Rosemary trees are frequently seen in big box stores and supermarkets this time of year. They make excellent hostess gifts and are a compact replacement when a full-sized tree isn't feasible. With a little care and knowledge, you can keep your rosemary tree alive and plant it in the garden next spring.

Rosemary Holiday History

Rosemary has been associated with Christmas for centuries. Legend has it that Mary draped the fresh washed swaddling clothes of the Baby Jesus over a rosemary plant to dry and the flowers that were white, turned blue to honor them and it has long been known as the Christmas herb. Tradition also says that the rosemary bloomed when the Baby Jesus was presented to the three Wise Men on the Epiphany and it is true that rosemary often blooms in late winter or early spring. The herb is associated with remembrance and the floors and altars of churches are scattered with the branches so that worshipers inhale the fragrance as they walk across them. This practice was probably introduced by the early priests who incorporated rosemary into the service to help convert the pagans who also believe it has mystical powers. Even though the name rosemary seems to indicate that it is associated with Mary, the botanical name Rosmarinus officinalis actually derives from the Latin ros (dew) and marinus (sea) so, the name rosemary actually means dew of the sea. It has antioxidant and anti-fungal properties and actually contains a significant source of iron, so the importance of this plant for early peoples isn't surprising.

Choose a Healthy Rosemary Tree

Rosemary is a semi-hardy perennial and can withstand some freezing temperatures, however if the mercury drops below 20 degrees Fahrenheit, it should be covered or moved indoors. Many cool climate gardeners grow it pots or containers so they can relocate it when the worst weather arrives. Rosemary likes at least 6 to 8 hours of sun each day and well-drained loose soil. It sulks and even dies when roots stand in water. This is something that you should be aware of when choosing a rosemary Christmas Tree. The plastic pots are usually covered in decorative foil and often have water standing where some enthusiastic store employee has over watered them. Check to make sure the soil isn't soggy and no water runs out when you tip the pot. If you leave the foil around the pot, poke some holes in it so water will drain.

Winter Care of Rosemary Plants

Rosemary is a plant of the Mediterranean Basin and likes well-drained soil and drier conditions. Water only when the soil is dry on top. Place your rosemary Christmas Tree in a cool spot in your home and make sure it has bright light most of the day. A southern window is perfect. You may think that rosemary doesn't like humidity and that isn't the case. Our homes are generally too dry for most houseplants in late winter, so mist your rosemary with a spray bottle every day or two. The leaves need to dry between mistings, so the best time to do this is in the morning and situate it away from heater vents and radiators to avoid hot, dry conditions.

When the weather warms some, you can gradually introduce your rosemary plant to the outdoors, a sheltered porch or deck is ideal and as soon as danger of frost has passed, it can be relocated to the garden. If you wish, you can re-pot into a larger container and sink that pot into the garden. That will make it easier if you want to bring it inside next winter. By carefully pruning your rosemary Christmas Tree, you can maintain the traditional tree shape and have it ready for the holidays the next year. It will depend on how cold your winters get as to when to move your rosemary back indoors. Here in west Kentucky, mine is still just fine in its southern, sheltered area, however it will have to come indoors in the next week or two and will have to remain indoors for the next couple of months. I usually put it in a window of the attached garage of my home after Christmas. The temperature seldom drops below 45 degrees and there is a shelf by the window where it can live for the worst of the winter. I water sparingly once a month until spring.

Use Your Fresh Rosemary in the Kitchen!

Put those trimmings to good use! Rosemary olive oil and rosemary sea salt are both perfect ways to use your rosemary trimmings. Both are easy to do and will spice up a number of recipes. For the olive oil, take a handful of fresh rosemary trimmings (about a half cup) and roll them in your hands to bruise them just a little. Strip the leaves from the toughest stems and place them in the bottom of your slow cooker and pour 2 cups of olive oil over them. Cook uncovered on high for an hour and then turn the slow cooker off and let the oil come to room temperature. Strain into a bottle and use wherever you would normally use olive oil. For rosemary sea salt, take about 4 tablespoons of rosemary leaves and add them to a cup of coarse sea salt. Pulse in your food processor until well mixed and pour on to a baking sheet. You can even add the zest of a lemon, lime, or orange to further liven up the salt. Place in an oven heated to 230F and bake for 15 minutes. When you remove it, let it cool and re-pulse in the processor to break up any lumps. Store in a covered container. The salt will last up to a year, but chances are, it will be gone long before then. Use it to flavor poultry, lamb, root vegetables (especially potatoes,) breads and pasta sauces. Rosemary has a strong flavor, so a little goes a long way. Use sparingly until you find the best amount for your family. Rosemary flavor strengthens as it cooks, so in most cases, add the herb near the end of the cooking time for best results.

bowl of rosemary salt with sliced lemons and zester

If you do not want to keep your rosemary tree alive after the holidays, simply strip the leaves and make the oil, salt or simply dry them in a low oven until crispy. That way your rosemary tree will do double duty even if you don't keep it.