970.
Newdick, Jane, "The Magic of Herbs", Smithmark-A Salamander Book, New York, 1991.
Stuart, Malcom, " The Encyclopedia of Herbs and Herbalism" "Magic and Medicine of Plants," Reader's Digest Association, Inc. 1983.
"Rosemary," Herbalpedia, the Herb Growing & Marketing Network, 1999.



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