2000 Herb of the Year: Rosemary

Rosemary, the International Herb Association’s Herb of the Year for 2000.

| February/March 2000


Rosmarinus officinalis


Cranberry Nut Bars with Rosemary 

Throughout its long and varied folk history, rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) has been esteemed as a token of love, loyalty, and friendship. In Italy, women would tap a sprig of flowering rosemary against the fingers of a would-be lover for any signs of reciprocal affection. Italians also tossed rosemary sprigs into the grave as a symbolic gesture to remember and celebrate the life of the deceased. And in the Victorian England’s “language of flowers,” rosemary signified “remembrance.” According to European folklore, rosemary could ward off evil and grew only in the gardens of the righteous. Greek scholars placed rosemary wreaths on their heads to stimulate their brains and aid memory before taking exams. (Today, studies are under way on rosemary’s antioxidant properties and their effect on the brain.) Rosemary incense was burned to ­fumigate courtrooms in seventeenth- century France and England, and ­during World War II, French hospital officials, desperate for supplies, burned rosemary and juniper branches for the same purpose.

I received my first rosemary plant as a gift from a dear friend along with an old adage: “Where Rosemary flourishes, the Lady dominates.” I often find myself quoting this at plant sales; women shoppers laugh knowingly and purchase a plant. A version from eighteenth-century Gloucestershire is blunter: “Rosemary will not grow well unless the Mistress is master.” (It’s said that some men were so outraged by this statement that they ripped out any robust rosemary plants that they encountered.) At our house and nursery, more than forty different cultivars of rosemary now flourish, a circumstance my wife constantly points out to me.

The plant

“Rosemary is to the spirit as lavender is to the soul,” another old saying goes, and I do feel a gardening “spirit” as I walk among my rosemary cultivars. Of all the herbs I grow, rosemary blooms in the bleakest of times: an Oregon winter. As I brush against the foliage, its fragrance—reminiscent of pine forests with a hint of ginger—is always uplifting and refreshing. In the garden, rosemary ­always looks good and needs ­little care.

Rosemary is an evergreen shrub of the mint family (Lamiaceae). It has inch-long dark green, leathery, needlelike leaves whose edges roll down and inward. The undersides are covered with a silver fuzz. Small clusters of 1/2-inch flowers on short stalks grow in the leaf axils on the previous year’s woody growth during the fall and winter. The two-lipped corolla resembles a miniature orchid: the upper lip is narrow and two-lobed; the lower lip has two narrow lateral lobes and a much larger, ruffle-edged central lobe. The flowers of most cultivars are blue, anything from pale blue to rich, fluorescent dark blue, but forms with white, pink, and even red flowers also exist. All are extremely attractive to honeybees. The fruit is a tiny, smooth, round nutlet.


Rosemaries may be either upright or creeping. During their first three years of life, upright forms grow straight upward and remain narrow, but later they bush out. Despite the saying that rosemary cannot grow taller than 6 feet (the height of Jesus Christ) in thirty-three years (his life span), an ancient rosemary I saw growing in the bottom of a dry moat in England is some 10 feet tall and 12 feet wide.

elderberry, echinacea, bee hive


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