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.
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.