Garden Lifestyle

Rosemary: A Robust Herb of Winter

The bracing scent of rosemary brightens our mood and our cooking. Best of all, rosemary is an easy herb to grow and maintain. It can be wintered over indoors in cold climates.

  • The spiky needles of rosemary add robust flavor to winter dishes.
    Photo/Illustration: Susan Belsinger
  • Rosemary (here overshadowed by bay) can be grown in a raised bed.
    Photo/Illustration: Susan Belsinger
  • A Mediterranean herb garden in Texas, where rosemary grows outdoors year round.
    Photo/Illustration: Susan Belsinger

We cannot claim positively that any herb lightens doldrums or depression, but we are always cheered when we brush rosemary leaves through our fingers to release its refreshing scent. Its quintessential fragrance of seacoast with pines affects us like an offshore breeze at early evening. The drears and dulls are blown away, even if we are miles from the sea and enduring the freezing days of February.

The Romans transplanted rosemary to England, where the sea-saturated climate of the south was mild enough to favor it. The name is from the Latin ros marinus, dew of the sea. It flourished through the Medieval and Renaissance periods, every garden having its single or several bushes, often pruned in fanciful or symmetrical shapes. Some favorite uses of the essential oil, or the leaves and flowers, were in refreshing baths, as an insect and moth repellent, as a mouthwash, and in liniments.

Country Pea Soup with Rosemary
  Country Pea Soup with Rosemary makes a fine winter supper. Get the recipe…

Rosemary is not as popular a culinary herb in the U.S. as in Europe. In Italy, where it is much loved, a sprig of rosemary (and sometimes a branch of sage as well) are commonly included with purchases at butcher shops in Northern Italy.  Italians consider it excellent with roast meats, poultry, and fish. Branches of rosemary are usually put on the coals when lamb and kid are roasted. It is also used in stews, bean dishes, with potatoes, and in certain sweets. It is also served with the cheese course, in lieu of dessert, chopped fine and strewn over Pecorino cheese drizzled with fine Tuscan olive oil.

Rosemary’s aroma is a combination of fir, balsam, and ocean air. Its components of tannin and camphor give it a moderate bitterness and pepperiness, which are especially good with foods rich in fat or with bland foods, such as potatoes or legumes. For some, the flavor of rosemary is very strong, but its champions like the warmth and richness it gives to hearty dishes and its spiciness with more delicate fare. Dried rosemary may be generally used for fresh, with the exception of use with cheeses.

Rosemary must be dried in the whole needle to preserve its oils, but it should be ground or tied in cheesecloth to prevent the sensation of chewing on pine needles. The strength of the dried herb varies greatly, but commonly the amount used is one-quarter that of fresh.

How to grow rosemary

Rosemary in container
  Rosemary grows well in containers.

Although rosemary is a true Mediterranean plant and will not survive extremely cold winters, it can be grown in pots with the following care. Keep the plants in appropriately sized containers, transplanting as necessary. When transplanting, allow plenty of room for the roots. Use a mix of perlite, large-grained sterile sand  granite dust, and/or chicken grit for good drainage and aeration along with a combination of humus and potting soil to make the best mix for growing Mediterranean herbs.

Set the plants outdoors in the summer, taking care to water them well. About one month before the first frost is expected, bring the plants to a protected area near the house. I keep my rosemary plants in a protected spot near the house and only bring them indoors when the temperatures are going to drop to below 30°F. Then I bring them into my greenhouse, which is passive solar, so it is fairly cool in there. They are better off outdoors with fresh air until the last minute rather than indoors with dry heat. Rosemary loves light and this need must be met in the house or garden. I move them back outdoors as soon as the really cold weather has passed—usually in March in my zone 7 garden.

Floating row cover protects tender rosemary
  A floating row cover offers winter protection to rosemary.

For those of you in warmer climes, you are lucky to be able to grow your rosemary outdoors year round. You can see in the photos how they thrive in Texas. There are a few hardier varieties that you can try to winter over in central U.S. such as ‘Salem’, ‘Hill Hardy’, and ‘Arp’, but I haven’t found anyone who was able to winter them over outdoors in the northern states. If it is going to be very cold with freezing temps, we wrap our rosemary plants with a few layers of Reemay (floating row cover) to keep them from freezing and drying out. This has worked for us so far and we were able to bring them through a long, cold winter.

Mediterranean herb garden

Above: Rosemary features prominently in a Mediterranean herb garden in Round Top, Texas.

At left: a bay shrub and a sprawling rosemary plant in a Texas raised bed garden.

  Rosemary and bay in a raised bed garden

A cutting is the best way to start rosemary, as seed germination is slow. Rooted cuttings are generally available from herb or nursery suppliers. Rosmarinus officinalis is the herb to buy for culinary use, and the easiest to grow. There are a large number of varieties of R. officinalis, and from the cook’s point of view all can be used successfully—thin or thick-leaved, pink or blue-flowered, and pine-scented. All rosemary types are good for cooking. The varieties have different aromas, slightly different flavors, and quite different physical characteristics, such as plant and leaf size, variegation, flower color, and cold-hardiness; become familiar with them to discover which ones you like.

'Prostratus' rosemary
  ‘Prostratus’ rosemary in full bloom.

Water and mist rosemary regularly, and fertilize every couple of months, both outside and inside. Reduced sunlight and lower daytime temperatures in the house lessen the need for water; let the plants dry between watering.

In temperate gardens rosemary does very well against brick or stone. Some magnificent plants can be found growing against walls and barns in the southern U.S. and the Mediterranean region, where the plants spread by layering. It grows nicely as a freestanding shrub but requires more attention to avoid a straggly look. It can become a hedge if given the proper growing requirements. A low-growing tender variety, R. officinalis var. prostratus, makes a fine ground cover, growing from 10 to 12 inches tall and spreading easily.

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