Rosemary – Gardening Tips from the Culinary View
as recommended by Michael Vidrine
I’ve previously written about parsley, sage and thyme so I suppose it’s only fair to give rosemary some love.
Despite the name, rosemary is not related to roses nor to anyone named Mary. The name is an English adaptation of the Latin “ros marinus” meaning “dew of the sea” denoting the plants prevalence along Mediterranean coastlines. The full scientific name for rosemary “Salvia Rosmarinus” puts into the genus salvia and the even larger plant group of mints. It is amazing how many of the herbs we enjoy are similarly related.
Rosemary has been used and written about for at least 7000 years. Spreading out from its Mediterranean roots (pun intended) it is now cultivated across the globe in temperate regions as an herb and as an ornamental.
Rosemary is an evergreen shrub with short narrow dark green leaves and usually light blue flowers. Various cultivars can be upright to trailing with the tall shrubs getting up to 4 feet tall and the most trailing forms only growing to a foot tall. There are a number of named varieties some with golden to variegated leaves and some with white or pink flowers. All the plants give off a wonderful citrus/pine scent when bruised or brushed against. Rosemary is generally winter hardy in our area, but really cold temperatures can cause damage or even kill some plants. The Aggie Horticulture site lists varieties suggested for Texas including Arp, Blue Boy, Dancing Waters, Spice Islands and White Pine. I’m particularly fond of the trailing forms of rosemary and use them as a fragrant groundcover in our landscape. The dense evergreen leaves of the plants usually outcompete any weeds and the flowers are a bonus for our honeybees. The trailing forms are also beautiful cascading over a rock wall.
Like many plants we grow from the Mediterranean region, rosemary plants like our warmth and sun but they also need well drained soil. Considering our native soil conditions, a raised bed may be needed to provide adequate drainage. The plants are rather difficult to grow from seed and are usually bought as a young plant or started from cuttings. Indeed, rosemary is relatively easy to propagate from cuttings. Take 6-inch tip cuttings during our cool winters, strip off the bottom three inches, dip in rooting hormone and root in potting soil or – as I do – stick the cuttings right in the flower bed. Rosemary limbs touching the soil will also tend to root and can be separated from the mother plant.
Pests are not usually a problem with rosemary, but the plants may have fungal issues in particularly wet years. I have not treated the plants for fungal issues and treatment should rarely be needed if the plant site is good and wetting the plant is minimized. Even though the plants can be quite long lived, as they get older, the foliage in the center of the plant may get sparse and most of the growth will be on the tips. As a landscape plant this does not look great, so I generally start several new cuttings with the intention of severely cutting back or removing the older “mother plant” at some point.
Besides its landscape and culinary uses, rosemary is reported to have several health benefits. Compounds in the plant have antioxidant, antibacterial, antiviral, and antifungal properties (they’re anti everything!) and consuming rosemary may help the immune system fight infections. Additionally, rosemary can improve sleep quality and lower anxiety levels for some people. The scent of rosemary also seems to help with memory and concentration. Rosemary cuttings in a flower arrangement can really freshen up a room.
Harvest rosemary by stripping the leaves off the stems or cutting entire stems for use as a bouquet garni. Rosemary stems can be stored in the refrigerator in a plastic bag wrapped in a moist paper towel for up to 2 weeks. The leaves can also be frozen in ice cubes or made into a flavored oil or vinegar. If you are growing your own rosemary however, it will be available fresh year-round right from the garden. As a flavoring, rosemary can be quite strong so if you are new to using it as an herb, I recommend using a light hand to start. That said, one of my favorite uses for rosemary, often found in Italian restaurants, is ground up as a dip with salt, garlic, and olive oil – perfect with crusty French bread or focaccia. Substitute butter for the olive oil and you get a wonderful topping for steak and vegetables. A bit of rosemary adds a whole new flavor profile to pesto. Lots of recipes call for rosemary in starchy foods like breads, potatoes, beans, grains, and pastas. It is common in many meat braises and roasts and the sauces that go with them. Rosemary is very typical in lamb recipes and in recipes for strong flavored oily fish. The leaves and stems can be used to enhance smoked and grilled meats and long straight stems can be used as skewers for shish kebab. There is even a variety of upright rosemary called “Perfect Skewer.” Rosemary makes a nice tea, and it also makes a refreshing cold beverage combined with citrus and a sparkling wine or soft drink.
Give this ancient herb a spot in your garden and have fun experimenting with it in your kitchen or just relax and enjoy the fragrance and the hum of happy bees.
Brazos Valley Gardener, Orchardist, Apiarist and Instructor