Sunday, December 17, 2017

Holiday Legends of Rosemary

A 9-year old rosemary shrub is 3 feet tall & wide

Rosemary (Salvia rosmarinus formerly known as, Rosmarinus officianalis) is a winter-blooming shrub that grows well throughout Florida. That alone makes it a great choice for your garden. But like a talented actor, rosemary plays multiple roles. It brightens your drought-tolerant landscape, adds flavor to your cooking and aroma to your potpourri. Rosemary has been immortalized in song and classic literature, plus it plays a part in a charming legend of Christmas.

Its waxy needle-like leaves grow from the newer sections of the stems, while the older sections of the stem are covered with a rough gray bark. Rosemary is one of many culinary herbs in the mint family. Others include mints, thyme, marjoram, oregano, sages, monarda, and many others. Plants in our herb gardens produce aromatic chemicals to help to fight off leaf-eating predators, but these properties also add flavor to our cooking and aroma to potpourri mixtures.

Most people find the distinctive scent of this plant to be sharp, but pleasant. Both the flowers and leaves of rosemary are traditional ingredients in the "Herbes de Provence" mixture. Rosemary is often used as the center of a "bouquet garni" in which several herbs are tied together or placed in a cheesecloth bag and are cooked in a soup or sauce, to impart their flavors, then removed before serving. A rosemary sprig is often used as a garnish on roasted meats. You can even use a sprig of rosemary as a brush to paint on the sauce when grilling foods and you could also try burning some rosemary in the grilling fire, which creates beautifully scented smoke.

Pollinators love the pale blue rosemary flowers.
In addition to planting it in herb gardens, rosemary is often used in general drought-tolerant, full-sun landscapes in Florida. It prefers a slightly alkaline soil, so use shells, chunks of cement or limestone in the soil where you plant it. Normally it's a multi-stemmed shrub reaching up to six feet tall and four feet wide in ideal conditions, but there are also upright, single-stemmed varieties and recumbent types that serve as a groundcover. It can be trimmed into a short hedge or allowed to grow freely. Once it's established in the landscape, rosemary will not require any additional irrigation, but if it's grown in a container, some irrigation may be necessary during droughts.

Because it blooms in the winter, rosemary provides a good source of nectar for those occasional warm days in winter when solitary bees and other insects come out to forage. If you look at rosemary when it's not in bloom, you may wonder how it ended up in the mint family, but once you see those bilateral flowers with a double upper lip and an extended lower lip, it looks like any of the other mint flowers. Flowers are usually blue, but some cultivars have pink or white flowers. Whatever their color, winter flowers make a good addition to your landscape.

You can easily propagate rosemary from a soft-wood cutting by stripping off the lower leaves, dipping the stem into rooting hormone, and then planting in sandy medium. Or if you have a multi-stemmed shrub, you can probably find a branch that has lain on the ground long enough to have developed roots which can then be cut from the shrub and replanted. Seeds germinate slowly and the offspring may not resemble the parent plant. For instance, a seed from a recumbent rosemary plant could grow into an upright shrub.

The beautiful rosemary flowers are typical
 for the mint family.

Rosemary, Christmas, and other traditions

Rosemary is steeped, as it were, in Christmas tradition, and would have been a native plant in the Middle East two thousand years ago. The rosemary legends revolve around Mary's draping of a garment over the rosemary plant. One version tells that during the Holy Family's flight to Egypt, Mary draped her blue cloak over the shrub and its white flowers turned blue. Another version says that after Mary hung the Christ Child's garments on the bush, it was given its pleasant aroma as a reward for its service for the Child.

In the middle ages it was traditional to spread rosemary on the floor of the home at Christmas to release its fragrance as it was tread upon. It also had a reputation as being offensive to evil spirits and as a disinfectant to ward off illnesses.

Rosemary also symbolizes remembrance. When used at funerals, it's thrown into the grave and given to the grieving relatives as a sign the deceased would not be forgotten. It also came to represent friendship and fidelity and was traditional to weave it into brides' bouquets and grooms' boutonnières to remind participants of their vows.

Rosemary has been immortalized in the song “Scarborough Fair” with the unforgettable lyrics: "Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme…" Shakespeare made several references to rosemary in his works: King Lear, Romeo & Juliet, Hamlet, The Winter’s Tale, and Pericles.

A Rosemary Christmas tree

Rosemary Christmas trees

Using a trimmed rosemary shrub as a Christmas tree is a great choice as seasonal decoration because it continues to be useful after the holidays. If you get a rosemary Christmas tree topiary, it will probably need some attention before you bring it inside or put it out on the front step for decoration. Before this plant was placed in the store for sale, an upright, single-stemmed variety rosemary was planted into that pot three, six or even nine months previously and grown in a greenhouse or sheltered environment where it was well-fed and well-watered to induce fast growth. As the plant produced branches, it was sheared back--probably two or three times--to form a cone. By the time you receive it, the plant may be pot-bound and it may have had spotty care (either over-watering or under-watering and probably low light) since leaving its greenhouse environment. In other words, your rosemary Christmas tree might be greatly stressed.

Ideally, you should repot the plant as a precautionary measure, whether it's been over-watered or under-watered. But if the soil is really wet and smells bad, or if the roots are rotting, the plant definitely needs to be repotted. If the plant has been under-watered or is root-bound, repotting is a good idea as well, because the soil left in the pot is spent. If you decide not to repot and the soil is dry, at least soak it well in a tub or bucket outside before you bring it inside. Let it dry out in between soakings, and soak it again in ten days or so.

To repot, rinse away all the soil from the roots and re-plant it into a pot at least as big as its original. The potting soil should be on the lean side with 1/2 sand, 1/2 compost, and some limestone or cement gravel mixed uniformly through the pot. Don't use a layer of gravel in the bottom of the pot because it impedes drainage, but do cover the bottom with some leaves, a screen, or fabric to keep the soil from leaking through the drainage holes. Spread the roots out and don't plant it any deeper than it was in its original pot. Soak it well before bringing it inside.

When the holiday season is over you can plant your topiaried rosemary in your yard, but it will probably not retain its conical shape for long. If you plant a new one each year, you can create a wonderful rosemary hedge around your herb garden or create a grouping anywhere you'd like easy-care, drought-tolerant shrubs. Then enjoy your scented garden and your winter butterflies and bees.

I wish you a Merry Christmas and Happy holidays!

Green Gardening Matters,
Ginny Stibolt


  1. Merry Christmas! I just discovered your page and podcasts and love them! You have very helpful and interesting tips and advice. I love rosemary and didn't know it was so easily propagated. I shall have to try!

  2. Ginny, you certainly are thorough. Even the artist and song referring to Rosemary! EveScarborough is Scarsborough