Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Rosemary, the herb of love and remembrance, is steeped in thousands of years of myth and tradition. Rosemary is known to have been used for magic, healing, and seasoning since the beginnings of recorded history. Native to seaside regions of the Mediterranean and North Africa, the Latin name Rosemarinus means dew of the sea , likely a reference to the shimmering blue flowers that cover rosemary bushes in mid- winter.

Many people today love rosemary for its uplifting aroma and a delicious flavour, but it has found much wider appreciation over the years. Rosemary is strongly connected to rituals of love and marriage, symbolic of faithfulness and devotion. In many parts of Europe unmarried women looking for love used rosemary to help guide them to a suitor. Rosemary placed under a maiden's pillow was said to induce dreams that would reveal a future husband's identity and the initials of a future lover were thought to appear in a bowl of flour if placed under a rosemary bush overnight. During wedding ceremonies branches of rosemary were traditionally gilded and used for decoration and also dipped into wine goblets during toasts to the bride. According to folklore, a new bride would hand her groom several sprigs of rosemary to hold onto, acting as a charm to ensure faithfulness. A husband leaving for a trip would not have been surprised to find slips of rosemary tucked into his jacket pockets, once again to guard against extra-maritial activities.

Rituals of remembrance for the dead are known to have involved rosemary in a variety of cultures. In Europe and Asia, rosemary has been planted at grave sites and sometimes used as mediums to communicate with ancestors. Rosemary wreaths are associated with Remembrance day.
Rosemary is a stimulating herb used by herbalists as a tonic in cases of fatigue or over exertion. Rosemary stimulates circulation, relieving feelings of cold caused by poor blood flow. Aching joints are said to be calmed by rosemary tea. The herb of remembrance has been used to help those with a failing memory, usually in the form of a tea. Essential oil of rosemary is employed in massage oils and lotions. The camphorated oil soothes sore muscles and helps ease tension, perfect for stress headaches. Essential oil is not used internally. Traditionally rosemary found favour in court rooms and hospitals as it was considered a good means to protect against germs. Today we know that rosemary does indeed have antibiotic and antiseptic properties.

Rinses and shampoos of rosemary are recommended for people with dark hair. The rinse invigorates the scalp and has deep cleansing properties. Dandruff can be reduced by using a rosemary shampoo. A home-made herbal shampoo is easy to prepare: just find any clear unscented brand of shampoo and add your favorite herbs! Let the bottle sit on a window ledge for about two weeks, which allows the oils to penetrate the shampoo. Rosemary, lemon thyme, lavender, and peppermint are personal favouites. An eyewash is prepared from rosemary flowers and eau-de-cologne contains rosemary water. Rosemary can be added to bath water to perfume and stimulate the skin.

Cooking with rosemary has its subtleties. Rosemary has a strong flavour and should not be overdone. It goes well with pork, lamb, chicken, and shellfish as well as potatoes and carrots. Rather than seasoning directly, many chefs place sprigs of rosemary on top of a dish as it cooks. Meats can be basted by dipping a rosemary branch in olive oil, then brushing overthe meat. Rosemary is great when barbecuing, either thrown over coals to flavour the smoke, or used as skewers for kobobs. Rosemary vinegar is popular as a starting point for salad dressings. A simple vinegar can be made by placing long spikes of fresh rosemary in a clear glass container, filling the container with white vinegar, then letting sit on a windowsill for two weeks. To use as a dressing, simply mix some rosemary vinegar with olive oil and add fresh chopped garlic. Chefs generally agree that the more silvery the undersides of the needles, the better a rosemary cultivar will be for cooking.
As with most herbs, fresh is best when cooking with rosemary. However, dried rosemary does work well in stews and soups where long cooking times soften it up. To harvest, use a sharp knife or scissors and cut new growth. It is easier to cut long stems on younger plants because rosemary becomes quite woody with age.

Rosemary is almost always grown from stem cuttings, mostly because seeds can take up to a six months to germinate and even then have only about a fifteen percent viability. Bottom heat improves germination. Softwood stem cuttings root easily in late summer or early spring, usually forming a strong root system in 4 to 6 weeks. There are many cultivars available, but all originate from the single species Rosemarinus officinalis.

