Mother Earth Living

The Essence of Rosemary: Rosemary Hall of Fame

The signature scent of the season can boost your mood, flavor food and, possibly, make you smarter.
By Barbara Pleasant
December/January 2009
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'Joyce DeBaggio' adds showy color to garden beds and borders.
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Rosemary is easy to grow in the garden or pot. Give this Mediterranean native full sun and well-drained, slightly alkaline soil and it will be quite content. The difficult part is choosing which rosemary to grow.

With more than 30 varieties from which to choose, finding the best rosemary for your gardening and cooking plans can be daunting. The varieties described here are a good start, but also check with a local greenhouse grower. You might discover locally popular strains with original names. Where I live, for example, the most widely planted trailing rosemary is ‘Over the Edge’.

Most Beautiful

For good branching structure in a container, try ‘Herb Cottage’ or ‘Blue Spires’. Both are easy to keep trimmed and tidy. Young plants of most varieties of rosemary can be trained to wire topiary forms; the twisted stems of ‘Blue Lady’ are fun to grow as dramatic bonsai plants.

In the garden, the white stems and flowers of ‘Alba’ create a luminous glow that can be used to great effect when contrasted with red basils or mounds of dark green curly parsley. If you dare, try the opposite approach by placing the chartreuse leaves of ‘Joyce DeBaggio’ against a dark green background. And, although truly huge specimens can only be grown in Zones 8 and 9, head-high hedges of ‘Tuscan Blue’ are year-round workhorses in Sun Belt landscapes.

Creeping rosemary billowing over a stone wall or carpeting the edges of a hypertufa container is a mesmerizing sight. Creeping rosemary tends to have plenty of piney scent but lacks the cold tolerance and balanced sweet/savory flavor of upright varieties. For a spreading growth habit and good flavor, consider a semi-upright grower, such as white-flowering ‘Nancy Howard’ or ‘Mrs. Howard’s Creeping’, which produces repeat flushes of blue blossoms.

Best Tasting

This is a subjective choice. Although a few palates prefer the strongly pine-scented creeping cultivars, the gentler, more rounded flavor of ‘Tuscan Blue’ sets the standard for superior table quality. Varieties that feature big, densely packed leaves such as ‘Gorizia’ and ‘Spice Island’ give the highest yields of fresh leaves for making rosemary pesto or drying. Cooks who are happiest near a hot grill love the stiff, straight stems of ‘Barbecue’ and ‘Miss Jessup’s Upright’ as skewers for herb-scented kabobs.

Best for a Christmas Tree

When horticulturalists at the University of Illinois screened 16 rosemary cultivars to see which performed best when sheared into potted Christmas trees, some familiar names emerged. ‘Taylor’s Blue’, ‘Herb Cottage’, ‘Joyce DeBaggio’ and ‘Shady Acres’ were among the best performers when grown from cuttings rooted in spring, and sheared monthly from August to October.

Most Cold Hardy

Many gardeners in Zone 6 have good luck with gray-green ‘Arp’, which Francesco DeBaggio at DeBaggio Herbs in Chantilly, Virginia, rates as hardy to negative 10 degrees. More compact, green-leafed ‘Hill Hardy’ (sometimes known as ‘Madalene Hill’) and white-flowered ‘Alba’ often survive to 0 degrees, especially in urban environments where there is plenty of heat-retaining concrete around. Keep in mind that trailing varieties are generally less cold-tolerant than upright varieties, and should not be trusted to survive winter north of Zone 8.

Sources: Companion Plants, (740) 592-4643, ; Goodwin Creek Gardens, (800) 846-7359, ; Mountain Valley Growers, (559) 338-2775, ; Mulberry Creek Herb Farm, (419) 433-6126, .

Contributing editor Barbara Pleasant, author of The Whole Herb (Square One, 2004), writes and gardens at her home in Virginia.

For the main article The Essence of Rosemary, click here.

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