A Castle Bromwich Herbiary - Rosemary

Rosemary (Rosmarinis Officinalus) and Gilded Rosemary (Rosmarinis Offcinalus 'Veregatus'). 

Rosemary is for remembrance
Between us day and night,
Wishing that I may always have
You present in my sight.

Traditional Greek Ballad

Caption at Castle Bromwich Hall Gardens.
Rosemary is native to the Mediterranean. Found growing wild along cliffs, near the sea – it is an evergreen shrubby herb with pungently aromatic leaves. John Evelyn the 17th century garden writer reported that the perfume was so strong that it could be detected 30 leagues off the coast of Spain.

Legend has it that the Virgin Mary spread her cloak over a rosemary bush while she rested, and as a result of this the flowers turned blue like her cloak. From then on, the bush was called ‘Rose of Mary.” 

Rosemary is also known as ‘Sea rose, Herb of Crowns, Mary’s Tree, Guardrobe, Incensier, Elf Leaf, Sea Dew, Dew of the Sea, Polar Plant, Mary’s Cloak, Libanotis, Stella Maria, Star of The Sea, Compass Weed and Compass Plant’

The word ‘Rosmarinus’ comes from the Latin word ‘rosmaris’ which means ‘dew of the sea’, which is a reference to rosemary’s refreshing effects on the spirit and the fact that rosemary’s habitat in the Mediterranean is usually along the coastal regions. 

Rosmarinus officinalis – Kohler Medizinal-Pflanzen – 1897 - Public Domain
The ancients knew well of rosemary’s refreshing effects- ancient Greek students would wear garlands of rosemary to increase their memory and this is how rosemary became to be called the ‘Herb of Crowns.’ 

Rosemary has long been recognised as a symbol of remembrance, and an example of its symbolic use today is seen at funerals where guests wear a sprig of rosemary and a sprig of rosemary is also cast onto the coffin of the deceased. 

Rosemary (Rosmarinus Officinalis)
The ancients also used rosemary as a respiratory ailment treatment and as sacred incense in some religious ceremonies. Sprigs of rosemary have been found in Egyptian Tombs (3000 BC.) It was the Arabs who first extracted the essential oil of Rosemary. The Romans used rosemary to decorate statues of their household Gods as rosemary symbolised stability. 

The plant produces masses of powder blue flowers from early spring to early summer, which are attractive to beneficial pollinators such as bees – which is useful in a Kitchen Garden containing trained fruit (espaliers, cordons and fans. The leaves on the Gilded Rosemary variety, as the name suggests, has a yellow gold-colour shot through the leaves.

Rosemary (Rosmarinus Officinalis)

Gilded Rosemary (Rosmarinus Offcinalis 'Veregatus')
Rosemary prefers a light soil. A sandy soil will fully satisfy its meagre feeding needs. Rosemary is actually tolerant of most soil conditions as long as they are not water-logged. 

Rosemary also prefers a slightly limey soil (the opposite of acid) because this results in smaller plants with more fragrant leaves. True to its origins, rosemary will grow well in sunny and sheltered conditions. It will even stand severe frosts if conditions are not windy and wet as well.

The ideal time to plant out rosemary is April. Dig a hole in the soil slightly larger than the size as the pot. Add 1cm (half an inch) of sandy soil or sharp sand to the bottom of the hole. Place the plant in the hole and fill around with a mix of half sharp sand and half from the removed soil.

Rosemary does not like to have its roots disturbed, so leave as much of the root ball undisturbed as possible. Water well if the conditions are at all dry.

Rosemary requires very little care throughout the year. Water only when the compost is clearly dried out and feed once a month with liquid fertiliser from April to October. Trim the side stems to keep the plant to the size you want, the best time to do this is just after they have flowered. Cut back frost-damaged plants to healthy wood; straggley, old plants can be cut back hard at the same time. If the puning is neglected, hard wood will form from which new growth is impossible to emerge.

Rosemary (Rosmarinus Officinalis) with hard wood accumulation

Seeds are readily available from most major seed merchants. The seeds are cheap, although propagation is erratic. Sow the seeds in potting compost around mid-May time and place in a sheltered position in the garden  - be aware that you may only achieve a  success rate of about 15%. The seedlings may well take up to 2 months to appear so don't give up hope until around 3 months have passed.

The best method of propagating Rosemary is by taking cuttings, mid-May or June being the best time.Select a healthy looking plant with lots of new growth on it. Use a sharp knife to take 7.5cm (3in) cutting from young shoots either just below a leaf joint or torn off at the stem. If tearing off a cutting, trim the "heel" to remove most, but not all of it. Strip of the leaves from the lower 4cm (1½in), pulling them off with your fingers. Fill a 7.5cm (3in) pot with standard potting compost and insert one or two cuttings in each pot. Water the compost from below and place in a propagator or cover it with a plastic bag. A temperature of 15°C to 20°C (60°F to 70°F) is needed for the cuttings to root. A windowsill out of direct sunlight is an ideal position. They can be transplanted to their permanent position when they have rooted, which will be in roughly 8 weeks.

