Herb of the month: Rosemary

In keeping with The SAVOR Project’s mission, I like to feature content that incorporates a hearty helping of mindful eating + therapeutic horticulture education, grounded in everyday strategies to engage positively with our food.

So….rosemary! Rosmarinus officinalis is one of my favorite herbs, and perfect to kick off the first of a series of monthly edible gardening highlights. Rosemary is a botanical star, even as cooler temperatures move us toward winter when many gardens are at rest.

In every house that I’ve lived in throughout my grown-up life (which I jokingly date to the time I began growing plants, waaaaaaay back in 2001), I’ve either planted or inherited a sprawling, woody rosemary shrub.

In 2020, on the property I named Lavender Belle Farm, a huge rosemary was already established right outside the back door, near the railroad tie staircase that led to the southern slope. The previous occupants raised a family in our house for 20 years; the original owners, since its construction in 1979. I like to think about the many children who were conceived, raised, and launched on the land that made up our little farm, which we occupied for too short a time (but upon which we made a sizeable edible landscaping footprint).

The trunk of this old rosemary shrub was thick and gnarled. Originally planted in a wine barrel, now disintegrated, the shrub fought for survival every spring as a tenacious vinca minor (an unfortunate planting!) threatened to smother the herb. Luckily, I like rosemary more than the weedy groundcover, and together, we prevailed each year.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock: Akkalak Aiempradit

When we first moved in, I found – at the rosemary’s base, a colorful assortment of collected rocks, marbles, and toys: the treasure of children long grown and surely the source of many stories.

Rarely a day passed when I didn’t brush by the rosemary’s aromatic branches, deliberately or otherwise; cut a few branches for kebabs or herbal bouquets; or simply stop to savor the bright green evergreen needles and purple blossoms that drew pollinators throughout the warmer months.

When we left our peri-urban environment outside Portland and moved into a densely populated neighborhood of Seattle, Washington, we lost both the woods that surrounded our farm as well as the diverse understory that grew beneath and around us. In our new environment, old homes (with mature trees, and shrubs) are often razed to the ground and replaced with a patchwork of asphalt, big box store junipers, and multiple rows of skinny townhouses.

Since December 2020, for nine months, we rented one of those townhouses. I gardened in containers hauled to the rooftop. Eventually, we purchased another townhouse, this time with no rooftop but a narrow bedroom balcony and a tiny front yard, located a few blocks away. No established rosemary shrub awaited me this time. Only flagstone paving, and several sickly rhododendrons.

So I bought another metal trough at a gardening store, to complement the one we’d hauled down off our rooftop once my sunflower patch was composted. I began again, beginning with a 5 gallon ‘Gorizia.”

Now my newest Rosmarinus officinalis keeps company with several propagated lavender from our old farm, hyssop that I’ve grown from seed, chives, ornamental allium bulbs, saffron crocus, spicy oregano, and thyme. In the few weeks that we’ve lived here, I’ve spied both bees and Anna hummingbirds visiting the rosemary’s blossoms.

While it’s unlikely that this container version will grow as large as the rosemary shrub on our old farm, I’m still reminded of the many rosemary bushes of my past. I see different varieties of this hardy, colorful shrub whenever I step out of our car or take our dog for a walk. My herb garden trough is parked right on the edge of the sidewalk, for all the neighborhood to see (and savor).

Who knows: Maybe my little rosemary shrub will serve as the inspiration for future gardeners, who regularly pass and reach out to touch the aromatic needles or to admire the many creatures of our local ecosystem that visit it as well.

Suggested exercises:

  • Cut a sprig of rosemary from your own front yard or a neighbor’s (with permission!), or purchase a bundle from a farmer’s market or grocery store. Place one sprig in a cup of water and feature it somewhere prominent, such as your dining table. Whenever you walk by, pause and invite yourself to savor the sensory experience offered by this aromatic, attractive herb.
  • Research a new recipe that includes rosemary. Keep it simple. Practice the steps of mindful eating and observe your experience of consuming this herb. On a scale of 0 – 10 (with 0 = I don’t care for this herb, and 10 = I love it and want more), how would you rate your taste preference?
  • Buy a small pot of rosemary at your local plant nursery or garden store, perhaps as a holiday for yourself. Plant it somewhere where you will see it every day. Watch as it grows and changes over the year. When does it bloom? What insects or creatures visit? Which season(s) of rosemary is your favorite?

Tips for growing rosemary:

Rosemary is an evergreen, perennial herb, adaptable to a variety of environments. Just don’t let it develop soggy feet – and protect it from extremely cold temperatures. Rosemary is great in a four-season garden as a year-round backdrop of green, with blue to purple flowers typically present between spring and winter.

Check out this article from the OSU Extension Office about growing herbs, or this article from Sunset Magazine regarding choosing the rosemary variety that’s right for you.

Culinary uses of rosemary:

The sky’s the limit: from kebabs and skewers, soups and stews, to a pesto that packs a punch, to drying or mixing with other herbs to create a medley. I’m particularly fond of a “light herb blend” of dried oregano, thyme, and rosemary, useful for adding to sauteed vegetables, great on roasted potatoes, and for fish or other meat dishes. Rosemary is also great distilled in oils, vinegars, or syrups to add flavor to a variety of foods, or sprinkled on homemade breads like focaccia. Just be careful – rosemary’s flavor can be strong, and it increases with cooking time.

Therapeutic benefits of rosemary:

Nearly daily, I’ll encounter a rosemary bush (or multiple shrubs, usually) while out on a stroll, and I’ll stroke the evergreen needles to release its scent. Rosemary is a home base, a botanical pick-me-up, and a soothing or stimulating object, depending upon my current mood.

Decorative uses, which are worth savoring in their own right, include homemade front door wreaths, as a place setting at a holiday table (just be sure to bring it back outside again), and sprigs to complete a flower bouquet or dress up a rustic gift wrapping.

Finally, although it is beyond the scope of this blog post to extensively explore the potential health benefits of rosemary and other herbs, a recent medical journal literature review found that “rosemary has appeared as a worthy source for curing inflammation, analgesic, anti-anxiety, and memory boosting.” Anecdotally, I know that contact with rosemary – from planting, tending, harvesting, and cooking, has brought me pleasure over these past twenty years.

I look forward to many more years of enjoyment.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock:  Volodymyr Nik

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