Rosemary Is For Winter and Gifting

Fill pretty, recycled jars with freshly-dried rosemary for holiday gifts for foodies (and pet lovers too, see below).

When I first came to the Southern California desert, I was shocked at how well traditional rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis, USDA Hardiness Zones 8-10) shrubs survived through 120ᵒ F summer days. When provided good drainage and some water, these plants thrive in dry, mild-winter locations and reach mammoth proportions. If fragrant, culinary rosemary is able to thrive in low-desert heat and naturalize along the West Coast, it should grow well in practically every garden where it’s hardy. There isn’t a more useful plant for arid-zone landscaping, but rosemary also fares well as a potted plant where winters are cold.

Rosemary History and Uses

When in bloom, rosemary is showy and attracts bees. (Image by Maureen Gilmer)

Rosemary is native to the Mediterranean and parts of Asia. It has a long history of use and cultivation going back thousands of years. Grown wherever possible outdoors in mild areas, whether as an ornamental or herbal plant, it has also been traditionally cultivated in pots in colder winter regions and brought indoors to shelter. As a house plant, rosemary can be clipped with scissors to release its scent, just as the Romans did to perfume their courtyards naturally. Greeks believed wearing sprigs of rosemary in the hair while studying assisted with memory, hence the plant’s perpetual association with remembrance. And, during the plague years, rosemary was burned as a disinfectant much like white sage smudge sticks have been used in the Americas for purification.

The sheer range of uses for rosemary should make everyone want to grow this easy and willing plant. It is above all a culinary herb, and foodies often use the straight twigs for savory beef or lamb kebab sticks or sprigs to naturally flavor roasts. As the leaves are heated, they release their plant oils. Rosemary may also be used to flavor olive oil, teas, and is an essential ingredient in many classic herbal mixes, such as Herbe’s de Provence, a provincial herbal mix from southern France. (Click here for a Herbe’s de Provence recipe and to learn more about classic French herbs.)

Rosemary has also been traditionally valued as a hair tonic. The Romans, being largely dark-haired, used it to create a hair rinse brewed with water and then cooled. It was poured on dark hair to cut residual soap accumulation and left hair shiny and beautiful. Blondes used the same technique with Roman chamomile (Anthemis nobilis).

Rosemary Types

Creeping rosemary loves to dangle off the edges of raised beds. (Image by Maureen Gilmer)

Rosemary averages 4 feet at maturity but can reach 6 feet tall in its natural, rocky, sunny habitat in the Mediterranean. Its narrow leaves become more silvery and needle-like in dry weather and greener and broader when rain is plentiful. Pale violet-blue flowers that attract bees may appear from midwinter to spring.

There are two basic forms. The standard or “official” form from the old herbals is Rosmarinus officinalis. Hardy to 10 or 20° F, it’s a long-lived evergreen shrub for mild-winter regions and often used for landscaping. The shorter variety, Rosmarinus officinalis ‘Prostratus’, develops a low mat of graceful, cascading foliage. Growing to about 1 foot tall, with almost an infinite spread, there is no better cascading plant for pot, slope, cliff, or wall. Its dark tresses are incredibly tough and prefer more shade than the upright type. It works well as a house plant due to having a shorter stature. There are named varieties of rosemary of varying sizes and flower colors, some are even hardier (the variety ‘Arp’ is touted as being hardy to Zone 6), so there’s one for all different sunny gardens.  Everyone else can treat it as a house plant that comes outdoors for the summer.

Growing Rosemary

Rosemary makes fine topiary standards, often sold at florists in the city or by special order. (Image by Maureen Gilmer)

Grow potted rosemary in a mixture of equal parts Black Gold Natural & Organic Potting Mix and Black Gold Cactus Mix to avoid overly damp conditions that cause root rot in arid-zone hill plants like these. Make sure there’s a big drainage hole or many small ones because rosemary must have fast drainage to avoid fungal infections that also plague lavenders, which like the same growing conditions.

There is no easier drought-resistant, long-lived herb, shrub, or useful plant to grow for home and garden that will make you feel like a pioneer woman. Rosemary is one plant that can teach you much about the cultivation of useful herbs. From a woman with a self-sufficient, pioneering attitude, a novice can learn hands-on how to harvest and prepare herbal material to use in the household and to make really fragrant gifts for family and friends.

