Gardening should be fun and bring joy to our lives. That is why I am always happy to share a plant that thrives in our climate, grows beautifully without a lot of fuss, and that won’t attract the attention hungry deer looking for the salad bar. Allow me to share another of my favorites….
The woody, green fragrance of rosemary brings happiness. It filled my car on the way home from garden center last Saturday. My hands were bathed in rosemary oil while a flat of 4” rosemary plants bumped along in the back.
Rosemary, known now as Salvia rosmarinus, rather than the Rosmarinus officinalis we all learned, has one of the longest cultural and botanical histories of any plant in the garden. When cuneiform tablets left by the ancient Sumerians were translated, we found mention of rosemary from more than 7000 years ago. The Egyptians, Greeks, Romans and many other Western cultures have used rosemary throughout recorded history.
Herbalists, chefs and gardeners prize rosemary for its fragrance, its flavor, its evergreen growth, its flowers, and its medicinal properties. Now considered a species of Salvia, it is a member of the Lamiaceae family of mints and other herbs. Close to thirty named cultivars of rosemary currently are available.
We consider rosemary a Mediterranean herb, native in the dry, rocky regions of Southern Europe, the Middle East and Northern Africa near the Mediterranean Sea. While some varieties aren’t frost tolerant, several prove hardy to at least Zone 6. Once established, rosemary tolerates both heat and drought. It requires good drainage and will decline in consistently wet soil.
Plant rosemary in full sun where it has space to develop into its potential. It prefers neutral to slightly sweet soil, like Lavandulas and other woody herbs. A little dolomitic lime might be mixed into the planting hole or scattered around the plant where the soil is acidic. If planting into heavy clay soil, incorporate some compost in a hole at least twice as wide as the root ball. Gravel mulch reflects heat and light into the center of the plant, and it promotes good health by keeping the lower branches clean. It can also help insulate the roots during the coldest weeks in winter.
Rosemary matures into a woody, evergreen shrub. Cold hardy varieties like ‘Arp’ may grow 4’-6’ high and wide over time. A healthy rosemary may live 20 to 30 years, and becomes a permanent structural fixture in the garden, like other non-edible evergreen shrubs.
Plant rosemary as a focal point, space plants 2’-4’ apart for hedges, incorporate them in four-season outdoor pots, or use them in a dedicated herb or kitchen garden. Rosemary will grow well in a pot with spring bulbs, Violas, and other annual or perennial herbaceous plants. As other plants come and go, the rosemary will anchor an outdoor arrangement throughout the year. Rosemary plants require direct sunlight near a window or on a sun porch to prosper indoors.
Rosemary topiaries come to market around the holidays. Rosemary responds well to frequent clipping and may be trained in formal shapes.
‘Prostratus,’ or creeping rosemary, may be used along the top edges of walls, in hanging baskets or tall pots, or as ground cover. Rather that growing up into a shrub form, its long branches grow sideways and cascade downwards. It will grow to 1’-2’ tall but will cascade 3’-4’ below its crown, where space allows. It is considered hardy to Zone 8, but when mulched and given a sheltered location, will survive our Williamsburg winters. There are other named cultivars with similar habit, such as ‘Irene,’ valued for their exceptional flowers.
Another interesting cultivar rated to Zone 8 is ‘Barbecue.’ Its strong, straight stems may be used as skewers for foods cooked on the grill. ‘Tuscan Blue’ has attractive blue flowers and grows to about 6’. Also rated to Zone 8, it is sold locally and grows well in our area. Cultivars with golden and with variegated leaves sometimes come to market locally.
Rosemary may be propagated from stem cuttings in sterile potting soil or vermiculite. It responds well to layering. It isn’t a good candidate for division and may be slow from seed. Plants may be found through most of the year at nurseries that sell herbs, and in some grocery stores.
Rosemary flowers support many pollinators. Though small, they offer abundant nectar. Rosemary often blooms in the summer and then again during the cold season, in our garden, offering nectar when little else is available. Find cultivars with flowers in various shades of white, pink, blue, and lavender.
Essential oils that make rosemary useful and delicious also protect it from grazers. Deer, rabbits and other animals avoid it. Its fragrance repels them. It is largely disease and pest free when given sunlight and good drainage.
Use rosemary fresh or dried in cooking; use it to flavor oils, vinegars, honey or butter; and add dried rosemary leaves to potpourri. Fresh springs of rosemary may be used in wreaths, flower arrangements, and added to corsages. There is a long tradition of wearing rosemary (for remembrance) to funerals and memorial services. It is used in the religious practices of several cultures.
Rosemary remains vibrantly green and blooms even in the winter. It is a timeless classic. Easy to grow, it proves an endlessly useful plant for gardeners. And it smells like happiness.