Rosemary Sings for Me

Sunday, September 08, 2002

I wrote about one of my favorite herbs for the Southern California Gardener newsletter a few years ago. Now that great publication is gone, but an even greater one has replaced it for gardeners in SoCal: The Gardener's Companion.
If I were Rosemary, I’d change my name to escape the bounty of overdone lore associated with this noble plant. Everything except dependable mail delivery has been attributed to rosemary...someone somewhere in human history says that it relieves colds and headaches, repels moths, heals wounds, works as an eyewash, a stimulating tonic, a relaxing tea, curls hair, fumigates, inspires fidelity, treats jaundice, improves memory, reduces fever, and prevents both evil spirits and baldness. Great attributes for any plant, but I’m personally satisfied by its natural beauty and pungent, resinous flavor. 

Rosmarinus, literally ‘dew of the sea’, doesn’t shrink from salt spray, but rocky pockets of poor soil aren’t necessary for this slightly woody, usually vase-shaped evergreen to thrive. Most rosemaries have narrow leaves with glossy green to gray above and silvery white beneath; the greener the foliage, the more tender the rosemary. Their flowers range from traditional blue to white, pink, and mauve, and all sport the hoods common to Labiatae, the mint family. Relatives include the obvious peppermint and spearmint plus basil, monarda, and salvia, and the ever popular coleus.

Called polar plant or compass weed in some places, rosemary thrives in heat, tolerates drought, demands good drainage, and seldom needs water once established. In fact, overwatering contributes to rank growth, root rot, and woodiness. The result can be a sick plant with no taste.  Upright rosemaries such as ‘Tuscan Blue’ easily reach four feet tall, equally glorious in an herb bed or mixed shrub border. If you’re looking for a striking doorway focal point, consider one in a terra cotta olive jar.  Bushy and fine textured, spikey rosemary makes a pleasing contrast to the swirling clay. Classic Rosmarinus o. ‘Prostratus’ reaches two feet tall and five wide; the selection ‘Lockwood de Forest’ has bluer flowers and offers equally efficient erosion control. Fertilize both annually after flowering.

Frequent tip pinching will encourage new growth to branch. During the rainy season, adventitious roots form on older plants. Four inch cuttings of these knobby stems root easily. Both pruning techniques keep rosemary close at hand for kitchen and bath. Rosemary appreciates a lime cocktail annually, especially when grown in soils regularly amended with compost, manure, and other organic matters. Crushed eggshells in warm water will do the job.Few pests trouble the ‘maries; occasional spittlebugs succomb to soapy water baths.

Plant rosemary as monks did in Italy: in the warmest microclimate available. As they moved north from the Mediterranean, the pious fathers built garden walls especially to protect it. Perhaps their devotion and much other rosemary lore can be traced to society’s considerable need for its ability to mask odors in the days before refrigeration. Rosemary may be for remembrance, as Ophelia says, but it could be that without it, they’d have remembered how long that meat had been around. 

‘Eat less salt, love low fat’ has been my mantra for years now, and rosemary has become a staple on my kitchen path. I use the fresh leaves liberally in vegetable soups, tomato dishes, chicken, and turkey. Soak dried rosemary leaves in warm water before using. Unlike other herbs, dried rosemary does not concentrate its flavors; use equal amounts fresh or dried in recipes. If the flavor seems too strong for your pallette, use whole sprigs in cooking, then remove them a la bay leaf before serving. Or try the flowers; they’re equally edible with a milder taste.

As you harvest the last of winter’s greens, punch up the usual dressing with my Rosemary-raspberry Vinaigrette. Put 1 tablespoon of your favorite brown mustard in a jar or cruet. Mix with juice of half a lemon, 1 crushed garlic clove, 1 teaspoon minced onion, one half cup red wine vinegar, and 1 teaspoon each crushed rosemary and basil, until mustard is dissolved. Add up to a quarter cup raspberries, fresh preferably, and 2 tablespoons light oil. Mix well, then thin as desired with white wine. Serve over a butter lettuce tossed with spicy greens like dandelion, mesclun, and mustard.

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