Rosemary grows extremely well in large pots or other containers. The pots need to be reasonably deep because rosemary is a deep rooting herb. Fill the pot with a mixture of 20% sharp sand or grit and 80% standard potting compost. Make a hole in the compost and place one rooted cutting in the middle of the pot. Water the plant well to help it settle in and consolidate the soil around the roots. Container grown plants are more likely to affected by severe frosts, so move the containers close to the house walls in winter.

Gilded Rosemary (Rosmarinus Offcinalis 'Veregatus')

Pliny (23 - 79 AD), Dioscorides (contemporary of Pliny and author of De Materia Medica a work on the use and identification of medical herbs which was the basis of medical practice for the next 1400 years), and Galin all wrote of rosemary. It was cultivated by the Spanish in the 13th century and was a popular condiment with salt meats from the 15th to 18th centuries.

Rosemary was often entwined into a wreath, dipped in scented water and worn by brides at the alter. The wreath symbolized fidelity, love, abiding friendship and remembrance of the life the woman had led prior to her marriage.

The crowns and garlands of rosemary at weddings led to the lays, or amorous ballads of the Troubadours (approx. 1100 - 1350) referring to rosemary as "Coronaria".

Anne of Cleves (1515 - 1557), Henry the Eighth's 4th wife, wore a rosemary wreath at their wedding. At that time, wealthy bridal couples would also present a gilded branch of rosemary to each wedding guest.

Newly wed couples would also plant a branch of rosemary on their wedding day. If the branch grew it was a good omen for the union and family. In ‘A Modern Herbal’, Mrs Grieves says “A rosemary branch, richly gilded and tied with silken ribands of all colours, was also presented to wedding guests, as a symbol of love and loyalty.” Another example of rosemary’s use as a love charm was that a young person would tap another with a rosemary sprig and if the sprig contained an open flower, it was said that the couple would fall in love. Rosemary was used as a divinatory herb-several types of herbs were grown in pots and assigned the name of a potential lover. Then they were left to grow and the plant that grew the strongest and fastest gave the answer. Rosemary was also stuffed into poppets (cloth dolls) in order to attract a lover or attract curative vibrations for illness. It was believed that placing a sprig of rosemary under a pillow before sleep would repel nightmares, and if placed outside the home it would repel witches. 

Rosemary (Rosmarinus Officinalis)
Robert Hacket, in a wedding sermon in 1607 said, "Let this Rosemarinus, this flower of men, ensigne of your wisdom, love and loyaltie, be carried not only in your hands, but in your heads and hearts." Herrick talks of rosemary's attachment to both beginning and end of adult life with:

"Grow for two ends - it matters not at all
Be't for my bridall, or my buriall."
In the 14th Century, rosemary root was "seethed in wine vinegar" and the lotion was then used to wash the feet of a thief. The lotion was thought to sap the strength of the robber so that he would not longer commit robbery, steal or do any further harm. In a humorous aside, our original source for this bit of folklore questions their own source with, "How the potential or suspected thief is to be persuaded to wash his feet, the manuscript does not divulge."
The Countess of Hainault, Jeanne of Valois (1294 - 1342), sent her daughter Queen Phillippa (1311 - 1369), wife of King Edward III of England (1312 - 1377), an accounting of the virtues of rosemary and it is presumed a number of plants or cuttings accompanied the gift. The original manuscript can be found in the British Museum. The Countess suggests that laying the leaves under the head of a man while he sleeps will "doth away evell sprirites and suffereth not the dreeme fowl dremes ne to be afearde."

Bancke, in his work Herball from 1525, suggests techniques to use rosemary as a remedy for both gout of the legs and to keep the teeth from all evils. He also recommended that smelling rosemary regularly would "keep thee youngly."

Gerard, author of Herball or Historie of Plants(1597), referred to someone named Serapio who suggested that a garland of rosemary worn about the head was a remedy for the "stuffing of the head, that commeth through coldnes of the brain." He also mentions that rosemary grew so plentifully in Languedoc (a former province in south-eastern France) that "the inhabitants burne scarce anie other fuel."

Gilded Rosemary (Rosmarinus Offcinalis 'Veregatus')

Rosemary was also believed to offer protection from the plague. In 1603, when bubonic plague killed 38,000 Londoners, the demand was so high that the price increased from one shilling for an armful to six shillings for a handful. To put that price increase in perspective, one pricelist from 1625 indicated that one could obtain 18 gallons of good ale or double beer with carriage(delivery?) for only 3 shillings or an entire 'fat pig' for 1 shilling.

Richard Folkard, author of Plant Lore, Legends and Lyrics, written in 1892, mentions that in Sicily, rosemary was a favored plant and that "the young fairies, under the guise of snakes, lie concealed under its branches." 

