Rosmarinus officinalis, commonly known as rosemary, is a woody, perennial herb with fragrant, evergreen, needle-like leaves (similar to hemlock needles) and white, pink, purple, or blue flowers. It is a member of the mint family Lamiaceae. The name “rosemary” derives from the Latin for “dew” (ros) and “sea” (marinus), or “dew of the sea” – how beautiful!
The plant is also sometimes called anthos from the ancient Greek word ἄνθος, meaning “flower”. Rosemary has a fibrous root system. It is native to the Mediterranean and Asia, but is reasonably hardy in cool climates. It can withstand droughts, surviving a severe lack of water for lengthy periods so perfect for the really sandy soil gardens. Forms range from upright to trailing; the upright forms can reach 1.5 m (5 ft) tall, rarely 2 m (6 ft 7 in). The leaves are evergreen, 2–4 cm (0.8–1.6 in) long and 2–5 mm broad, green above, and white below, with dense, short, woolly hair. The plant flowers in spring and summer in temperate climates, but the plants can be in constant bloom in warm climates; flowers are white, pink, purple or deep blue. Rosemary also has a tendency to flower outside its normal flowering season. It has been known to flower as late as early December, and as early as mid-February (in the northern hemisphere).
The Virgin Mary is said to have spread her blue cloak over a white-blossomed rosemary bush when she was resting, and the flowers turned blue. The shrub then became known as the “Rose of Mary”. Rosemary was considered sacred to ancient Egyptians, Romans and Greeks.
In the Middle Ages, rosemary was associated with wedding ceremonies. The bride would wear a rosemary headpiece and the groom and wedding guests would all wear a sprig of rosemary. Rosemary was often entwined into a wreath, dipped in scented water and worn by brides at the alter. The wreath symbolized fidelity, love, abiding friendship and remembrance of the life the woman had led prior to her marriage. The crowns and garlands of rosemary at weddings, in turn, led to the lays, or amorous ballads of the Troubadours, 1100 – 1350, referring to rosemary as “Coronary”. Anne of Cleves (1515 – 1557), Henry the Eighth’s 4th wife, wore a rosemary wreath at their wedding. At that time, wealthy bridal couples would also present a gilded branch of rosemary to each wedding guest. Robert Hacket, in a wedding sermon in 1607 said, “Let this Rosemarinus, this flower of men, ensigne of your wisdom, love and loyaltie, be carried not only in your hands, but in your heads and hearts.” Rosemary root was “seethed in wine vinegar” and the lotion was then used to wash the feet of a thief. The lotion was thought to sap the strength of the robber so that he would not longer commit robbery, steal or do any further harm. The Countess of Hainault, Jeanne of Valois (1294 – 1342), sent her daughter Queen Phillippa (1311 – 1369), wife of King Edward III of England (1312 – 1377), an accounting of the virtues of rosemary and it is presumed a number of plants or cuttings accompanied the gift. The original manuscript can be found in the British Museum. The Countess suggests that laying the leaves under the head of a man while he sleeps will “doth away evell sprirites and suffereth not the dreeme fowl dremes ne to be afearde.”
Bancke, in his work Herball from 1525, suggests techniques to use rosemary as a remedy for both gout of the legs and to keep the teeth from all evils. He also recommended that smelling rosemary regularly would “keep thee youngly”. Serapio suggested that a garland of rosemary worn about the head was a remedy for the “stuffing of the head, that commeth through coldnes of the brain”. He also says that rosemary grew so plentifully in Languedoc (a former province in south-eastern France) that “the inhabitants burne scarce anie other fuel”.
Rosemary was also believed to offer protection from the plague. In 1603, when bubonic plague killed 38,000 Londoners, the demand was so high that the price increased from one shilling for an armful of branches to six shillings for a handful. To put that price increase into perspective, one price list from 1625 indicated that one could obtain 18 gallons of good ale or double beer with carriage delivery for only 3 shillings or an entire ‘fat pig’ for 1 shilling.
