Bartlett on Gardening: Dew of the Sea

Legend has it that the Virgin Mary rested under a bush during her flight to Egypt with the infant Jesus. When she laid her cloak on the white-flowered shrub, the flowers turned blue. The plant known as “Robe of Mary” morphed into rosemary.

Rosemary's Latin name, Rosmarinus, means “dew of the sea.” In ancient times, rosemary was worn by brides to symbolize fidelity. It was also laid upon graves as a sign of remembrance.

During the Middle Ages, rosemary was burned in hospitals of the day to purify the air and strewn on the floors of law courts to protect against “gaol fever.” Research has demonstrated that inhaling the essential oil does boost the immune system by decreasing the level of stress hormone. Some studies also link it to enhanced memory.

Rosemary contains not one but three potent antioxidants, rosmarinic acid, cornosic acid and cornosol. Toxic chemicals called HCAs are produced in meat, fish and poultry that are grilled, broiled or fried. (Roasting, baking and braising do not cause HCA production.) University research has shown that seasoning meats with rosemary prior to cooking at high temperatures significantly reduces the level of cancer-causing HCAs. The herb is equally effective fresh or dried.

Like its cousin lavender, sun-loving rosemary wants excellent drainage and lean, somewhat alkaline soil. Most cultivars are cold-hardy to zone 8. We live in zone 7, but winters have not been single-digit frosty for some time. I have one plant that is going into its fifth winter, so I would say that cold has not been an issue for me.

I surrendered to temptation and bought a rosemary topiary that looks like a little Christmas tree. I am not a great indoor gardener, and rosemary is not a great subject for a houseplant. The first problem is that my home is not a climate-controlled greenhouse. This plant must have full sun, which means eight hours a day. It likes a bit of humidity, so I place the potted plant on a pebble filled tray with a bit of water. The object is humidity not hydration. Rosemary likes to be on the dry side. Check to see if the soil is dry before watering. To water an indoor rosemary plant, place it in a pot of water for about 30 minutes and then allow it to drain thoroughly before returning it to the tray.

Christmas-tree shaped rosemary topiaries at Lowe's. Try to find a fresh green one.

Unfortunately, rosemary topiaries like mine have been under stress since leaving the grower for the store. After all, they have left plant paradise for a garden center. If you, too, must have one, try to find one that appears fresh rather than dried out. If it is already turning brown, it’s a hopeless situation. Always inspect the foliage for signs of pest problems. A white coating on the leaves is probably powdery mildew. A cottony webbing means spider mites. Those problems defeat the decorative purpose of the plant.

I will have to keep mine under a grow light in the guest room closet. That defeats the purpose of buying it for holiday decor, but might help it survive until I plant it outdoors.

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