I really don’t like to cook. Back in the day it was fun to do specialty dinners with friends, but day to day? Not so much. The food gets eaten, and then you have to do it all over again — and again. So I will say it was with some reserve that I admired my daughter Kate’s stand of rosemary, though I did go so far as to clip and strip some leaves for whatever she was cooking.
Rosemary is actually quite easy to grow. Of Mediterranean origin, the perennial evergreen Rosmarinus officinalis thrives in warm humid environments when planted in well-drained sandy soil. It will want 6-8 hours of sunshine. Yes, I know — you probably will have to amend our Georgia clay, and be aware that rosemary typically can’t take extremely cold temperatures either. Kate’s has apparently not gotten that memo in North Carolina, where she ignores it from season to season, but some folks suggest planting the herb in pots that can be brought in during cold weather. Rosemary actually prefers to stay somewhat on the dry side, making terra cotta a suitable container.
Planted in the yard, this “mist of the sea” (as the name translates) may grow anywhere from 3 to 6 feet tall, producing tiny blue — or pink, or white — flowers that are attractive to bees and last into the summer. The shrub has an aroma that some call “piney,” or “camphor” from the leaves that resemble pine needles: green on the top with a white underside. While it is possible to grow rosemary from seed, germination is a slow process, and taking stem cuttings is much simpler. Once established, rosemary is fairly resistant to diseases and pests, though keep an eye out for powdery mildew and spittlebugs. Popular varieties include “Arp,” “Gorizia,” or “Tuscan Blue,” each an upright, as opposed to ‘Blue Rain’ or ‘Huntington Carpet,’ both trailing varieties. “Pine Rosemary” is not used in cooking, but it makes a nice ornamental. The others will provide an infinite source of tender tips to harvest for cooking or drying for later use. Routine pruning encourages tight compact plants. And a bonus: deer don’t like it!
Typically rosemary is used sparingly as an accent for pork, lamb, fish, poultry and game, stuffings, soups, stews … oh well, just about anything you want, including beverages (a rosemary simple syrup can be added to tea, lemonade or some pretty substantial cocktails). Using a stem as a shish kabob pierces the food being grilled, thus adding its flavor. Be careful with fresh rosemary — a little goes a long way. Separate the leaves from the stems as you prepare. Dried rosemary will be even stronger.
Rosemary has a long and varied history and is associated with fairies, witches, weddings and burials. In use since at least 500 B.C., it was supposedly draped around the goddess Aphrodite as she arose from the sea. The Virgin Mary spread her cloak over the shrub, turning the flowers blue and giving the plant its common name, the “rose (of) Mary.” It is a symbol for friendship, loyalty and remembrance, as evinced by Shakespeare’s Ophelia, who chides an absent Hamlet: “There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance. Pray you, love, remember.” To this day, rosemary is used at weddings as a symbol of love and at funerals to indicate that the loved one will not be forgotten.
Today rosemary has gained interest in the medical community. Studies indicate that rosemary aromatherapy may improve the quality, if not the speed, of memory. This aromatherapy may also relieve stress by lowering cortisol levels and thus anxiety. Rosemary in combination with other herbs might just improve hair growth, counter indigestion, ease the pain of arthritis and muscle strain and improve circulation. It is even being considered in cancer research. However, with so much study still to be done, I will defer to my daughter’s cooking efforts. A sprinkle of fresh rosemary on flat bread? Check out the recipe for focaccia al rosmarino. Now that’s heaven!