A bushy evergreen shrub with pale blue flowers and needle-shaped, aromatic leaves, rosemary belongs to the family Lamiaceae — also known as the mint family. The scientific name for the genus comes from the Latin ros (“dew” or “spray”) and marinus (“sea”), a reference to the plant’s tendency to grow on ocean cliffs in its native Mediterranean habitat. An old French name for this herb was incensier because it once was used as an inexpensive substitute for incense in religious ceremonies.
Rosemary has long been an emblem of fidelity and memory. Traditionally carried by brides, the herb appears in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, when Hamlet’s doomed lover, Ophelia, says, “There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance.” In the home, rosemary has long been valued for its antiseptic and antibacterial properties. At one time, it was rubbed on meat not only for flavor but also to help delay spoilage.
Rosemary was also placed in sickrooms to fight illness and infection, and World War II nurses are said to have burned a mixture of rosemary leaves and juniper berries to disinfect hospitals.
Common Name: Rosemary
Description: Upright shrub up to 10 feet tall; needlelike evergreen leaves are green on top and white below, giving the plant a gray-green appearance; clusters of blue blooms along the branches; aromatic
Hardiness: To Zone 7
Flowering: Winter through spring
Parts Used: Leaves, stems, and flowers
Range/Habitat: Native to hills along the Mediterranean, Portugal, and northwest Spain
Rosemary’s flavor is pungent, somewhat piney, and mintlike. The fresh or dried leaves complement soups, breads, roasted meats (especially lamb, poultry, and pork), eggs, cheese, pasta dishes, marinades, sauces, and dressings. Rosemary also enhances tomatoes, spinach, peas, mushrooms, squash, and lentils, and it combines well with other herbs, such as chives, thyme, parsley, chervil, and bay. Finely chop the rough-textured leaves before you add them to fresh or cooked foods.
Fresh sprigs of rosemary and rosemary flowers can be steeped in vinegar, wine, or olive oil to add a subtle flavor. Use rosemary branches as skewers for grilling meat and vegetable kebabs.
Rosemary leaves have antispasmodic, carminative (gas-relieving), antioxidant, and anti-inflammatory properties. The herb is used primarily to treat poor digestion and appetite, joint pain, and sluggish circulation. It may help increase the flow of blood to your heart, and it has been recommended for elderly individuals with impaired circulation and for young adults who lack physical stamina. The herb also has been shown to have some liver-protective and anti-tumor properties.
Oil of rosemary, made by steam distillation of the herb’s fresh flowering tops, is used to ease irritation by increasing the blood supply to your skin. The oil is also useful as a steam inhalant, helping relieve nasal and chest congestion from colds, flus, and allergies. Rosemary oil contains natural camphor, which has an affinity for the nervous system. Applied externally, the oil has been used to relieve muscle and nerve pain, such as sciatica. In aromatherapy, rosemary oil is believed to have stimulating properties.
Rosemary’s pleasant fragrance and antioxidant properties make it a beneficial addition to cosmetics, skin creams, soaps, and lotions. Diluted rosemary oil can be rubbed into the scalp or added to shampoo to stimulate hair growth and prevent dandruff. A rosemary bath or facial, made by adding a strong rosemary infusion to water, is stimulating and refreshing. You can also add antiseptic rosemary oil to your homemade cleaning products.
Shrubby rosemary varieties make handsome landscape plants, especially in warm, dry climates. Use them near foundations, in rock gardens, or in containers on porches or decks, where their blue blooms and aromatic leaves will be within sight and touch. Plant trailing forms where they can cascade over the edge of a stone wall, hanging basket, window box, or pot.
How to grow it
A drought-tolerant plant, rosemary requires well-drained, fairly dry, rocky to sandy soil in full sun. Rosemary does not tolerate cold temperatures well, although several named cultivars — including ‘Arp’ and ‘Hill Hardy’ — are reported to tolerate temperatures as low as -10°F. In general, varieties with lighter colored flowers and thin leaves are most hardy; prostrate varieties are least hardy. In areas where temperatures drop below freezing, mulch rosemary during the winter. To overwinter rosemary indoors, lightly prune back the top, and then pot the plant before the first hard freeze.
Rosemary is susceptible to root rot, so use a porous container and a medium that drains well. Keep potted rosemary in a cool, bright location indoors. Do not overwater, but mist regularly. Rosemary can be propagated by seed, cuttings, or layering. Harvest sprigs as needed throughout the growing season. To dry rosemary, hang small bundles upside down in a warm, dark location for 1 to 2 weeks. Strip the needles from the stems, then store them in an airtight container.