Eight Simple DIY Rosemary Crafts

Decorate a freshly wrapped gift with aromatic rosemary sprigs tucked into the ribbon.
  1. Put freshly dried rosemary into tied cheesecloth bundles to season soups and stews.
  2. Place sachets filled with rosemary into drawers to scent linens and clothes. (Rosemary’s non-floral scent makes men’s clothing smell pleasantly herbal.)
  3. Fill pretty, recycled jars with freshly-dried leaves for holiday gifts for foodies (and pet lovers too, see idea 8).
  4. Stud pomanders with short rosemary sprigs and place them on a mantel or tree for scent and beauty.
  5. Create small wreaths or herbal swags with creeping rosemary sprigs for hanging indoors or out. (Once the leaves are dry, collect them for cooking.)
  6. Decorate a freshly wrapped gift with aromatic sprigs tucked into the ribbon.
  7. Infuse olive oil or fine vinegar with fresh-cut rosemary sprigs for a culinary gift.
  8. Grind dried rosemary leaves and scatter in pet beds to battle odors and discourage ticks and fleas.

If you live where rosemary does not thrive year-round, buy a rosemary topiary to grow indoors, or invest in a potted 1-gallon rosemary to decorate for the holidays. Both will provide super fresh culinary clippings. Enjoy the indoor plants through the new year, then move them outdoors when temperatures warm up. And, where it’s mild year-round, plant your garden with lots of rosemary, so you have plenty of “mother” plants to snip and clip for the rest of your life.

Rosemary averages 4 feet at maturity but can reach 6 feet tall in its natural, rocky, sunny habitat in the Mediterranean.

Holiday Decorating from the Garden

While this may be winter (not official until December 22, but most gardeners would say this is winter), there are so many things we can harvest from our gardens to decorate our homes to help celebrate the holidays.  We have had several inches of rain in just the past few days here in western Oregon, with more expected, and this morning as I walked around in my very soggy wet garden I discovered that there was a bounty of materials to chose from.

Berried Winter Plants

The berries of heavenly bamboo look great outdoors or cut and brought indoors.
The berries of heavenly bamboo look great outdoors or cut and brought indoors.

Many of the plants that we can use for holiday decorating from the garden are readily available in our gardens–if not in your own garden, take a walk around your neighborhood.  You may have neighbors that would be happy to share some their plants; some selecting pruning might be welcome.  Two plants that are usually readily available in local gardens are Nandina domestica, (heavenly bamboo, not related to bamboo), and  Callicarpa bodinieri (beautyberry).  Both of these are well suited to winter arrangements. The Nandina has clusters of red berries and the Callicarpa has bunches of purple berries on bare stems.

Wintergreen arrangement
A festive wintergreen basket.

I am not a creative designer in our family, but I enjoy gathering branches and letting my wife create a holiday arrangement. Whether it is large or small, she seems to know just how to put it all together.  An example is her use of a simple small wooden basket which makes a very attractive feature for an entryway.   A pine branch, or one from another evergreen conifer, can be added. Red berries from a Gaultheria procumbens (wintergreen) added festive natural color and then she tied on a red ribbon for a finishing touch.  (Note: this Gaultheria is an example of how common names, while usually easy to say and remember, can be confusing.  This plant is sometimes referred to as winterberry as well as wintergreen, but true Winterberry is actually the holly, Ilex verticillata.)

Hydrangea 'Shooting Star'
Hydrangea macrophylla ‘Shooting Star’ makes a great potted plant that can be planted outside in mild weather.

Holiday Potted Plants

Recently, while visiting a local garden center and viewing their vast selection of poinsettias, dazzling white Hydrangea macrophylla ‘Shooting Star’ flowers were being offered among the sea of red.  The multi-petaled ‘stars’ shoot from the flowers like fireworks, hence the name ‘Shooting Star’.  An added bonus is that for many of us living in western Oregon and Washington, this is also a garden plant that can be planted out in the garden to become a permanent shrub.  This hydrangea looks beautiful planted in a decorative gold container with decorative conifer branches around the edges.  The look is simple but very effective.

Arrangement Ideas

During my weekly radio program last week, I asked listeners to send in photos of winter arrangements that they were made from local plants.  Here are two of my favorites.

Susan Bechtol arrangement in cup
Holiday mugs make cute seasonal vases for arrangements.

