Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis)
This evergreen perennial herb is native to the Mediterranean region, where it still grows wild as well as domesticated. Its Latin generic name refers to the dew (ros) of the sea (marinus). For thousands of years, this attractive, intensely aromatic plant has captivated our senses as well as our folklore. The references about rosemary in both history and legend are abundant.
In ancient Greece, the herb was burnt to cleanse the air and to ward off evil spirits. This tradition lasted well into the middle ages, when it was burnt in areas affected by plague. It was still being burned in the 17th century in English courtrooms and French hospitals, to prevent the spread of disease. This is likely because dried rosemary leaves contain about 20% camphor, which has been prized since ancient times as both flavouring and medicine.
A sprig of rosemary, it was said, could be placed under the pillow to dispel nightmares. Those seeking love were to place a pot of rosemary on a windowsill to attract a mate. The herb has long been enjoyed as an insect repellent, both rubbed fresh on the skin and by placing bundles of it in chests to repel moths. In the Christian tradition, rosemary is said to never grow taller than Jesus. Another story tells that Mary, during her flight into Egypt, rested beside a rosemary bush and draped her blue robe upon it, turning the flowers from white to blue.
Rosemary was probably introduced to Britain by Roman settlers, and was likely cultivated there prior to the Norman Conquest, which began in 1066. The herb was distilled by Raymundus Lullus in 1330, and became the world’s first essential oil.
This herb is highly prized for its medicinal qualities. Culpeper, in the seventeenth century, wrote extensively of its seemingly limitless uses in the apothecary, even quoting his peers Dioscorides and Galen:
It is an herb of as great use with us in these days as any whatsoever, not only for physical but civil purposes. The physical use of it (being my present task) is very much used both for inward and outward diseases, for by the warming and comforting heat thereof it helps all cold diseases both of the head, stomach, liver, and belly. The decoction thereof in wine, helps the cold distillations of rheum into the eyes, and all other cold diseases of the head and brain, as the giddiness or swimmings therein, drowsiness or dullness of the mind and senses like a stupidness, the dumb palsy, or loss of speech, the lethargy, and fallen- sickness, to be both drank, and the temples bathed therewith. It helps the pains in the gums and teeth, by rheum falling into them, not by putrefaction, causing an evil smell from them, or a stinking breath. It helps a weak memory, and quickens the senses. It is very comfortable to the stomach in all the cold griefs thereof, helps both retention of meat, and digestion, the decoction or powder being taken in wine. It is a remedy for the windiness in the stomach, bowels, and spleen, and expels it powerfully. It helps those that are liver-grown, by opening the obstructions thereof. It helps dim eyes, and procures a clear sight, the flowers thereof being taken all the while it is flowering every morning fasting, with bread and salt. Both Dioscorides and Galen say, That if a decoction be made thereof with water, and they that have the yellow jaundice exercise their bodies directly after the taking thereof, it will certainly cure them. The flowers and conserve made of them are singularly good to comfort the heart, and to expel the contagion of the pestilence; to burn the herb in houses and chambers, corrects the air in them. Both the flowers and leaves are very profitable for women that are troubled with the whites, if they be daily taken. The dried leaves shred small, and taken in a pipe, as tobacco is taken, helps those that have any cough, phthisic, or consumption, by warming and drying the thin distillations which cause those diseases. The leaves are very much used in bathings; and made into ointments or oil, are singularly good to help cold benumbed joints, sinews, or members. The chymical oil drawn from the leaves and flowers, is a sovereign help for all the diseases aforesaid, to touch the temples and nostrils with two or three drops for all the diseases of the head and brain spoken of before; as also to take one drop, two, or three, as the case requires, for the inward griefs. Yet must it be done with discretion, for it is very quick and piercing, and therefore but a little must be taken at a time. There is also another oil made by insolation in this manner: Take what quantity you will of the flowers, and put them into a strong glass close stopped, tie a fine linen cloth over the mouth, and turn the mouth down into another strong glass, which being set in the sun, an oil will distil down into the lower glass, to be preserved as precious for divers uses, both inward and outward, as a sovereign balm to heal the disease beforementioned, to clear dim sights, and to take away spots, marks, and scars in the skin.
Rosemary has been used to flavour meats (and to hide the smell of rancid meat) since the middle ages. As a foodstuff, rosemary is surprisingly rich in iron, calcium, and vitamin B6, and its flavour matches well with gamey meat like lamb. Rosemary is grown on a commercial scale from Morocco and France east to Rumania. The bulk of imported, dried rosemary appears to come from France, Portugal, and Spain.
Rosemary may be prostrate or upright in habit, and mature plants in a warm climate can grow as tall as 2m (6’), but even in our area the plants can become large shrubs if they’re in a sunny, protected spot. Rosemary is very slow to grow from seed. Of all of the food plants listed in this book, it may be the slowest growing. Remember that rosemary is a woody shrub – propagation from cuttings is faster than propagation from seed.
How to Grow Rosemary:
Difficulty: Easy to cultivate, but tryingly slow from seed. Rosemary is well suited to growing in larger containers. All woody herbs are slow from seed.
Timing: Seeds can be sown at any time of year – late spring outdoors is a good option, as the young seedlings will need at least 3 years before they can be harvested. Nearly every rosemary plant available at the nursery is grown from cuttings, not seed.
Sowing: Sprinkle the tiny seeds on the surface of pre-moistened, sterilized seed starting mix, and water only with a mister. Pre-chilling by storing the seed packet in the refrigerator for 2-3 weeks may improve germination.
Soil: Once seedlings are ready to pot on or transplant, choose a loose, loamy soil with excellent drainage and good fertility.
Growing: Choose a site in full sun, and leave the plants alone. They are rarely bothered by insects. In the right site, plants can become enormous.
Harvest: Rosemary dries particularly well, keeping much of its flavour. You can pinch or clip fresh leaves as needed, or cut whole branches from larger, established plants to dry in an airy, dark environment. Strip the leaves from the branch once they are dry, and store in an airtight container away from bright light.
Seed info: The CFIA standard for the germination of all herb seeds is 50%, which is very low compared to vegetable seeds. West Coast Seeds has its seed lots tested for germination, and 60-80% is the norm. Seeds should maintain their viability for several years if stored in a cool, dry environment.