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Home > Products > Shrubs > Rosemary Page > Elizabeth de Forest on Rosemary

  Elizabeth de Forest on Rosemary
As I walk around my garden I am aware that over the years I have acquired quite a collection of rosemaries, if six distinct cultivated varieties of Rosmarinus officinalis can be called a collection. Mine is an old garden and among the first plants to go into the ground in the autumn of 1927 was a rosemary, R. officinalis, out of a one gallon can. This rosemary could be found in many Santa Barbara gardens of fifty years old; perhaps a hold-over from our Spanish beginnings, for its leaves are a favorite seasoning in the food of Mediterranean countries. My husband, Lockwood de Forest, was fond of plants with aromatic foliage; a rosemary bush, placed where he could brush his hand across it as he walked by, would have priority on his plant list. Thus my collection began with R. officinalis, of multiple stemmed, bushy growth to about four feet, grey-green, needle-like leaves and flowers of a pale lavender-grey color.

Early in the 1930s on one of his visits to Santa Barbara, Sydney Mitchell told us of a creeping rosemary he had seen at La Mortola in Italy. "It hugs the ground," he said, "and ought to thrive in your garden." I can not now remember how or from where we obtained our plant of R. officinalis 'Prostratus'. Sydney may have brought us a cutting from Europe on some subsequent trip, but early on we had one plant growing in our rock garden. It was truly a prostrate from, sparsely branched, thinly foliaged, with flowers the same pale grey-green lavender of our original plant of R. officinalis, but it was "a ground-hugger," and in great contrast in habit of growth to R. officinalis. One plant and one only was planted in our garden so that we were surprised to discover some years later a seedling with quite a different type of growth, and as it grew we realized that we had here a garden hybrid - evidently a cross between R. officinalis and R. officinalis 'Prostratus'. It was a much more vigorous grower with a heavy branch structure, denser, greener foliage, flowers more profuse and of a pale light blue - the color of the old French air force uniform. We observed it over a period of time and became aware of its usefulness as a ground cover; how it draped itself over rocks, cascaded down walls, threw its branches down banks, and, rooting as it went, held the soil on steep slopes. Today it would seem to be the only creeping rosemary offered by the nursery trade. Sometimes it is labeled "R. forestii", some-times "R. lockwoodii", but in the 1963 Checklist of Woody Ornamental Plants by Mildred Mathias and Elizabeth McClintock, it is listed as R. officinalis 'Lockwood de Forest'. What a valuable ground cover it has become! It is tolerant of poor soil, not too fussy about poor drainage, takes drought conditions; but enjoys an occasional watering. It asks only for full sun and an occasional hard pruning, for it does build up dead wood as it ages.

My fourth rosemary came into the garden at a later date. In 1957 I was given a small snippet from a rosemary bush at Sissinghurst Castle in Kent, England. Its flowers are a trifle stronger blue than those so far described, but it is its habit of growth that makes it so distinct. This is a sturdy, upright growing shrub with ambitions to become a tree! Its branches are stout and stiff, heavily covered with thick textured needle-like foliage of a good dark green. My plant, from the rooted Sissinghurst cutting, is now some five feet broad and six feet high, and only by frequent pruning can I hold it to these dimensions. In reading a recent biography of E.A. Bowles by Mea Alan, I discover that a friend of his, Miss Euphemia Jessupp, was famous in Enfield gardening circles for her erect "upright rosemary." Hers and mine are, I believe, the same and I like to think how pleased the good "Miss Effie" would be in seeing what it can become in California gardens. Occasionally I see a gallon can of this plant in a Santa Barbara nursery labeled R. officinalis, and smile when I realize how surprised its owner will be when it really gets a growing.

Also from Sissinghurst has come my fifth variety, R. officinalis var. angustifolius. This is a rosemary I think that Victoria Sackville West called 'Tuscan Blue' and certainly its flowers are a clearer, truer blue than those formerly described. It is an interesting, tall growing plant somewhat lax in habit with soft, fine needle-like foliage. The Royal Horticulture Society Dictionary of Gardening describes the foliage as green and that is true of the individual leaves, but because of the fineness of the needles the total effect is sage green, a color that shows off the blue of the heavy inflorescence most effectively. It is a prolific bloomer, rarely without some flowers.

Now for the sixth and bluest rosemary of them all: Rosmarinus officinalis 'Ingrami', a superb, semi-prostrate plant, collected on the island of Corsica by Colingwood Ingram of Benenden, Kent. In this book, A Garden of Memories, he tells of finding this treasure on a small rocky knoll. He recognized it as a distinctive member of the rosemary clan with its feathery narrow leaves of soft texture and the flowers of a startling clear sapphire blue. He was able to procure a seedling and get it back to England, where, on growing it on, he was happy to note that it had inherited the desirable characteristics of the plant that had caught his eye in the wild. He gave me a piece to root, saying that it would flourish better in California than in England. The old Page Mill Nursery rooted it for me, and it was Truax and Stebbins, those excellent gardeners, who decided to call it R. officinalis 'Ingrami'. You can find it now and then in nurseries here in Southern California, immediately recognizable, whatever arching habit of the branch structure. Collingwood Ingram's Corsican discovery has added a star rosemary to my collection and to California gardens. With his keen discerning eye he picked a winner.