Gardening Herbs Legends

How Rosemary Got Its Name: A Christmas Legend

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The star of Bethlehem. Source:

When the star of Bethlehem appeared in the sky at the birth of Jesus, all the plants were given the gift of speech. And each wanted to show the others that it could better serve the new king and his family.

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Date palm (Phoenix dactylifera). Source: maxpixel

“I can serve them better than any other plant,” claimed the date palm. “With my long fronds, I can offer them shade during days of sweltering heat. Plus, my delicious fresh or dried fruits will feed them all year long. I am certainly the most useful!”

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Sugar cane (Saccharum officinarum). Source: Ton Rulkens, flickr

“You’re mistaken,” replied the sugar cane. “I’m by far the most useful to Jesus and his parents. With my sugary sap, I can make sweets that will make the child smile, soft drinks to quench his thirst and delicious spreads to butter his bread. I am obviously the most useful!”

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Wheat (Triticum aestivum). Source: flickr

“You’re both wrong!” cried the wheat plant. “Where does daily bread come from, the staple food of all men, if not from my grain? Look how Joseph toils to sow me, to reap me, and to reduce my grains into flour, while Mary bakes not only bread, but delicious biscuits, enough to please everyone. Surely I am the most useful!”

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Rose bush (Rosa sp.). Source:

“But none of you can protect the Holy Family against the vile soldiers of King Herod, who threatens to kill all the babies in Bethlehem,” added the rose. “Me, on the other hand, with my sharp spines, I can surround the Holy Family and protect them from any attack. No one would dare cross a hedge of spiny roses! Moreover, my pretty and ever-so-fragrant flowers will make little Jesus smile with joy. It’s obviously me who will be the most useful plant!”

What could a simple shrub offer to the Holy Family? Source:

And so each plant expressed itself, extolling its merits. There was only one, a simple shrub, that remained quiet. What could it offer to Jesus and his family? It had nothing remarkable, only simple white and rather dull flowers. Thus the shrub listened to the bluster of others, without saying a word, deeply saddened.

But a few days later, Marie settled out by the well to wash the Holy Family’s clothes. After wringing them out well, she looked for a place to spread the clothes to dry. She tried to spread her wet cloak over the long fronds of the date palm, but they were so high up that she couldn’t reach them. Then she tried the sugar cane, but under the weight of the cloak, its stems bent right to the ground. She didn’t even try drying the clothes on the wheat: its stems don’t even resist heavy rains, let alone the weight of soggy garments. The poor plant would have been crushed! Finally, the rosebush had thorns so nasty that she didn’t even dare to approach it for fear of tearing the clothes.

Then she noticed the shrub. Modest in size, it was perfectly within reach. Interesting! And its stems were rigid and unyielding. In addition, since it was wider than high, there was enough room to support all the clothes as they dried. This shrub just might be the perfect plant to use as a clothes horse!

Shrub used to dry clothes. Source:

Thus, Mary spread the soggy clothes over the shrub, which then swelled with pride, realizing it was at least as useful to the Holy Family as any other plant.

But then a miracle occurred!

When Marie picked up the now dry clothes a few hours later, the purplish blue of her cloak had dripped onto the shrub’s dull white flowers, staining them a beautiful soft blue. Also, the odor of sanctity of baby Jesus’s clothes had permeated the shrub’s narrow foliage, giving it a heavenly aroma. And ever since that day, the shrub bears blue flowers and its foliage gives off a delicious scent that pleases everyone.

Mary, seeing the beauty of the little shrub and breathing in its saintly perfume, exclaimed: “Little shrub, you’re definitely my favorite plant!”

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Rosemary (Rosmarius officinalis). Source:

But what is this shrub with its blue flowers and foliage so deliciously scented? Rosemary, of course. Even its name recalls the legend, because the name rosemary comes from the Latin Rosmarinus, which means, of course, “Mary’s rose!”

Merry Christmas!20171225A

Garden writer and blogger, author of 65 gardening books, lecturer and communicator, the Laidback Gardener, Larry Hodgson, passed away in October 2022. Known for his great generosity, his thoroughness and his sense of humor, he reached several generations of amateur and professional gardeners over his 40-year career. Thanks to his son, Mathieu Hodgson, and a team of contributors, will continue its mission of demystifying gardening and making it more accessible to all.

5 comments on “How Rosemary Got Its Name: A Christmas Legend

  1. darosol132

    OK, happy to believe that English speakers assimilated the name to rose+mary.

    Not so happy to believe same for the Latin name `rosmarinus’ (apprently mediaeval) where this theory would be hard put to explain the letter `n’. ( Despite what you say the same actually applies in French =romarin, which is closer to the Latin than the English.) Also the fact that `marinus’ has a masculine ending which agrees with `dew’ (latin=ros, m.) but not with `rose/flower’ (latin=rosa, f.)

    Anyway, I suggest we call a truce on this. Etymology is interesting but I enjoy botany (and your blog) much more!

  2. darosol132

    “……because the name rosemary comes from the Latin Rosmarinus, which means, of course, “Mary’s rose!””……er, I don’t think so. I think it means “dew of the sea” or “marine dew”. (Mary’s rose would be rosa mariae). Cheers, David

    • Actually, no one really knows where the true derivation of Rosmarinus. The “dew of the sea” theory is currently the most popular, but the other is out there as well, if you dig a little. (Collins: modern form influenced by folk etymology, as if rose + Mary.) However, this particular piece was created as a legend, rather than pure horticulture, so I feel free to use the less popular of the two theories!

      • darosol132

        Yes, I agree, it’s fine to bend things a bit for the purposes of an Xmas post!

        (Still, to be clear, your quote from Collins’ seems to be talking about rose+mary being one influence in the origin of the English name “rosemary”, not the whole influence and still less the origin of the latin “Rosmarinus” as you seemed (and still seem) to imply….)

      • Actually, I just used the Collins’ quote because it was handy. If you dig further, you’ll find that etymologists (in Linnaeus’ time, notably) used to believe the Mary + flower (i.e. rose) relationship, not just in English (which actually counts for little, as the name would have been imported from the French), but other languages (most European languages have a similar name), largely because of the long-standing legend (which I considerably expanded upon in my text). Plus it was traditional to dry clothes on rosemary bushes for the scent it imparts to the clothes, which lent credence to the idea. The association “dew of the sea” is a more modern and, I will totally admit, likely explanation. But of course, etymology is mostly theory. We really can’t go back in time to trace the origin of plant names.

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