Tang of the sea and a pungent flavor -- that's rosemary

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Few people can avoid being delighted with a flourishing rosemary plant. Discover the ease of culture and propagation of this attractive herb. Grown either indoors or out, rosemary brings joy with its graceful form, appealing piney aroma, and pungent flavor.

What a fragrant, long-lasting holiday remembrance it would make.

Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis),m a member of the mint family, takes its name from the Latin and means "dew of the sea." Indeed, the scent of rosemary seems somewhere between the tang of a sea breeze and the spicy clean smell of pine woods. Its evergreen leaves, dark green above and whitish below, are narrow and somewhat leathery.

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There are two distinctly different varieties of rosemary: Upright or bushlike; and creeping or prostrate.

The latter is excellent for hanging baskets or creeping along stone walls out of doors.

Under the upright variety there are four different types: R. officinalism with blue flowers; R. officinalis albusm with white flowers which grows to about 4 feet; R. officinalis Foresteri,m having the biggest leaves and also grows to 4 feet; and R. var.,m a compact grower at only 2 feet.

If you bring the creeping variety, R. prostratus,m indoors during the winter, it will delight you with its display of tiny blue flowers.

Half-hardy rosemary thrives out-of-doors throughout the year in mild climates where temperatures don't dip below 20 degrees F. Grown as a hedge under these conditions, it may reach up to 6 feet.

In the North, however, rosemary is best kept in a pot throughout the year. It thrives on a kitchen windowsill facing south in the winter and makes a handsome showing in a tub or pot in your outdoor living area during the warm months.

Whether you live in the North or South, rosemary grows best in a bright, sunny location in well-drained soil containing some lime. You can buy commercial lime at a greenhouse or use wood ashes, crushed eggshells, or crushed seashells. Grown in the garden, little soil enrichment is needed.

Although rosemary can be started from seed at home, it is better to choose a healthy- looking young plant at a local greenhouse.

Another possibility is propagating your own rosemary from stem cuttings. This is easy to do once you locate a willing herb gardener with established rosemary plants. Stem cuttings can be taken in early spring or anytime during the growing season.

Use a sharp knife to take slips at least 3 inches long from either a center or side shoot of fresh new growth.

To root cuttings, insert stems in a plastic seed flat or small clay pot filled with wet sand or sand and perlite. Good drainage is the important factor here to avoid stem rot.

Strip lower leaves before introducing the stem into the rooting medium. Mist daily for about three weeks, or until the developing roots "tug back."

If you pull the young plants out too soon, simply stick them back into the soil for another week of root formation. New top growth should start to appear as soon as the root system is complete.

When young plants are ready, transfer them to small (about three-inch) pots with a good potting mix of 2 parts each of soil, sand, and peat to 1 part perlite. Clay pots provide the best drainage. Soak the soil before transplanting; then whenever the soil around the plants looks dry.

About a month after transplanting, pinch the center shoot for a more attractive bushing effect. Fertilize every two weeks while the plants are indoors. Pot size can be increased about once a year.

For beautiful and thoughtful tokens of affection at holiday time, you might start several rosemary plants from cuttings. Your gifts will last for many years, providing pleasure and enjoyment -- especially if care instructions are attached.

Be sure your recipient knows about the plant's need for bright sunlight, lime , and good drainage.

Water only when dry but mist regularly and/or set the pot on wet pebbles for increased humidity indoors. The pot can be buried in the garden or set on a porch or patio when all danger of frost is past. Harvest sprigs for kitchen use anytime.

For the spice rack of your favorite chef -- one who's not necessarily an indoor herb gardener -- a small container of your own freshly dried rosemary makes a welcome present.This popular culinary herb dries quickly since the needlelike leaves contain so little moisture.

As with most herbs, rosemary should be harvested for drying just before the plant flowers and when the flavorful oils are at their peak.

Lay sprigs on screening in a warm, airy place out of direct sunlight. When the leaves are brittle, strip from stems, crumble rougly, and store in tightly capped jars. The leaf is usually used whole or broken, not powdered. In addition to seasoning meat, poultry, and fish, this pungent-tasting herb adds interest and appeal to soups, dumplings, and biscuits.

As a variation on rosemary as a houseplant gift, you might try shaping your plants to resemble small Christmas trees.

Starting in late summer, use an upright variety -- R. var.m is best with its compact habit and strong pine scent -- and clip off leafy twigs regularly (perhaps every 2 weeks). Gradually perfect the traditional form, complete with festive aroma. Tiny decorative bows or other ornaments of very lightweight material might be added before presenting your gift.

After the holidays it can take its place as a graceful house plant.

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