Rosemary and thyme were used on St. Agnes' Eve, an evening and day that honors St. Agnes, the patron saint of virgins and young girls. St. Agnes' eve is celebrated on January 20th and 21st. Wikipedia mentions some rituals practiced on St. Agnes' Eve were to aid young girls in discovering their future husbands, a superstition that was the main theme of John Keat's poem, The Eve of Saint Agnes

A common saying of rosemary was, "Where rosemary flourishes the lady rules." According to the same folklore, a man seeking relief of his lady's rule would find no benefit from damaging or destroying a vigorous bush of rosemary.

Rosemary (Rosmarinus Officinalis)
Parkinson (1567-1650), the King's Botanist to Charles I, mentions that in countries where rosemary is well-suited and grows to a large size that thin boards of rosemary were used to make lutes and other instruments, carpenters rules, and a myriad of other implements. The French believed that combing their hair once a day with a rosemary wood comb would prevent giddiness. Uncrupulous merchants however, would often use other woods and simply scent them with rosemary oil.

Shakespeare's (1564 - 1616) Ophelia says in Hamlet, "There's rosemary, that's for remembrance. Pray you, love, remember!" He also mentions how the English once placed rosemary in coffins and around graves in Romeo and Juliet when Father Lawrence says:
"Dry up your tears, and stick your Rosemary
On this fair corse."
There was a bit of disagreement within our sources as to the reason rosemary was often placed with corpses at burial. Most linked its usage to being a plant associated with remembrance. One source, Herbal Simples Approved for Modern Uses of Cure, believed the custom stemmed from a much more practical application. It was thought that the smelling of rosemary provided a powerful "defence against any morbid effluvia from the corpse." In other words, rosemary was used by mourners to provide relief from the odor of decomposition.

With perhaps some reference to fidelity and his lack thereof, a soldier shot in 1649 for mutiny was buried with rosemary. His body was adorned with branches of rosemary but half of each branch had been stained with blood.

Queen Elizabeth was fond of mead and her own recipe for the drink included the leaves of sweet briar, with rosemary, cloves and mace. (Unfortunately, our source failed to identify which Queen Elizabethe they were talking about.)

French hospitals, at one time, burned Juniper berries with rosemary to correct vitiated or poor quality air and to prevent infection. Additionally, in the French language of flowers, rosemary represents the power of rekindling lost energy.

Rosemary was once used to create Essence of Mustard which also included spirits of turpentine and black mustard seed. The resulting oil was not prone to going rancid and was used by clockmakers and for other "instruments of precision."

In Spain, rosemary was used as a protection against witchcraft and menaces on the road. George Borrow mentioned how he came to learn about this superstition in his work The Bible in Spain (1843). He first mentions meeting a traveler who had adorned his hat with rosemary and later mentions a lady, who concerned for Borrow's own safety, offered him some for his own hat. Despite the promised protection provided by the Rosemary, Borrow met with a series of misfortunes on his journey. He contemplates a return visit to the lady to inform her of the failure of the protective abilities of rosemary.

An old Spanish proverb says of rosemary that men who are indifferent to the scent of rosemary are likely to be insensitive about other pleasures:
...Who passeth by the rosemarie
And careth not to take a spraye
For woman's love no care has he,
Nor shall he though he live for aye...
In 1235, The Queen of Hungary became paralysed and legend has it that a hermit soaked a pound of rosemary in a gallon of wine for several days and then rubbed it on her limbs. This treatment cured the Queen Elizabeth of Hungary of her paralysis, and the rosemary-wine combination became known as ‘Queen of Hungary’s Water.’ This concoction was used for centuries to treat dandruff, gout, skin problems and to prevent baldness.

Rosemary (Rosmarinus Officinalis) - Unknown Italian Artist - circa. 1500 - Public Domain
The French hung rosemary in hospitals and sickrooms as healing incense. It was referred to as ‘incensier. Rosemary was the favourite scent of Napoleon Bonaparte. 
How to make Rosemary Sugar:

Clean and dry well several sprigs of fresh rosemary. Place in a canister or srew-topped jar and cover with 1 lb of sugar. Shake well and leave to stand for 24 hrs. Shake well again and leave to stand for several days. Remove the sprigs of rosemary and the sugar is ready for use in milk puddings, egg custards etc. 

Gilded Rosemary can be found at Castle Bromwich Hall Gardens in the edge-beds alongside the Batty Langley Kitchen Garden.

Rosemary (Rosmanus Officinalus) can be found at very points in the Gardens, so have fun looking for it!

This article has been fabricated from several sources to who grateful thanks are due:

Thanks are also due to:

  • Gordon Sammons
  • Chris Hitchcock
  • Brian Jennings

All photographs (unless credited elsewhere) are by Yvonne High, and are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 UK: England & Wales License


  1. Fascinating post Graham full of so much interest. Are you planning to do some more herb posts? Do hope so :)

    1. Thank you Caroline. Happy new year! Yes there will be a new Herbiary entry every month, although the exact dates when the entries appear will vary! The Herbiary replaces the ‘Plant of The Month’ feature (still in the archive). There’s lots more folklore in herbs! Hopefully the amount of original material will increase too as the year goes on! All the best, Graham.