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Rosemary

( Originally Published 1933 )



ROSMARINUS OFFICINALIS, L.

Labiatae Shrub

The rosemary is perennial in warm climates, but winter kills it in severe climates. In my garden it grows to eighteen inches or more and is treated as an annual, whereas in its home it is a woody evergreen shrub three to six feet high, and is often planted as a hedge. The whole plant, especially the leaves and flowering tops, is fragrant, the leaves more so than the flowers.

Root. The roots are fibrous and spreading.

Stem. The stems are a lighter green than the leaves, woody below and the upper ones are tomentose and very much branched.

Leaf. The leaves are evergreen, without stalks, very thick along the stems, in pairs, and from their axils other pairs grow out. They are long, narrow, obtuse, and covered with short hairs above, and about three-sixteenths of an inch across and one and one-half inches long. The whole surface is roughish and uneven, the under surface is lighter and covered with tiny glands, the margins roll tightly under like a "French roll" in sewing. They are fragrant without touching, but more so when rubbed, of nutmeg, pine needles, and heliotrope, all combining into a distinctive smell of their own. They taste bitter, resinous, of camphor, warm and distinctive.

Flower. My plants have never flowered, but along the Mediterranean they blossom from January to May and they are in axillary clusters, a pale blue, about one-half an inch long, and have the stamens exserted.

Seed. The seeds are light brown, oval, with a large white hilum at one end, and Vilmorin says the germinating power lasts four years.

Variety. The following varieties are mentioned: the common narrow-leaved rosemary; the broad-leaved rosemary; the silver-striped rosemary; and the gold-striped rosemary, which last can only be propagated by cuttings, and is said to be hardier than the silver. There is a variety known as Miss Jessup's upright.

HISTORY AND LEGEND

Rosemary was called Rosmaris by Ovid, and Rose Marinas by Pliny, which means sea dew. In olden days it was used at funerals instead of the more expensive incense. Later, however, the Mary in the name associated it with the Mother of Jesus, and the legend arose that when the Virgin Mary washed her sky-blue cloak she spread it over a rosemary bush to dry and the flowers were thenceforth blue.

Dioscorides, Galen, and Charlemagne mention it. Ibn Baithar says hunters stuffed their prey with the herb after they had taken out the entrails to keep it from smelling badly and that is was a well-known plant in Andalusia where the ovens were heated with it, as they still are to-day, and this nutmeg-like fragrance mingled with olive oil which greets us as we step off the ferry from Gibraltar to Algeciras, tells us we are in Spain. Narbonne honey is flavored with rosemary.

Rosemary is the emblem of remembrance and fidelity, as Ophelia: says to Laertes, Act IV, Scene V :

There's rosemary, that's for remembrance; Pray, love, remember.

It is supposed to bring good luck, prevent witchcraft, and to have disinfecting powers. Perhaps that is why it was used at funerals. In France it is even now placed in the hands of the dead, and in French hospitals it is the custom to burn rosemary with juniper berries to correct impure air and prevent infection.

Josselyn mentions rosemary in 1672, and it appears in Bartram's catalogue in 1807, and in Stearns' "The American Herbal" in 1801.

USES

Medicine. Rosemary oil is in all pharmacopoeias. The flowers are a stimulant, antispasmodic, emenagogue, and rubefacient, while the leaves are rubefacient and carminative.

Perfume. The oil of rosemary is secured by distilling the leafy tips and leaves, either fresh or dried. It gives the characteristic note to Hungary water, which was first made in 1370, eau de cologne cannot be made without it, and it is now used in cheap perfumery and in soaps. In Greece, Turkey, and southern France the rosemary in flower is so fragrant that the baths are perfumed with it and it is used in hair washes and tooth washes.

CULTURE

The plants come readily from seed which should be started as early as possible, indoors, if the plants are to grow large enough to cut the leaves early in the season. Cuttings can be made in January or later from plants carried over the winter indoors. Plants bought did not survive the journey and died. As the leaves are constantly cut one should occasionally stir the soil a little and feed with sheep manure, or other plant food. My plants are in a dry, sunny situation, in well-drained soil. The leaves of plants brought indoors in the winter are not as strongly fragrant.

Harvest. For drying, the leaves are picked as the plants flower, and dried in the shade, but when used fresh they can be picked at any time.

The commercial oils come from southern France, Spain, and the Dalmatian Islands. It is said, during the harvest season one can smell the rosemary off the Spanish coast long before sighting land.



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