Susan Bechtol had a holiday decoration party during her work lunch hour with the theme of creating an arrangement in a cup.  Another was Nancy Wirth who created a lovely arrangement from plants in her garden  She used red branches from her Cornus sericea (red-twig dogwood) and evergreen branches are from her garden as well as some she found on the ground in a parking lot. (How is that for reuse?)

Gardeners tend to be a very imaginative group and are especially creative when using plants from their own gardens.  Try experimenting by using some plants from your own garden for a holiday decoration.  You might be surprised at what you can create!  Check out your local garden center to see what winter-interest plants you can add to your garden when the ground is still soft enough to plant.

Whatever you do this holiday season, take the time to enjoy it.  The New Year will be here before we know it.  Happy New Year and Happy Gardening!

Nancy Wirth arrangement
A mix of evergreen branches and red-twig dogwood brighten an outdoor pot.

Favorite Holiday House Plants

Stumped about what small token of appreciation to take to a holiday open house, a close friend’s party, or your annual family gathering this festive season? Consider gifting the host and hostess with a traditional winter-flowering houseplant as a long-lasting reminder of your thoughtfulness.

One of the most popular holiday houseplants associated with our wintertime holidays is the colorful Poinsettia, named in honor of South Carolinian, Dr. Joel Roberts Poinsett (1779-1851), the first United States Minister to Mexico, who sent their native shrubby Flor de Noche Buena back to the States in 1825, where this colorful spurge was enthusiastically grown and shared.

Variegated forms of poinsettia are a colorful option for the holiday home.


Its scientific name is Euphorbia pulcherrima, which means “most beautiful”, as poinsettias are indeed stunning. Wide serrated leaves called bracts surround clusters of unassuming flowers at the center of each leaf bunch, and it is these dramatic bracts that turn deep red, pastel pink, bright white, warm salmon, or variegated as nights grow longer and the temperature drops.

When choosing a gift poinsettia, select a plant that doesn’t appear spotted or wilted, and one that has a good overall shape (as euphorbias are extremely brittle, so will break easily if mishandled). Also, choose a plant that hasn’t completely changed bract color and whose true flowers are not yet spent. Keep your potted poinsettia warm when transporting it home or to its final destination to ensure its best survival and long term handsome appearance.

New poinsettia cultivars come in lots of colors and sizes.

Poinsettia Care

Poinsettias are easy to care for if you remember that they prefer bright light, but not direct sunlight; that you should moisten their potting medium as soon as the soil surface feels dry to the touch, but do not allow them to sit in water; and, that these plants prefer consistently warm indoor temperatures ranging between a high of 74 degrees F to no cooler than 60 degrees F at night.

There are euphorbias that are poisonous to humans, but the poinsettia isn’t one of them. Do remember that its milky sap may cause a dermatological reaction for extremely sensitive people. And, you will want to take extreme care around indoor pets, who may be tempted to chew these plants, as the poinsettia is on lists of plants that can potentially harm small animals.

Old cyclamen flowers are best clipped off with a sharp pair of shears.

Florist’s Cyclamen

Another darling of the winter interior plantscape is the popular florist’s Cyclamen persicum. These cheerful, compact, low-growing plants have extremely decorative leaves and send up myriads of backswept flowers that hover just above the foliage. Their naturally rounded habit makes them perfect centerpieces for holiday tables.

Growing Florist’s Cyclamen

These winter-flowering plants do well arranged near large windows as cyclamen thrive in cool rooms that do not get above 68 degrees F during the day, yet can drop down into the 40s—50s at night.

Winter bulbs for forcing are the perfect gift for winter.

Do water them before they wilt, as soon as the potting soil surface feels dry. Since cyclamen are grown from a rooting base called a corm, it is essential to keep water out of the center to keep the corm from rotting. This can be done by sitting a potted cyclamen in a shallow bowl of water for 5-10 minutes, allowing the water to wick up into the potting medium, then removing the pot from the water bath to allow any residual water to drain off before finally returning the cyclamen to its place of honor.

A trick that I had to learn the hard way is that it is best to remove spent cyclamen flowers with scissors. If you pull the stem of a fallen flower or a spent leaf, you may tear the plant’s tuber. A quick clean up about once a week usually is all the time that it takes to keep these delightful plants looking their holiday best.


Finally, the grand queen of holiday plant gifts has to be the amaryllis (Hippeastrum hybrids). Tall, regal, and always a conversation piece, these amazing tropical-looking houseplants can be gifted already flowering or as large bulbs brimming with potential.

