Country & Garden: Herbs No 5: Rosemary

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The Independent Culture
ROSEMARY (ROSEMARINUS officionalis) takes its name (seadew) from the light, luminous colour of its flowers which, from a distance, can look as blue as a patch of sunlit morning sea. This doesn't go for one of the prettier varieties (`Majorca pink'). Happiest in chalky soil, it will thrive in a large pot: don't worry about the old adage that requires a forceful wife to make rosemary flourish and which, apparently, caused such agitation in the hearts of Elizabethan gentlemen that they would stoop to cutting off the heads of any rosemary bushes that rose too high.

The same has been said of parsley and sage. If you saw how sage, with no help from me, takes over one corner of the garden while parsley wilts in another, your superstitious fears would soon be extinguished.

Rosemary will, of course, prosper for either sex, however pliant in nature, so long as you remember to prune it after flowering and don't blame yourself for the fact that it hates wet English winters. Don't let a cheerful green appearance stop you taking cuttings as a precaution; rosemary has a mean way of rotting from the roots up, yielding its dark secret only when it's too late for remedies.

Rosemary, along with mint, is reported to be of great benefit to a crop of cabbages; I'm devoted to those altruistic town-gardeners who plant it near the road where its spikes can be sniffed at as a change from exhaust- fumes.

One of the prettiest is rambling `Severn Sea', which does well in pots; but my favourite is `Miss Jessop's Upright' which, as its name suggests, is tall, thin and energetic.

The ancient Greeks discovered rosemary's good effects on the circulation. Students bound wreaths of it to their brows to help their memories and this gave rise to the later idea that the bush itself had some magical connection to remembrance.

A Frenchwoman introduced rosemary to England, the mother of Queen Philippa (wife of Edward III). Sir Thomas More loved it, not only for the sake of his bees, but "because it is the herb sacred to remembrance, and therefore to friendship".

The medieval herbalists were equally enthusiastic about the herb. Rosemary was recommended as a hair rinse; as a wash for the skin "to wax shiny"; as a tooth powder, made from the ashes of rosemary twigs; as a cure for coughs, when smoked; as a drawer-scent and, when placed under the bed, as a prevention against bad dreams.

Christmas revellers decorated their halls with rosemary and bay, as well as holly and ivy, according to Herrick. Italians and Spaniards grew it to ward off witces; the 14th century Queen Isabella of Hungary dabbed her 72- year-old cheeks with rosemary distilled in alcohol and was instantly proposed to by the King of Poland.

Don Quixote's wounded ear is dressed with a poultice consisting of chewed rosemary leaves and salt; Edgar, in King Lear, seems to be alluding to an actual practice when he talks of "Bedlam beggars" scarifying their limbs with rosemary twigs.

Famously delicious with roast lamb, rosemary tastes better still if you add a tin of anchovies to the recipe. Into each stab in the flesh, push a sprig of the herb, a small piece of peeled garlic and about half a tinned anchovy. Use the rest of the tin to make a buttery mix which you can either spread or dab on top. Put it in a roasting tin and away you go. Use the juice for gravy.