Rosemary: Christmas Herb

Long associated with Christmas tradition, rosemary almost lost its place in the holiday pantheon at the beginning of the last century. It has since rebounded in recent years. It fills the air in your home with a fragrant scent, adds flavour to holiday dishes and even comes disguised as a tree!

Its scientific name is as charming as they come: rosmarinus, which is from “dew” (ros) and “sea” (marinus) or “dew of the sea.” Rosemary is native to the rocky hills on the shores of the Mediterranean and definitely benefits from the humid sea breeze. The Ancients believed without a doubt that the sea air gave the tree its distinctive scent. It is unclear, however, how rosemary became associated with the holiday season over the years. It is considered a plant of love, loyalty and friendship and so is ideal to represent this time of the year. It flowers in the fall and the blossoming period can last for several weeks.

My wonderful rosemary tree

The tradition of rosemary during the holidays was pushed aside at the beginning of the 1900s as the Christmas tree and poinsettia became synonymous with the season. However, imaginative gardeners and their innate sense of marketing rode to the rescue. Now the rosemary tree has regained its rightful place in the holidays. In a surprising turn of events, for the past fifteen years gardeners have transformed the small Christmas tree into a tree that smells like rosemary.

Jean Raymond fell under the spell of this plant at the end of the 1990s. “I discovered this little bush shaped like a tree during a trade show in the United States. I liked how it looked and was convinced that consumers would be interested in this novelty.”

Mr. Raymond worked as a buyer for the grocery retailer Provigo in the province of Quebec. The grocery chain started selling rosemary trees in all its stores, the first company to do so in that province. It was immediately successful. Today, small rosemary trees are widely found in supermarkets, garden centres and big box stores. The plants are cultivated mostly in California though more and more are now being grown in Canada too.

Made in Quebec

Jean Raymond remained faithful to the rosemary tree when he left Provigo some years ago to become head of sales at wholesale greenhouse grower Rosaire Pion in Saint-Thomas-d'Aquin, near Saint-Hyacinthe, Quebec. Pion has cultivated several thousand rosemary trees over the past three years. “Unlike many places in California where the plant is cultivated in a field before being transplanted into pots and cut for the holiday season, our rosemary trees spend their entire lives in a greenhouse, from the cutting until the finished product. They should be pampered for at least eight months before being put on sale. They need to be cut often so the foliage remains dense and retains its conical shape.”

The shrub must be pruned six or seven times to give it the form of a tree and to maintain a height of around 45 centimetres for it to reach a height of one metre in normal growing conditions. This is why rosemary trees are not in bloom when they first appear on the market at the beginning of November. Producers have started putting a rosemary tree on the market that is not cut back in the shape of a bush, one where you should be able to find some blue flowers.

Raymond adds that cultivating rosemary trees in a greenhouse produces a plant better adapted to our homes. It is also easier to control disease and insects which reduces the need to use pesticides to almost zero. Pion rosemary trees are almost completely “organic,” he says. And since they are constantly growing, new shoots are very tasty to add to your cooking.

It's easy to look after, but...

Many consumers unintentionally mistreat the rosemary tree they buy and the plant often dies within a few weeks. The most common causes of death are drought and drowning. Yet the miniature tree can stay alive for several months with a minimum amount of proper care.

Place the tree in a cooler room in the house, near a window facing east or south-east and away from a heat source. It will continue to grow despite reduced sunlight during the winter months. Rosemary trees only need to be watered when the soil surface is dry. You can usually figure out how much water is needed by lifting the pot. You can even remove the plant from the pot to verify the amount of moisture in the soil; it’s really easy to do. Never leave the roots in water or the tree will drown. The rosemary tree will show no apparent symptoms before dying.

Rosemary in cooking

In cooking, rosemary is delicious with lamb, pork, turkey, wild meats and grilled vegetables. It has a powerful aroma so don’t add too much to the recipe.

Pierre Gingras

Discussing horticulture, hunting and fishing is like second nature to Pierre Gingras. This former ecology professor has been talking about flowers, plants and gardens for more than 30 years in various media, including La Presse daily newspaper. He chats about favourite topics with Ricardo during his daily show broadcast on ICI Radio-Canada Télé. Since 2001, he has written the column Du potager à la table (From Garden to Table) in Ricardo magazine. He is also the author of Les bulbes (Bulbs), published by Éditions de l’Homme.