Amaryllis often come in holiday-perfect color combinations.

Growing Amaryllis

If you share an amaryllis bulb as a present, consider adding an appropriately-sized decorative pot along with some quick-draining potting medium, such as Black Gold All-Purpose Potting Soil with RESiLIENCE®. Your container should be close to the size of the bulb, leaving only a ½-inch to an inch of space inside the container at the broadest point of the bulb. Add enough soil to cover and secure the bulb’s roots, then continue tucking soil up the side of the bulb stopping somewhere between the broadest diameter of the bulb to just below its neck.

A newly planted amaryllis bulb only needs bright light to begin sprouting, but it should be moved into full sunlight as it stretches in order to avoid becoming too leggy. And, water sparingly while the bulb is sprouting to prevent rotting the bulb.

If you choose an already budded amaryllis as a present, encourage its new owner to keep it out of direct sunlight in order to preserve the elegant bloom for a longer period of time. (Watch the video below to learn more about growing amaryllis.)

While you are picking up a choice holiday plant for family and friends, remember to be kind to yourself and be sure to take home one or two green presents for your own enjoyment.

Celebrating with Spiral Topiaries

Double Spiral Topiaries - Maureen Gilmer
Double spirals are rare but obtainable from any garden center that carries Monrovia plants.

Nothing gives an entry more pizzaz than a pair of spiral topiaries flanking the front door. Plant them in a beautiful large pot and you’ve got the start of a truly elegant winter display.

Spirals are truly unique in the world of topiary because they don’t resemble the Asian bonsai styles or those poodled into balls. They’re tall and narrow, fitting nicely into corners and small spaces. Spirals are distinctly European in character and therefore they are an easy fit for virtually any traditional home style.

Potted Spiral Topiaries - Maureen Gilmer
After the holidays, move your potted spiral topiaries into the garden where they receive plenty of light on all sides to maintain their symmetry.

When the holidays roll around, spirals are the queens of decor because their corkscrew shape lends itself to strand twinkle lights. This shape also provides flattish spots where you can attach fruit or ornaments that completely transform them. When you have a pair, decorating yields even more glitz, and for a holiday party few other plants create such instant upgrade.

This year may be the perfect time to invest in a spiral at your house in lieu of the traditional holiday cut tree. This is a great investment that can be moved outdoors as a winter focal point after the new year if the climate is warm enough. There is nothing more lovely than topiary under snow.

Choose a spiral clipped from junipers since these are very drought and disease resistant, adapting to nearly all climate zones. These are sold in five gallon pots, or consider much larger pricier specimens that make great Christmas trees.

To create a pair to use outdoors, find large durable decorative containers that suit your home style. The interior and mouth of the pot must be large enough to hold the root ball with plenty of room to spare on top and sides. When the spiral sits in the pot with plenty of edge (freeboard) left at the top, you can fill it to the brim with water and move on, saving a great deal of watering time. In between tuck moss into the space to make it appear full.

Single Spiral Topiaries - Maureen Gilmer
Behind this huge single spiral is a field of Monrovia evergreens waiting to be clipped into spirals.

Since spirals are long-lived, woody trees, make sure you use Black Gold Moisture Supreme Container Mix with controlled release fertilizer (CRF). This slow release nutrition helps get your spirals off to a vigorous start. With topiaries, the strength and color of growth is essential because you must clip more often for a dense, and precise form.

Water generously after planting to coax roots out of the old pot shape into this new, organic soil. There is no better way to obtain rich, luxurious green color in your spirals.

These are sun loving plants, so life underneath the porch is ok in the dead of winter, but it won’t suit them in the growing season. The side that doesn’t receive enough light won’t grow, it may even shed foliage or turn yellowish over time. This is a disaster with topiaries like this which must remain perfectly symmetrical to maintain their beautiful form. Relocating with the seasons is easy if you have a dolly or set the pots on casters.

Whether you buy one, a pair or a whole row of them, spiral topiaries are the most versatile of all evergreens. They can transform a space overnight with their pronounced graphic forms. They’re as suited to Mediterranean architecture as they are American colonial, and even find a home in Spartan modern landscapes too. Just remember they aren’t furniture, but real live living plants, so make sure you give them quality soil and plenty of water. Then get yourself a sharp pair of clippers to enjoy the age old tradition of shaping evergreens all year around.