Rosemary is the quintessential holiday herb. Its beauty is as classic as a Christmas tree. Its full-bodied, piney, comforting fragrance can fill a house as quickly as that of balsam. Its association with Christmas is far older than that of the familiar poinsettia: rosemary is thought to be one of the herbs in the manger that cradled the baby Jesus. And as Shakespeare’s Ophelia tells us: “Rosemary, that’s for remembrance.” What better herb to keep at hand during this season when friends and family gather to celebrate and look back on another year together?
Rosemary can take on many holiday roles. A potted rosemary shrub, decorated with tiny, twinkly lights, becomes a tabletop Christmas tree. Rosemary can deck the halls as an element of wreaths, swags, or potpourris, or flavor Yuletide cordials, wines, and ales. It asserts itself in holiday meats and poultry, lending its aroma and flavor while cutting any fatty taste. And it can provide a calming cup of herbal tea to counteract the bustle of the season. A carefully shaped rosemary topiary makes a perfect gift for an herb-loving friend or co-worker. The British herbalist Maud Grieve notes that in England rosemary was a traditional New Year’s gift. A sprig of it tucked into year-end holiday cards or under the ribbon on a package says, “Remember me?” to those who are clever enough to understand the message.
Rosmarinus officinalis is not one plant, but a galaxy of plants. The species has been frequently explored by plant breeders, with delightful consequences for herb lovers. Rosemary scents may be piney, camphorous, resinous, medicinal, or even lemony. Plants may have delicate, thin gray needles or broader, thicker, greener leaves. Habit may be upright or prostrate, foliage sparse and windswept or bushy and sturdy. Flower colors range from violet to palest blue and pink, even white. Growers have selected some strains that are winter-hardy to 10°F or colder, so you don’t have to live in California to grow rosemary outdoors year round. Browse through the gallery of ten rosemary cultivars on the following pages. Perhaps you will find some here that you haven’t met before. A few are new and still hard to find; others are finding their way into the marketplace and fast becoming favorites.