Not just an herb: Gardeners using rosemary for its color, scent, versatility|[06/21/08]

Published 12:00 am Saturday, June 21, 2008

Landscapers are finding new ways to use one of the most popular herbs – rosemary.

It makes an attractive year-round ornamental shrub or ground cover and functions well in a xeriscape garden, which requires little irrigation or maintenance. Rosemary is easy to grow in the ground or in a container.

An evergreen shrub with scaly bark and needlelike leaves, green on top and white and hairy underneath, rosemary, from a distance, appears grayish-green. Pungent and piney smelling, it is easy to identify and can grow 4 to 5 feet tall if conditions are right. For centuries, it has grown wild in the hills of countries along the Mediterranean Sea, Portugal and northwestern Spain.

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Rosemary is not too picky about soil – optimum pH is 6-5-7.0 – but, like most herbs, drainage is important, particularly during the rainy winter months when poor drainage can lead to root rot. For this reason, many gardeners grow it in raised beds. If it likes a spot, it will thrive in full sun or partial shade. It has few enemies in the pest world and is an attractive plant year round. But, gardeners who try to grow it indoors may find difficulties. Indoor rosemary is prone to mildew and spider mites.

Rosemary is the traditional symbol of remembrance, friendship and love. In many countries, brides wear it in their hair or carry it in their bouquets. At funerals, mourners toss fresh sprigs into the grave as a sign that the departed will not be forgotten.

For centuries, rosemary has been an important medicinal herb. Herbalists have used it to treat rheumatism, sores, eczema, bruises, wounds, depression, headaches, muscle spasms and digestive problems. Queen Elizabeth of Hungary was said to have been cured of paralysis of the joints by rubbing them with rosemary oil and alcohol. None of these claims have been verified clinically; however, a few of rosemary’s medicinal properties have been confirmed, and it’s listed officially in the U.S. Pharmacopoeia, says Rodale’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of Herbs.

Most of us know it as a pungent herb used on meats, particularly roasted ones. It can add distinctive flavor to vegetables and soups, marinades, salad dressings and cream sauces. The tiny flowers and fresh stems make attractive garnishes.

Bold and graceful, rosemary has found its way into the ornamental garden scene. When I visited the Dallas Arboretum last fall, I was surprised to see it being used in flower beds and in large planters. Some of the plants were sculpted into tree shapes and pyramids, while others were allowed to grow as nature intended. Some varieties grow more horizontally, and those covered the ground in certain sections or trailed in planters at the Arboretum. The foliage looked attractive growing with colorful marigolds, salvia, coleus, geraniums, cosmos, zinnias, ruellas, sedums, perillas and roses.

One reason landscapers have found it useful as an ornamental plant is because rosemary is not bothered by reflected heat that radiates from a sunny wall. It can be used in containers on patios and terraces or planted in beds along a hot wall. Since it is evergreen, it provides some color during the winter when other plants are dormant.

I rooted the plant I have from a cutting made in the fall, but cuttings can be taken in spring as well. Another propagation method that works with rosemary is layering. A low-growing piece can be covered with soil and secured with a wire pin, rock or brick and mulched. The soil should be periodically watered if the weather is dry. I generally scrape the piece that comes in contact with the soil before I layer a plant stem. This stimulates rooting hormones. Leave it in place for at least three to four months before severing it from the mother plant. If it rooted, the new plant will be ready to transplant to another location.

Rosemary plants are generally available at local nurseries in spring and early summer. It should be planted in a place the grower intends to keep it. It doesn’t like to moved around. Rosemary can be harvested anytime, but care should be taken not to remove more than 20 percent of the plant at a time.

Miriam Jabour, a Master Gardener and master flower show judge, has been active with the Vicksburg Council of Garden Clubs for more than 20 years. Write to her at 1114 Windy Lake Drive, Vicksburg, MS 39183.