The major difference among rosemary cultivars is growth habit. Rosemary is usually classified as either upright or creeping, but the extent to which a particular plant is either upright or creeping can vary significantly from one variety to the next. Popular upright rosemary cultivars include 'Gorizia' and 'Tuscan Blue', which both grow up to four feet tall with large, broad needles. 'Rex' and 'Salem' rosemary are very bushy and have fine, long needles. 'Lockwood de Forest' is a popular creeper, with bright blue flowers and thick, short needles. 'Huntington Carpet' is the lowest of the low in our greenhouses, growing only three inches tall. Creeping varieties set the most flowers, and 'Huntingon Carpet' is completely covered in sky blue blooms from November to February. 'Pine' rosemary has very fine needles, bushy growth and has a beautiful fresh fragrance reminiscent of the insence sticks called 'Rain'.

The most unique of the rosemary cultivars are the golden and silver variegated forms. Considered quite rare, golden or gilded rosemary is slowly making its way to more and more herb nurseries. It is often sold as 'Golden Rain' or 'Joyce Debaggio'. Gilded rosemary has bright golden coloration on new growth, the intensity of which tends to fluctuate with the seasons. 'Golden Rain' has exceptional fragrance and flavour.

Where winters are mild, rosemary can be left outside to form fantastic bushes (zones 8 and up). Where winters are cool, one must be content with the rewards of watching a little potted rosemary slowly mature into a beautiful container specimen as it is brought indoors each winter. The 'Arp' and 'Hardy Hill' cultivars are known to survive in zone 6 and even zone 5 with winter shelter. Most other rosemary is hardy in zones 8 and up, but prostrate varieties are more sensitive to cold than upright types. All varieties of rosemary require full sun and prefer rich, well draining soil. Established bushes can tolerate a lot of summer heat, but watch that young plants don't scorch in warm weather.

A cool sunny room is the ideal location to over winter rosemary indoors in most parts of Canada. An attic or basement window is perfect. Rosemary does not tolerate dry forced air heating, so it must never be placed close to heating vents or radiators. Rosemary likes to be watered thoroughly but never to have soggy roots. Potted rosemary can be placed on a saucer of large pebbles which will allow water to drain into the saucer but not touch the roots. As the water evaporates around the pot, it creates a micro-climate of higher humidity, a great benefit to most indoor herbs.

Feed rosemary with a quality organic plant food. We fertilize our rosemary weekly through the active growing season, then monthly from October through March. 

Bugs seldom seem to be a problem for rosemary. The occasional whitefly can be found on the needles of 'Gorizia' and other larger leaf rosemaries. Spider mites will spin their fine webs on rosemary wintered too close to radiators and heat vents (spider mites love warm, dry, air!). Rinse your rosemary under fast flowing fresh water, prune, tips, and you will not have to worry about pests. 

More common than pest attacks are bouts with powdery mildew and other molds. Creeping varieties tend to be most susceptible. Symptoms are of a fine white powder appearing on foliage tops. Providing excellent ventilation and watering potted plants from the bottom will serve as preventative measures. If powdery mildew should strike, neem oil (horticultural formulation) is effective. We also use a baking soda and water mixture (1 tsp. baking soda to 1L water - shake well!) with 20 drops of tea tree oil added. This home remedy works very well - in fact baking soda mixtures are being investigated for commercial application, and are known to kill the powdery mildew mold very quickly. If powdery mildew occurs, by all means treat the symptoms, but also pay attention to the bigger picture: your plant is stressed. Pay attention to providing organic nutrition, great air circulation, cool evening temperatures, and correct watering. 

There are many fantastic books available on growing and using rosemary. Lesley Bremness has written a number of excellent books, always going into detail and including information on lots of cultivars. Penelope Ode has written a series of books offering practical and accurate information on medicinal herbs and how to make use of these around the home. Phyliss Shaudys is beloved for her inspiring publications Herbal Treasures and The Pleasure of Herbs. Both of these books are bursting with creative, month by month projects and recipes to make the most of your herbs.

© Dave Hanson, Sage Garden Herbs

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