Round Robin: The Rosemary Mystery

WOLFTOWN, Virginia–I look back on last winter and fervently hope there will be no other like it. The weather, particularly the layers upon layers of ice, caused a wide band of misery in our area. Here at the farm, we got off fairly easily. We were housebound for days on end, but the sledding was wonderful. We were without power for hours at a stretch, but the wood stove was cozy, and we keep a cache of extra water for such times when we can’t run the electric pump for our well. Others around the state, including the herb-growing businesses, were not so lucky; greenhouses filled with cuttings and seedlings were devastated.

My large rosemaries were in full flower in December when the worst weather struck, and we had only a few hours’ notice to try to protect them. Having rented our pastures to a local stockman, we had lots of fresh manure; I hurried out and collected as much as I could haul in large plastic flowerpots to the bed that I thought had the best chance of survival. I put the pots between ten large plants and covered the bed with old mattress pads clothespinned to the nearby fence. Only those plants closest to the manure survived. In the spring, I cut away their frostbitten tops, and by April they were blooming again. The dead rosemaries were large and difficult to dig out, and when I was finished, I sang a requiem for the dearly departed. Using manure as a heat source worked so well that I’ll try it again this winter on more plants, but I’ll put it in gallon plastic bags so that I can tuck them here and there more easily.

On a recent trip to Point Lookout, Maryland, in search of sandy beaches and restful waves, I discovered St. Mary’s City–and a rosemary mystery. The original capital of Maryland, St. Mary’s City was abandoned after a few decades in favor of Annapolis. The wooden structures returned to dust, and only a few postholes and foundations remain.

Two years ago, archaeologists excavating the area uncovered three lead coffins, which a team representing the Smithsonian Institution, NASA, several universities, and the U.S. Army then examined. The smallest contained the remains of a six-month-old baby, malnourished and suffering from rickets but clothed in linen. In another coffin, the best preserved of the three, were the remains of a woman judged to be in her fifties, also malnourished and having a broken leg bone. Red blood cells and DNA were found in a sample from her skull.

Hold on, I’m getting to the rosemary. The woman was carefully buried in a shroud, with silk ribbons on her wrists, knees, and ankles. Scattered about in the coffin were sprigs of rosemary. Archaeologists and historians believe that the rosemary was part of a seventeenth-century funeral ritual, and I can’t help but wonder whether the rosemary contributed to the coffin’s preservation. The quality of the coffins and the attention to detail suggested that these were people of importance.

During our visit to the site, the skeletons were identified as those of Philip Calvert, whose grandfather had been granted the land later named Maryland, his first wife, Ann Wolsey, and possibly the baby daughter of his second wife.

I love these true mystery stories with herbs in them!