Native of southern Europe and Asia Minor, growing among the misty hills of the Mediterranean Sea coast and adjacent grounds, rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) flourishes in warm climates of the US, like California where it is sometimes used as a vigorous shrub. It has erect, woody stems and short, needle-like leaves with a rather spicy pine fragrance. It can be grown in New York area gardens in some circumstances. Its culinary herb uses are prized and well known, as are its esteemed fragrance. It is appreciated by bees, contributing to excellent honey. Also, a tea made from its leaves is reputed to ease headaches and improve circulation.
Rosemary is a common wild plant of the Mediterranean hillsides, growing as far north as southern England, where it was introduced by the Romans. Rosemary was originally named Rose Mary in honor of the Virgin Mary and its flowers reflect the blue of her raiment. (Old legends say that rosemary will never grow more than six feet in height, which was supposedly Christ’s stature.) Pliny from ancient Rome applied to this plant the apt designation Rosmarinus, which translates as sea dew.
Rosemary has long been known as a memory strengthener and hence as a symbol of remembrance. Considered to be a symbol of constancy, the Elizabethans used it as a token at both weddings and funerals. An old English belief holds that “rosemary grows best where the mistress is master”.
In the former Imperial Library of Vienna, a manuscript dated 1235 contains the formula for the famous ‘Hungary water,’ a distillation of rosemary, lavender and myrtle. It was said to cure Hungarian Queen Elizabeth’s paralysis. The preparation became well-known, especially in the south of France, and is described as looking and tasting almost exactly like honey.
Growing Rosemary in the New York Area
Rosemary is described as an evergreen perennial but it does not do well in cold, wet winters in the northern United States, except in a few, very favored and well-protected sites. It requires a sunny area and may sometimes be satisfactorily grown with the warmth and protection afforded by planting at the base of a sunny, south-facing wall. Rosemary requires excellent drainage, so likes porous, limey, dryish soil and grows well in containers.
Hardy varieties, such as 'Arp' or 'Hill Hardy', can possibly survive mild winters outdoors, protected with a floating row cover or cloth, never plastic. Use cedar and pine boughs to create walls and lean-tos that support it under snow and ice. When planted at the base of a south-facing wall, rosemary enjoys shelter and stored solar heat through the winter months as well.
In cold climates like ours (USDA Zones 7 or lower), it is safest to grow rosemary in pots. Your container should drain well and be prepared with a light weight potting soil ammended with perlite to keep the soil loose. Before frost, the container will need to be brought inside to a cool, bright, humid, place where little or no frost is experienced. It will need to receive 6 hours or more of direct sunlight a day and be kept at a temperature roughly between 50 and 60 degrees F. Above all, wet feet and forced air heat are the enemy of a rosemary plant wintering indoors. Restrict water during the winter months, but don’t let it dry out completely. Do not let it sit in a saucer of water. Indoors or out, after the winter thaws into spring, prune away freeze-damaged branches.
During growth in the warm season, no pruning is needed other than to restrict the size or to correct any tendency to straggliness.The seed is slow to germinate, and the plant is most commonly propagated from stem cuttings, division or layering.
Popularly used in herb gardens, prostrate rosemarys such as R. officinalis ‘Blue Boy’ or ‘Huntington Carpet’ make a spectacular sight spilling over a brick or stone wall, or sunny, terraced hillside. 'Blue Boy' is dwarf and also makes an attractive border edging plant. Or pair tall, upright ‘Blue Spires’ or ‘Gorizia’, or semi-upright R. officinalis var. angustissimus ‘Benenden Blue’, with small leafed basils such as Ocimum x africanum ‘Spicy Globe’ or creeping golden oregano (Origanum vulgare ‘Aureum’).
Other varieties include R.officinalis ‘Lockwood de Forest’, which has prostrate stems and light green leaves; R. officinalis ‘Tuscan Blue’, with blue-violet flowers and growing from one to three feet, making it an excellent foil for the center of a container, encircled by other herbs. It is also a chefs' favorite.
Using Rosemary in the Kitchen
The gray-green, needle-like, but delicate leaves of rosemary are used to flavor meats, as well as stuffing, vegetables, herb butters, jam, vinegars and bread. Its distinctive aromatic flavor is especially admired in Italian cooking. Recipes dating from the 16th and 17th century incorporate rosemary in tea, wine, sweets and preserves and challenge the modern cook to use their imagination with this herb. The tiny flowers are also edible and, while fiddly to work with, may be used to decorative effect in recipes. The taste is very similar to the leaves but with a faint sweetness.
When using rosemary, for example in a sauté, don’t use too much. About a tablespoon of fresh rosemary, finely chopped and cooked slowly will enhance chicken. Rosemary favorite varieties for culinary use are Rosmarinus officinalis ‘Arp’, 'Blue Spires', 'Miss Jessop's Upright', ‘Hill Hardy’, ‘Gorizia’, ‘Tuscan Blue’, and ‘Salem’; these varieties have lower levels of pinene and camphor. Taller varieties with broader leaves have the most aromatic oils.