( Originally Published 1933 )
The costmary, a native of western Asia and escaped a little in North America, is a hardy, weedy-looking plant growing three feet high in my garden and increasing rapidly from the side shoots until it is almost as thick as a shrub.
Root. The roots are shallow, wiry, slender, and branching.
Stem. The shrubby stems are ridged, one-quarter of an inch across, and the side shoots branch out from them, one growing out from the next.
Leaf. The leaves are long, narrow, rounded at the tip, gray-green and downy. The margins are "snipped about the edges," to quote Parkinson, and somewhat frilled. The stalks are as much as three inches long, and the lower leaves up to six inches in length, and about one and one-half inches across. They are very fragrant at the first sniff, smelling, without crushing, pleasantly of lemon, chrysanthemum, and a bit of mint.
Flower. The flowers come in August in terminal clusters of twelve or more. They are round, flat, daisy-like, and have a yellow center with short white ray florets, and are about three-quarters of an inch across. Bailey says when the white rays are absent the plant is known as var. tanacetoides.
HISTORY AND LEGEND
The name balsamita comes from its balsamic odor; costmary from costus, a violet-scented plant from the Himalayas, the roots of which made an expensive perfume; and from the Virgin Mary to whom the plant seems to have been dedicated in most European countries; alecost, because of its function of aromatizing ale and beer. Al Makkari, a historian of Arabic Spain, who wrote in the fifteenth century, says the plants were a well-known product of Spain and were exported to all parts of the world for the sweetness of their scent. In Elizabethan England the leaves were put amongst the sweet herbs to make a "sweet washing water." Parkinson says the leaves were brewed "to comfort both stomache and heart and to warm a moist, dry brain." (The italics are mine.) The leaves were formerly used in salads but are too bitter for most modern palates. Samuel Stearns mentions it in "The American Herbal" in 1801.
Medicine. The volatile oil is used, and it appears in the "National Standard Dispensary" of 1916, but is not important medicinally.
Food. In France the leaves are sometimes used as a condiment and it has entered into veal stuffing. The dried leaves make a good tea.
Costmary is perfectly hardy, but dies down to the ground every winter, coming up again the following spring. It seems to like a dry, sunny situation and average garden soil.
I increased mine from cuttings of the root.
Harvest. The leaves are cut off before the plant flowers. The young leaves seem more tender than the old ones.