Rosemary has long had a popular reputation for improving memory. The Guardian reported in 2017 that sales of Rosemary oil to students in the UK studying for exams had skyrocketed because of Rosemary’s perceived benefits to memory (that was the summer my mum started feeding my sister rosemary for her A-Level exams…). The plant has also been used as a symbol for remembrance during war commemorations and funerals in Europe and Australia. Mourners would throw it into graves as a symbol of remembrance for the dead. In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Ophelia says, “There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance” (Hamlet, iv. 5.). In Australia, sprigs of rosemary are worn on ANZAC Day to signify remembrance; the herb grows wild on the Gallipoli Peninsula. Rosemary history includes a number of references to its reputation for strengthening the memory and as a symbol for remembrance. Greek scholars were known to twine rosemary in their hair when studying for exams in the hope of aiding their memories. According to one old ballad:
“Rosemary is for remembrance
Between us day and night,
Wishing that I may always have
You present in my sight.”
Parkinson (1567-1650), the King’s Botanist to Charles I, mentions that in countries where rosemary was well-suited and grows to a large size that thin boards of rosemary were used to make lutes and other instruments, carpenters rules, and a myriad of other implements. The French believed that combing their hair once a day with a rosemary wood comb would prevent giddiness. Rosemary wood was so prized that unscrupulous merchants would often use less expensive woods and simply scent them with rosemary oil. In Spain, rosemary was used as a protection against witchcraft and menaces on the road. George Borrow mentioned how he came to learn about this superstition in his work The Bible in Spain (1843). He first mentions meeting a traveler who had adorned his hat with rosemary and later mentions a lady, who concerned for Borrow’s own safety, offered him some for his own hat.
In 1987, researchers at Rutgers University in New Jersey patented a food preservative derived from rosemary. The chemical called rosmaridiphenol, is a very stable antioxidant useful in cosmetics and plastic food packaging.
Set out rosemary in spring, planting seedlings 2 to 3 feet apart. Plants are slow growing at first, but pick up speed in their second year. Feed with a good fertiliser and keep well watered. Mulch your plants to keep roots moist in summer and insulated in winter, but take care to keep mulch away from the crown of the plant. In the spring, prune dead wood out of the plants.
Since it is attractive and drought-tolerant, rosemary is used as an ornamental plant in gardens and for xeriscape landscaping, especially in regions of Mediterranean climate. It is considered easy to grow and pest-resistant. Rosemary can grow quite large and retain attractiveness for many years, can be pruned into formal shapes and low hedges, and has been used for topiary. It is easily grown in pots and the ground cover cultivars spread widely, with a dense texture. Rosemary grows on friable loam soil with good drainage in an open, sunny position. It will not withstand waterlogging and some varieties are susceptible to frost. It grows best in neutral to alkaline conditions (pH 7–7.8) with average fertility. It can be propagated from an existing plant by clipping a shoot (from a soft new growth) 10–15 cm (4–6 in) long, stripping a few leaves from the bottom, and planting it directly into soil.
Rosemary leaves are used as a flavoring in foods such as stuffing and roast lamb, pork, chicken and turkey. Fresh or dried leaves are used in traditional Mediterranean cuisine. They have a bitter, astringent taste and a characteristic aroma which complements many cooked foods. Herbal tea can be made from the leaves. When roasted with meats or vegetables, the leaves leave a mustard-like aroma with an additional fragrance of charred wood, compatible with barbecues.
Mum’s Herby Bread
-1tsp fast-action dried yeast -500g strong white bread flour -1tsp salt -1tbsp sugar -380ml tepid water -20ml olive oil
For the herbs: -1 handful rosemary -1 handful thyme -1 handful sage -2-4 large garlic cloves, diced -olive oil, for brushing
- Add 1tsp of yeast to a large bowl. Add the flour, salt and sugar. Mix in a little bit of water at a time, turning over the ingredients with your hands or an electric machine’s dough hook. Once you have a sticky, but not soggy dough consistency, tip into another large bowl coated with the olive oil. Cover with a tea-towel or a plastic bag and place in a warm location (airing cupboard is good), for about an hour or two, or until the loaf has risen.
- Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 200C. Roll out the dough onto a surface dusted with semolina or flour and knead into a round shape. Place on a lined baking tray. Brush with olive oil before scattering a handful of rosemary, thyme, sage and diced garlic cloves on top.
- Bake in the oven for about 20 minutes. The bread will be golden on top and will sound hollow when tapped on the bottom.