By Jennifer McDonald, Mobile County Master Gardener / CoastalAlabamaGardening@gmail.com
Few herbs are more beloved than rosemary, and if you love cooking, there’s a good chance you’ve had some in your kitchen recently. Rosemary is an evergreen shrub with spiky aromatic leaves that offer a lovely scent and year-round usefulness to the home gardener.
The name “rosemary” comes from the Latin word meaning “dew of the sea,” and the plant is native to the rocky areas along the Mediterranean Sea. Rosemary is often grown as a shrub, but even as a small houseplant it can be useful. The spiky, aromatic leaves are enormously popular in cooking, particularly in Mediterranean cuisines such as Italian, Spanish, Greek and Lebanese.
Rosemary is often used in numerous other ways, including as an ingredient in shampoo, facial treatments, fire starters, bug repellents and cat repellents.
For hundreds of years, the scientific name of the plant was Rosmarinus officinalis, which was classified as an entirely different genus from salvia. The scientific name was changed to Salvia rosmarinus in 2017 when experts concluded rosemary is actually a type of salvia, similar to sage. The common name “rosemary” remains the same.
Rosemary is also sometimes referred to as the “memory plant.” Some may recall Ophelia’s statement to her brother in Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” as she named helpful plants: “There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance.” Rosemary was used in ancient Roman burial rites to symbolize remembrance, and throughout centuries, healers and herbalists have used rosemary teas and essential oils to help with memory. Further research is necessary, but at least one scientific study has suggested rosemary may, in fact, play a role in improving memory function.
Rosemary is easy to grow at home, although the slow-growing plant can be a bit more difficult to start from seed. Most people will find it much easier to start with a transplant. When growing it in a pot, keep the plant in an area where it will receive about six hours of daily sun, and the soil should be kept moist but never soggy. Water it regularly but allow the soil at the surface to dry out between watering sessions. Rosemary responds badly to insufficient watering, but poor drainage and soggy roots can be just as destructive.
Many gardeners prefer to plant rosemary outdoors. It tends to do very well in our area, with shrubs often growing up to five feet tall. They prefer full sun but tolerate part shade. As with potted rosemary, good drainage is critical, allowing the soil to dry between watering. When given the space to grow outdoors, rosemary will develop strong and hardy roots, which help it withstand temporary periods of drought much better than potted plants.
The flavor of the aromatic leaves is strongest when eaten fresh, and Mobile gardeners are fortunate enough to enjoy fresh rosemary year-round by snipping sprigs from the plant as needed. It’s also very common to dry fresh rosemary for later use, and many cooks keep a jar of dried rosemary in the kitchen for regular use.
To harvest, cut off three-to-four-inch sprigs from stems that are at least eight inches long. Prepare for drying by washing and laying out the sprigs on a rack or paper towel for about an hour. From there, air-drying is a traditional method of drying rosemary.
Gather the sprigs in bundles of six or eight sprigs of similar length and tie together with twine. Hang the bundles in a dark and dry area for about two to three weeks. Once dry, the leaves or entire sprigs should be stored in airtight containers to use as needed.
If you are in a hurry, rosemary can be dried in a dehydrator, or in an oven set to 175 degrees. For the oven, spread the sprigs in a single layer on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Bake two to four hours until the stems are brittle, after which the leaves should be removed from the stems and stored in an airtight container.
Rosemary can also be infused or frozen in oil in cubes, which are great for soups, stews, dressings, marinades and a variety of other dishes.
For freezing, remove leaves from the stem and chop the leaves roughly into small pieces. Fill up about one-quarter to one-half of each ice cube tray (depending on the size of the tray) with the chopped herbs, and top them with extra virgin olive oil. Cover the tray with plastic wrap and freeze overnight.
Transfer the frozen cubes to an airtight container to store in the freezer for months and use as needed. You can drop them into soups or sautes, or use them to add flavor to countless dishes. You might also consider making frozen cubes with other herbs like sage, thyme and oregano — but rosemary is a must!
Gardening Events for Your Calendar:
What: Sign up for the 2020 Mobile County Master Gardener class
When: Wednesdays, 9 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., August 12 to November 11
Where: Mobile County Cooperative Extension Office, 1070 Schillinger Road N., Mobile
For more information: Call 251-574-8445, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit mobilecountymastergardeners.org
What: Plantasia Spring Plant Sale 2020
Where: Mobile Botanical Gardens, 5151 Museum Drive, Mobile
How: There’s a change this season, so you can still buy the best plants while practicing social distancing. Go to MBGrebloomshop.com and browse the wide selection of available plants. Place your order. The best plants will be chosen for you. And then stop by MBG to pick them up curbside!
What: Walking the trails of the Longleaf Forest
When: Dawn to dusk daily, no fee
Where: Mobile Botanical Gardens; as you drive into the MBG grounds, the Longleaf Forest is on your left.
What: Walking the trails of the Charles Wood Japanese Garden
When: Dawn to dusk daily, no fee
Where: 700 Forest Hill Drive, Mobile
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