Rosemary: Mist of the Sea Tied With Silken Ribands

Gladys Kuhns
Certified Master Gardener
Kanawa County Master Gardener Program
 

Rosemary is an ancient plant native to the sea cliffs of the Mediterranean. It gets its name from two Latin words meaning "mist of the sea" because its gray-green foliage looks like mist against the hills and cliffs of its homeland. Its scientific name is Rosmarinus officinalis, family Labiatae also known as Lamiaceae.

As with many of the ancient herbs, there are wonderful legends about rosemary. Some say that it was the scent of rosemary which woke Sleeping Beauty. The Country Register of West Virginia says that the Virgin Mary laid her blue cloak that wrapped the Infant Jesus over the white flowered rosemary so her baby would be surrounded with its fragrance. The plant was so honored that it has bloomed with blue flowers ever since. And still others say that the large rosemary shrub sheltered the Holy Family during cold nights as they fled into Egypt.

Ancient Greeks believed that rosemary strengthened the mind and improved memory. From this belief comes the old saying " rosemary for remembrance." It also became an emblem of faithfulness for lovers. Brides wore rosemary wreaths "richly gilded and tied with silken ribands of all colors" in their hair on their wedding days, according to The Complete Book of Herbs and Spices.

There is sensual beauty in rosemary, in appearance and in fragrance and in taste. An Internet web site gives this description: Rosemary is a gray-green evergreen shrub with a pungent, pine-like fragrance. It has scaly bark and opposite, narrow, spiky, leathery leaves, which are thick and dark green on top and downy white underneath. Prominent veins run down the middle of the leaves, and the margins roll down. The two-lipped flowers are white, mauve or violet-blue and are about inch long. They bloom in spring and summer in our climate and grow in short axillary racemes. The fruit is a very small, spherical nutlet.

As with all things of beauty, there are challenges to enjoying them. My first experience with rosemary was strangely successful. I picked a great spot -- sunny and hot and dry with soil pH about 7.0 and next to a path -- and my rosemary was beautiful. As we brushed against it walking past, the fragrance was lovely. And when winter came, its spiky leaves looked beautiful against the snow. But in spring, it didn't send out new shoots. Rosemary is not winter hardy, so it is best regarded as an annual or used as a container plant that can be brought indoors for the winter.

If you enjoy container gardening, consider R. officinalis "Prostratus." This cultivar has bright blue flowers and is attractive trailing down a wall during the summer and trailing over the edge of a container on your windowsill during the winter. The tips can be pinched off to control the size of the plant indoors. Hanging baskets with Mediterranean herbs such as rosemary, thyme and sage are becoming quite popular because these plants thrive in the hot and dry conditions that make hanging baskets difficult to maintain. Or if you don't mind risk, consider R.officinalis "Arp." This variety, available from Andre Viette, is hardy to Zone 7. If protected by location and the layering of soil, straw or compost around its roots, it would survive most West Virginia winters.

Some other varieties with their characteristics listed in The Complete Book of Herbs and Spices are:

R.o. "Sawyer's Selection" -- large, mauve-blue flowers, grows to 8 feet in 3 years
R.o. "Severn Sea" -- semiprostrate, half-hardy cultivar, mid-blue flowers, fine leaves on arching branches, ideal for containers
R.o. "Alba" -- hardy, white flowers that occasionally have lavender veining
R.o. "Suffolk Blue" -- hardy, bright sky-blue flowers
R.o. "Majorca Pink" -- half-hardy, clear pink flowers, bright green leaves
R.o. "Miss Jessup's Upright" -- hardy, white flowers, tidy, vertical growth useful for hedging

If any of these varieties are attractive to you, fall is an excellent time to talk with your favorite garden center operator about arranging to have them available for you in the spring. And if you want to propagate the plant rather than purchase it, bear in mind that the seed germinates poorly. The American Horticultural Society Encyclopedia for Gardeners says it is best propagated by semi-ripe cuttings, stem layering or mound layering.

The herb rosemary has many, many uses. In ancient times it was burned in sick chambers to purify the air. During the plague in 1665, it was carried in pouches to be sniffed as protection. In our times we get the wonderful aroma it offers by burning stems and leaves in fires and barbecues, adding them to potpourri, laying them among linens as a supposed moth repellent, and weaving them into wreaths. The flowers can be eaten in salads. And the leaves, which are thought to aid in digesting fat, are used as herbal seasoning for lamb and pork and also in herb butters for vegetables.

There are also herbal medicine uses for rosemary. It is said that its tincture will relieve aching joint and rheumatic pains when applied. It is said to be good for deep skin cleaning and to have antibacterial and antifungal actions. It also makes a good conditioner and rinse for dark hair. And many credit it with stimulating circulation when added to bath water.

One of the fascinating stories in The Complete Book of Herbs and Spices says that Queen Isabella of Hungary used a secret formula to restore her youth and beauty with such success that the King of Poland proposed marriage to her when she was 72. This secret formula was called "Hungary Water."

Rosemary has an enchanting name, is beautiful to see and to smell and to taste, has a rich history of legend, and is useful in many ways. It truly deserves to be "richly gilded and tied with silken ribands of all colors."