Jane McLeod: Rosemary - the herb of remembrance

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— There is probably no need to convince you of the merits of rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) as a "must have" in every culinary herb collection. However, it is a very tender perennial, growing evergreen only in warm climates, and for it to survive here, you will need to bring it in for the winter to a sunny windowsill. My solution is to leave it in a pot year-round, and when I am very sure the nights are warm, I sink the pot into an outdoor spot for the summer and reclaim it to a sunny interior long before even a finger of frost can achieve total damage.

Rosemary rarely reaches heights of more than 2 or 3 feet, but in warm climates, it can grow as tall as 6 feet. It is very slow-growing and needs a sheltered spot, preferably sandy soil, excellent drainage but very little watering, and hot sun. Rosemary also will be more pungent if there is lime in the soil, and this can be provided with crushed eggshells or potash. The leaves are short, narrow and tough - rather like pine needles - and set densely on the branches. When dried, the leaves retain their flavor well and are convenient to store. In the fall, shy little pale flowers grow in crowded clusters among the leaves and, depending on the variety, can be pink, blue or white. The aromatic oils in the leaves are strongest when picked before the plant flowers. The stems will turn woody from the second year, and if you harvest quite a bit of rosemary, these stripped stems can be burned on a fire or barbecue for a lovely aroma.

Rosemary can be grown from seed, but this is a slow process. Either purchase a small plant or take cuttings (a small side shoot about 6 inches long) from an established plant in the fall, dip in a rooting powder and set in sandy soil and transplant in the spring.

Rosemary takes its name from a Latin word meaning "dew of the sea" because it has always grown wild on the Mediterranean coasts, and its gray-bloomed leaves made the hillsides look as though they were covered in dew.

"Rosemary for remembrance" is an old saying that dates back to Greek and Roman lore, when it is said people would twine it in their hair in the belief that it would quicken the mind and improve the memory. Very versatile in its coverage, rosemary decorated churches at funerals and was carried at weddings to represent the fidelity of lovers, exchanged as tokens between friends, used for topiary. It also was the garland on the traditional roasted boar's head, and was put in baths to ease tired and aching limbs, laid amongst linens and clothes for its moth-repellant aroma and infused in perfumes. Even the wood once was used to make lutes and other musical instruments.

Today, much of the past is preserved by growing and utilizing herbs, and although many of their traditional uses have faded, rosemary continues to be valued in kitchens around the world, since it only takes a few pungent sprinklings of its aromatic leaves to produce a lasting culinary memory.

Jane McLeod is a Master Gardener through the Colorado State University Cooperative Extension Service Office in Routt County. Questions? Call 879-0825 or e-mail gardeners@co.routt.co.us.

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