Growing Rosemary: You'll Remember the Taste

It won't take much to make you remember the delicious taste of rosemary on fresh-baked bread, but rosemary is said to improve your memory in other ways as well. Not only is rosemary an excellent cooking herb, it makes a very desirable ornamental plant in warmer zones. Even gardeners in cooler zones can grow rosemary by overwintering it in the house. With it's beautiful flowers, fragrant foliage and wonderful taste, rosemary deserves a place in every garden.

Rosemary is native to the Mediterranean coastal areas, and it likes a warm, dry, sunny growing spot. In it's native growing region rosemary makes large, shrubby plants that can be six feet high or more. In most other areas rosemary will not get as large, although it can make impressive landscape plants in some southern areas. Rosemary has narrow, needle-like leaves that remain green and on the plant all year. The leaves release a strong, pleasant scent when brushed or crushed. There are varieties of rosemary that grow upright and varieties that sprawl or form low ground covers. Rosemary can have blue, white or pink flowers. There are a few varieties of rosemary that are winter-hardy to Zone 6, but even those should be planted in a protected spot against a building or at least wrapped in burlap for the winter.

Growing rosemary
Rosemary is generally purchased as a plant. Seeds of rosemary do not germinate well and it does not come true from seed. Rosemary starts easily from cuttings.

Rosemary likes sandy, well-drained soil. If you have heavy clay, it might be best to plant your rosemary in a container or raised bed. Gardeners in Zone 6 and above should plant rosemary in containers so they can bring it inside for the winter.

The worst thing you can do to rosemary is over-water it; soil in containers needs to drain well. In the landscape, place rosemary with other plants that don't require frequent watering. A little balanced garden fertilizer in spring, as new growth begins, is all the feeding rosemary requires.

Bring in rosemary plants before the temperatures go below freezing. Indoors, rosemary plants should be in the brightest light possible, preferably a south window. Don't fertilize, and allow the pot to dry before watering. A place with good air circulation is best. Some people use a small fan on their rosemary plants to help them avoid fungal diseases in the winter. Repot with new soil and lightly fertilize before placing the rosemary back out in the spring.

Rosemary planted in Zones 7 and below responds nicely to pruning and shaping and is often turned into topiary. It is sometimes shaped like a small Christmas tree and sold as a seasonal decoration.

Choosing varieties
Arp and Hills Hardy are hardy to Zone 6 with protection. Gorizia and Tuscan Blue are upright varieties with large leaves and light-blue flowers that are favored for cooking. Nancy Howard is a large variety with almost white flowers. Pink Marjorca is a large plant that blooms prolifically in pale pink. Pinkie is a dwarf plant with pink flowers. Blue Boy is a dwarf plant with blue flowers. Collingwood Ingram is a trailing variety of rosemary with deep blue-purple flowers. Golden Rain is a trailing variety lightly variegated with gold. Blue Rain is a very good trailing variety for pots and baskets, with light-blue flowers that bloom for a long period.

Using rosemary
In the garden, upright rosemary is often trimmed into hedges or topiary figures. Trailing varieties are excellent as ground covers, on banks and walls and in hanging baskets.

As a cooking herb, rosemary has some unique properties. It is a very strong flavoring and should be used with a light hand until you are used to the flavor. Cooking does not diminish the flavor. Most cooks prefer to use fresh rosemary in recipes. Dried rosemary has a slightly different flavor and is very strong. The leaves do not soften much as they cook, so they should be chopped finely or whole sprigs can be used that are removed before serving. Rosemary aids digestion and is often used to season fatty meats. It is used with lamb and fish and in potato dishes. Rosemary also is a good seasoning for bread. One of my favorite uses is to lightly oil the top of bread dough, sprinkle with finely chopped rosemary and bake. Rosemary is used with oranges in some recipes and used to flavor lemonade. Sprigs of rosemary can be thrown on the grill and the smoke will season grilled meats.

Rosemary has long been used as a rinse for hair and in other cosmetic preparations. Ancient Greek scholars wore wreaths of rosemary to help them remember their lessons. The scent of rosemary is said to enhance memory. Sprigs of rosemary are given out at weddings and funerals to signify remembrance. Rosemary was burned in early hospitals and sick rooms to cleanse the air.

Modern research is studying the antioxidant and antibacterial properties of rosemary and has found that rosemary is an excellent food preservative.

Cautions
Culinary uses of rosemary are generally safe, although some people may have allergic reactions to the herb. Medicinal uses of rosemary and the handling of rosemary essential oil should be avoided by pregnant women. Rosemary essential oil is absorbed through the skin and can be toxic. It should never be consumed or applied full-strength to the skin. There are reports that strong scents, such as rosemary essential oil, can bring on seizures and may contribute to auto-immune diseases.

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Pruning rosemary is the perfect way for beginners to learn how to prune. Rosemary are very forgiving plants and, given that your rosemary is well drained and getting plenty of sun, it's almost impossible to kill this hardy plant.

How to grow rosemary-Although available as seeds, sowing rosemary seeds is erratic. Most often purchased as live, potted plants. More mature plants will usually be expensive.

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