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Raising rosemary

With its intense piney fragrance, dense evergreen foliage and cute, diminutive size, the rosemary Christmas tree seems the perfect holiday plant for table or countertop. Get one and enjoy it, but do yourself a favor: Don't anticipate a long relat...

Rosemary tree

With its intense piney fragrance, dense evergreen foliage and cute, diminutive size, the rosemary Christmas tree seems the perfect holiday plant for table or countertop. Get one and enjoy it, but do yourself a favor: Don't anticipate a long relationship with it.

Rosemary has deep associations with Christianity, and in a Tuscan monastery it will grow into a large and venerated shrub. But as a houseplant here, its days are numbered. Most will drown at the hands of overattentive keepers and will never see the new year.

The rosemary is native to the Mediterranean region and thrives in hot, dry climates with mild winters. Don't water until the soil is dry to the touch and the plant shows signs of wilting. Browning needles indicate over-watering.

To keep it going for as long as possible, place the tree in a bright, cool and well-ventilated room. (An established garden variety will be tough enough to take freezing conditions, but a young rosemary tree has been raised in a greenhouse and will be more tender.)

Feel free to use the tree as a centerpiece for a party, but put it back in its place afterward.

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Trees are shipped from the West Coast and then kept in stressful conditions in stores, said Francesco DeBaggio of DeBaggio's Herb Farm and Nursery in Chantilly, Va. "Don't buy them, or treat them as disposable," he said. DeBaggio has stopped selling tree forms of rosemary because customers equate his to big-box specimens that crash.

The failures with rosemary Christmas trees may cause people to reject the rosemary as a garden plant, which would be a shame. The right variety in the right spot can bring a touch of Mediterranean magic to the herb garden. Gardeners in really protected places, such as in the District of Columbia, can try growing some of the choice culinary (but more tender) varieties such as Tuscan Blue. The key is sitting the rosemary where it will get some air movement and to provide great drainage. Do this by preparing a bed well amended with gravel or grit. Hardier varieties are available. DeBaggio sells Arp, Hill Hardy, Salem and other tough varieties.

One key to hardiness is to plant early enough in the year (as in May) to allow good root development before the first winter. In my Alexandria, Va., garden, I have wrapped choice specimens in plastic bags on nights when wind chills are particularly low, getting them through unscathed. Remember to take the bag off in the morning.

Even hardy varieties purchased now will not be hardy enough to be planted outside. Keep them in a pot in a bright, cool room until the spring, when they can be planted. More tender varieties can be kept year-round in a pot, going out on the patio in April and being brought indoors in October.

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