People often ask me “what is your favourite herb?”. My standard reply is “It depends!”. When it comes to culinary herbs (the only kind I grow) I have several favourites of equal status, influenced by the time of year or the type of dish I’m cooking. Thus chives, dill, parsley, basil and thyme would be by more most-used herbs while mint (various kinds), sage, chervil and oregano would follow a little way behind. I’m not keen on the flavour of anise so fennel lags a little behind, though I still grow and use it quite regularly.
But the herb for which I have the greatest affection, just as a plant to grow and all culinary reasons apart, is rosemary.
Where cooking is concerned I class rosemary with my B list favourites, though when it comes to lamb and roast potatoes this has to be a Number One choice. To me, the main virtue of rosemary in a dish is that its resinous flavour offsets fattiness – one reason of course why it goes so well with lamb. But rosemary works equally well with both pork and beef spareribs, adding a keen edge to the overall eating experience.
The real reason I am so fond of rosemary, however, is because it is more aesthetically pleasing than most herbs and very rewarding to grow. A little rosemary in the kitchen goes a long way but because it’s a useful landscape plant I grow a lot of it anyway. It’s a great plant for borders (my herb garden is bordered with trimmed rosemary), rockeries (because it likes good drainage), dry spots, pots, or just as a single specimen. One of the most effective simple garden beds I ever saw was in Italy, on a dry hillside, where six parterres of clipped rosemary each encircled a single white rose bush.
Rosemary grows in all but very tropical climates with heavy monsoon rains and though it looks at its best and lasts longest in Mediterranean and warm-temperate climates it adapts very nicely to desert and subtopical zones. It can even be grown as a summer plant in cold climates, but heavy snow will kill it so it should be kept in a pot and brought into a warm, protected environment in winter.
This plant is so versatile that the different climates merely mean a slightly different management regime. As with lavender, in my subtropical mountaintop climate I don’t treat rosemary as a perennial in the real sense of the word but replace my bushes every five years for maximum good looks. The plant continues growing long after that but starts to look straggly. In colder and less humid climates rosemary bushes keep their looks a lot longer.
The basic rules for rosemary are good drainage, regular watering (but not over-watering), and regular tip pruning with a good cut back (about one third) in autumn. This means profuse flowering when spring comes round again – and my rosemary flowers from spring right through to the following autumn. I don’t give my rosemary any fertilizer as such but add a dose of compost around the base of newly-planted seedlings about three months after they go into the ground. I repeat this once a year in late spring, Pot plants get fed twice a year with a cheap all purpose liquid fertilizer . Avoid high nitrogen fertilizers or plants will be reluctant to flower. My soil is rather acid so I sprinkle dolomite around my rosemary bushes twice a year, in early spring and late summer.
The best mulch for rosemary is gravel – the paler in colour the better. This will warm the plant, help prevent root-rot diseases and protect the shallow roots from heavy rain and soil erosion. It will also keep down weeds. Coarse bark is also an acceptable mulch, or nutshells, but “soft” mulches such as hay and leafmould will encourage the root-rot pathogens that are the only problem that ever seems to effect this tough herb.
Whether or not rosemary actually stimulates the memory, as has been claimed, I’ve no idea. Some recent studies do tend to indicate that its scent has some beneficial effect on brain function but this isn’t conclusive. I DO know that this plant looks good all year, gives a healthful smell to the garden, is useful in the kitchen and as a dried herb for fragrancy in drawers and cupboards, is much-loved by bees, versatile in landscaping – and requires very little effort to grow.
The rose of Mary – you don’t have to be a Christian to appreciate the grace of this name. No plant, in my opinion, deserves it more.