florida rosemary close up needles

The Scent of the Scrub—Florida Rosemary’s Aromatic Secret

Author: Sarah Senese

Sitting at the heart of the Florida scrub habitat at Archbold Biological Station lives an iconic shrub that provides the aromatic, fruity backdrop of the landscape—the Florida Rosemary. “If you ever walk around and smell something slightly fruity, slightly floral, but definitely aromatic: that’s the Florida Rosemary,” said Sarah Senese, the Maxwell-Hanrahan Plant Ecology Research Intern at Archbold Biological Station. “Florida Rosemary (Ceratiola ericoides) isn’t related to true rosemary at all,” she continued. “Actually, it’s more related to blueberries and cranberries than it is to the true rosemary we think of as the aromatic spice. Despite this, Florida Rosemary has its own unique fragrance that defines the habitats that surround us—and we rarely even register it.”

“Our rosemary loosely resembles the herb we’re all familiar with, but looks more like a bush you would find in a hedge maze,” Dr. Sterling Herron, Archbold Plant Ecology Research Assistant said. “Rosemary can be identified by its round, bushy appearance and small, needle-like leaves.” Herron continued, “in a sandy scrub habitat, you can find rosemary in somewhat isolated gaps with other plants few and far between; but they’re totally okay being on their own. Rosemary’s chemistry has almost ensured that there’s a small buffer zone around each individual, occupied but not much else but other rosemary,” Herron said.

“Florida Rosemary has this amazing ability to define the habitat around it,” said Dr. Aaron David, Director of the Plant Ecology program at Archbold. “It uses these unique chemicals to ward other plants away from its immediate territory and root systems, making these incredible gaps between the individual rosemary plants that the scrub is so well-known for,” he said. Florida Rosemary exhibits a biological phenomenon called allelopathy, where plants exude chemicals that inhibit the growth of other plants in their immediate proximity. This limits the potential competition of other plants, and is common in stressful, usually heat-stressed environments.

Senese added that “it’s amazing that such a common plant here on the Lake Wales Ridge has this chemical which both deters other plants from growing in its proximity and has such a diverse use for us in the food and fragrance world.” While toxic to other plants, the chemicals associated with rosemary have a diverse use for humans.

Florida Rosemary exudes ceratiolin, a chemical which naturally degrades into the more commonly found hydrocinnamic acid (HCA) known for its uses in soaps, perfumes, bath gels, and food flavorings. The Florida Rosemary itself isn’t fragrant, but as its old leaves and stems decompose, the ceratiolin likewise degrades into the aromatic HCA that fills the air, creating a unique and natural aroma. HCA is a naturally occurring, common substance found in many household fruits, coffees, teas, and herbs. While we’re all enjoying our food, household products, and perfumes, the Florida scrub has secretly offered us a similar scent right under our noses!

“The next time you find yourself wandering through the scrub, take in the smells around you,” Senese urged, “it might just be Florida Rosemary—the true scent of the scrub that’s been hiding there the whole time.”

rosemary scrub bald reed bowman Photo by: Reed Bowman