Rosemary is a small, perennial evergreen shrub of the mint family. Its leaves, bearing a tealike fragrance and pungent if slightly bitter taste, are used as a flavoring in foods such as lamb, duck and chicken. The plant has been used widely since around 500 B.C. and was once believed to strengthen the brain and memory functions. In Ancient Greece, students would braid Rosemary into their hair in order to garner success during exams. "Rosemary" is derived from two Latin words meaning "dew of the sea" (because it thrives where fog and salt spray meet).
Rosemary is a revered ceremonial herb which symbolizes remembrance, friendship and fidelity. It was thrown into, or placed on, graves and presented to those who grieved as a sign that the deceased would always be remembered. Even today, it is often placed on the graves of English heroes. It was also woven into the wreaths of brides, used as a decoration for churches and presented, tied with ribbons, to bridesmaids and guests.
Anne of Cleves, Henry VIII's fourth wife, wore a wreath of Rosemary when she embarked upon her ill-fated marriage to the English monarch. The floors of churches were strewn with the plant at Christmas and housewives would spread it upon the floors of their homes. As a poor man's incense, it was often burnt in place of the real item.
There are many legends surrounding Rosemary...one being that it was used to awaken Sleeping Beauty...but perhaps the best known is one which states that the plant will never grow taller than the height of Christ and, if it outlives the 33 years of Jesus' life, will grow outward rather than upward. Another legend claims that the flowers were originally white, only changing to blue when Mary, on the flight from Egypt, threw her blue cloak over a bush, thus changing its color and, at the same time, bestowing upon the plant its now distinctive fragrance. A variation of this legend holds that when the Holy Family fled to Egypt, they stopped to rest on a hillside. There, in a small stream, Mary washed the baby's clothes, spreading the tiny garments on a fragrant bush to dry in the sun. For its humble service, the plant was named "Rosemary" and God rewarded it with delicate blossoms of the same heavenly blue as Mary's robe.
To Saint Thomas More (whose garden was lavishly planted with Rosemary) and Shakespeare's Ophelia, the herb symbolized remembrance. It was cultivated in monastery gardens for medicine and food and, according to medieval legend, Rosemary decorating the altar at Christmas time would bring special blessings to the recipients and protection against evil spirits. It was also used to garnish the boar's head at the Christmas feast and American colonists would use Rosemary as a scent for soap.
Until the Twentieth Century, Rosemary was a much sought-after Christmas evergreen. A gilded Rosemary sprig, for example, was considered to be a treasured gift. The reason for its later loss in popularity is unknown, but it is slowly starting to regain its former favor with the use of Rosemary in holiday wreaths and Rosemary topiaries used as small Christmas trees. An old English garden legend states that "where Rosemary thrives, the mistress is master."