University of Vermont Extension 
Department of Plant and Soil Science

Anytime News Article
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ROSEMARY: AN HISTORIC AND USEFUL HERB
 
Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor
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 potted 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.
           
The scientific genus name (Rosmarinus) comes from the Latin words for “dew” (ros) and “belonging to the sea” (marinus), referring to the location it usually grows in native climates and its blue flowers.  There is a saying that if one can hear the sea in such warm climates, rosemary will grow well.
           
As you would expect for a plant that has been grown for over 5000 years (with dried sprigs found in Egyptian tombs from 3000 B.C.E.), many legends and uses have arisen.  The common name is derived from the genus name, but has a legend as well which gives the plant meaning during 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 “rose of Mary.”  The flowers though are not roses but like those of  mint, to which this herb is related.
           
Rosemary often is associated with remembrance, perhaps the earliest use being by Greek students to help improve their memory.  They would braid garlands in their hair, giving rise to another common name “herb of crowns.”  It was this use that Ophelia referred to in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, saying “There’s Rosemary, that’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. 
           
From the Middle Ages comes the tradition of rosemary at weddings, the bride wearing a headpiece containing rosemary, the groom and guests each wearing a sprig. Or, perhaps wedding guests would be given a branch festooned with ribbons, perhaps even gilt in gold, as a sign of love and loyalty. From this arose the legends and use of rosemary as a love charm. 
           
A young person would tap another with a sprig of rosemary which, if it contained an 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.
           
The Romans decorated their statues with rosemary, as for them it signified 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 that women, not the men, ruled the home.
           
The medicinal uses of rosemary over the centuries are many, beginning perhaps for respiratory ailments.  In the 13th century, a concoction of this herb with wine was rubbed on the limbs of the 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.
          
In old times, rosemary was used in washed linens to perfume them and to repel moths.  Today, one finds rosemary used in many products, from hair care to cleaning.  Most use fresh or dried rosemary for its culinary properties, particularly 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 when making 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 bright light 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 roots 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.
           
The common rosemary often gets 2 to 4 feet tall, taller in the ground in the 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 groundcover in warm climates, and is good hanging over the sides of pots, window boxes, or hanging containers.  It only reaches 4 to 8 inches high, and is the one often trained onto wire frames. Similar is ‘Collingwood Ingram.’  ‘Arp’ is perhaps the hardiest common cultivar—to about 10 degrees—originally from Arp, Texas. Similarly hardy is ‘Salem.’  There are many other cultivars you’ll find from herb growers.
           
Rosemary, 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 years!
     

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