University of Vermont Extension
Department of Plant and Soil Science
ROSEMARY: AN HISTORIC AND USEFUL
Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension
University of Vermont
Rosemary is an herb rich with traditions and uses,
including cooking. Although not hardy
outdoors in all but the warmest climates, it has become popular as a
plant, particularly during the December holidays. It is often found
shaped as a small conical tree,
a sphere, or trained onto wire frames of various shapes.
scientific genus name (Rosmarinus)
comes from the Latin words for “dew” (ros) and “belonging to the
(marinus), referring to the location it usually grows in native
its blue flowers. There is a saying that
if one can hear the sea in such warm climates, rosemary will grow
would expect for a plant that has been grown for over 5000 years
sprigs found in Egyptian tombs from 3000 B.C.E.), many legends and
arisen. The common name is derived from the
genus name, but has a legend as well which gives the plant meaning
religious-based holidays. The Mother Mary,
as she fled Egypt, supposedly sheltered next to a rosemary bush.
When she threw her blue cape on the bush to
dry, the white flowers turned to blue.
Hence, both the origin in legend of the blue flowers and the name
of Mary.” The flowers though are not
roses but like those of mint, to which
this herb is related.
often is associated with remembrance, perhaps the earliest use being
students to help improve their memory.
They would braid garlands in their hair, giving rise to another
name “herb of crowns.” It was this use
that Ophelia referred to in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, saying “There’s
for remembrance.” The tradition of
remembrance is seen today in funerals, guests wearing a
sprig of rosemary, and tossing a sprig on the coffin.
the Middle Ages comes the tradition of rosemary at weddings, the
a headpiece containing rosemary, the groom and guests each wearing a
perhaps wedding guests would be given a branch festooned with
even gilt in gold, as a sign of love and loyalty. From this arose
and use of rosemary as a love charm.
person would tap another with a sprig of rosemary which, if it
open flower, signified they would fall in love.
Rosemary also was used in cloth dolls to attract lovers. Newlyweds
would plant a rosemary branch on
their wedding day, and if it grew would be a good omen for their
future. Sprigs of rosemary would be laid in the
linens to promote fidelity.
Romans decorated their statues with rosemary, as for them it
stability. Another superstition was that
rosemary only grew in gardens of the “righteous.” A sprig placed
under a pillow supposedly
prevented bad dreams. Hung outside the
home, or planted in the garden, it supposedly repelled evil
spirits. By the 16th century, husbands
would pull up rosemary out of the garden, as it had come to signify
not the men, ruled the home.
medicinal uses of rosemary over the centuries are many, beginning
respiratory ailments. In the 13th
century, a concoction of this herb with wine was rubbed on the limbs
Queen of Hungary and was said to have cured her paralysis. This
concoction was used for years after for
skin ailments such as dandruff, and to prevent baldness. Rosemary
was used in former times to prevent
the plague, melancholy, gout, epilepsy, arthritis, and more. Today,
some make a rosemary tea for sore
throats, head colds, and even bad breath.
times, rosemary was used in washed linens to perfume them and to
moths. Today, one finds rosemary used in
many products, from hair care to cleaning.
Most use fresh or dried rosemary for its culinary properties,
to flavor meats. It is easy to use in a
marinade for lamb, chicken, and pork. Add
a few sprigs to flavor olive oil, or a few finely chopped leaves
soups and sauces. Sprinkle some leaves
on potatoes when roasting. As it is strong, use in moderation. Or
just clip some leaves and use in a
potpourri container. The aromatic leaves
are often described as pine- or eucalyptus-scented.
Native to the Mediterranean, this evergreen
plant needs full sun to grow best, but a sunny window indoors with
often suffices to get it through winter.
Being from this climate, it likes warm temperatures too, but will
tolerate cool (50 degrees F or so) in winter.
Make sure to provide plenty of water, but good drainage, as the
will rot if they stay wet. Don’t wait
for the small, needle-like leaves to wilt, turning gray and crispy
if too dry
and from which they often don’t recover (at least you can use them
in cooking). Leaves should be green and soft.
common rosemary often gets 2 to 4 feet tall, taller in the ground in
Mediterranean or similar warm climates, shorter in pots. It is
hardy to about 20 degrees (F) in
winter. ‘Prostrate’ is a cultivar (cultivated variety) used as a
warm climates, and is good hanging over the sides of pots, window
hanging containers. It only reaches 4 to
8 inches high, and is the one often trained onto wire frames.
‘Collingwood Ingram.’ ‘Arp’ is perhaps the
hardiest common cultivar—to about 10 degrees—originally from Arp,
hardy is ‘Salem.’ There are many other
cultivars you’ll find from herb growers.
given good conditions, should live in a pot for many years. One
legend says that it lives 33 years—the
length of Christ’s life—then dies. We’ll
see, as ours has only been in a large pot, with very little
repotting, for 25