This month, one herb stands out as the quintessential symbol of the spirit of the holidays. Perhaps Shakespeare’s Ophelia said it best: “There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance.”
Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) is a tender perennial herb that can be grown in a container and can even be clipped and trained as topiary. A Christmas-tree-shaped rosemary strung with tiny twinkle lights, sitting in a pot on the coffee table, fills the room with the beloved piney fragrance so reminiscent of holidays, traditions, and friendships. Run your hand across the needlelike leaves, or just brush up against the plant, and the intense fragrance is released into the air.
Rosemary is generally hardy outdoors only to about Zone 8, or climates where temperatures stay above about 10°F, although there are some hardier varieties available today that extend that reach to about 25°F. Here in Las Vegas, one sees great stands of prostrate rosemary spilling over divider walls, thriving in this warm, dry climate. It is a Mediterranean herb, so it prefers full sun, slightly alkaline soil, and excellent drainage, and it is somewhat drought tolerant.
In most climates, rosemary must be grown in a container and wintered indoors. It is somewhat of a challenge, but well worth the trouble. Use a fast-draining potting mix; the addition of perlite helps. Choose a porous container with adequate drainage holes, as soggy soil encourages root rot. Check the plant daily and water as needed, taking care not to let it dry out. Keep a mister nearby so that you can give it a squirt when you walk by.
There are enough handsome rosemary varieties to feed the most voracious of collectors, from the stiffly upright forms to graceful creeping varieties with long branches that twist and curl around themselves. Leaf color can be grayish green to golden. The tiny flowers range in color from the traditional blue to pink and white. Generally, rosemary begins to bloom right about now, through spring, but some varieties, particularly the prostrate rosemaries, can bloom almost continuously throughout the year. One charming legend claims that rosemary got its blue flowers when the Virgin Mary hung her cloak on a rosemary bush to dry.
Once you have an established rosemary plant, the fun begins, because its potential uses are endless. In the kitchen, its robust flavor and aroma make it classic and indispensable. Used in everything from soup to sauce to bread, it pairs wonderfully with poultry, beef, lamb, cheese, and eggs, and all manner of vegetables such as peas, mushrooms, and tomatoes. Rosemary and garlic potatoes are a favorite at my house; rosemary can even enhance a humble hamburger. Rosemary branches can do double duty when used as skewers for barbecuing or to brush on a marinade.
Rosemary dries well, holding onto much of its flavor. To dry it, strip the leaves from the stems and lay them out on paper towels so that they’ll dry faster; when they’re crispy dry to the touch, store them in an airtight glass jar away from heat and light. You can also freeze whole sprigs of rosemary. When you want to use it, you can easily strip as many leaves as you need off the frozen stems. For most uses, you’ll want to crush or mince the leaves before tossing them in the pot.
Although the kitchen is the most obvious destination for your rosemary trimmings, this versatile herb holds many charms for crafters. Its strong, pleasant fragrance makes it especially suitable for potpourris, sachets, and wreaths. It can be hung in a bag under the bathtub faucet for an invigorating bath. Rosemary is loaded with antioxidants, which makes it very useful for preserving foods. If you’ve got a bumper crop of rosemary, you can even toss some dried sprigs in the fireplace for a delightful holiday scent.
Rosemary is my hands-down favorite herb. Years ago, when I first applied for the job as editor of The Herb Companion, before I left the house for an interview with the publisher I brushed myself against the stems of a huge rosemary plant hanging in my foyer so that she would remember me. I guess it worked.
Kathleen Halloran, former editor of The Herb Companion, is now a freelance writer and editor living in Las Vegas, Nevada.