A queen of Italy is delivered not of a human infant, but a rosemary bush.

She places her precious child in a beautiful pot and waters it three times a day with the milk of her own breasts. The little bush grows and grows.

A young Spanish king, the queen’s nephew, comes to visit.

“Aunt,” he inquires, “what plant is this?”

“This is my daughter and I water her three times daily with my milk.”

The Spanish king is fascinated by the rosemary. When he leaves Italy, he steals the bush, buys a nanny goat as a wet nurse for the voyage and returns home. He has the rosemary planted in his garden and orders the gardener to feed it three times a day with the goat’s milk. And every day, he visits the garden, plays his flute, and dances around the rosemary bush.

Until one day, a maiden steps forward to dance with him.

“Where did you come from?” he asks.

“From the rosemary,” she answers and disappears back into the bush when the dance is done.

Each afternoon, the king rushes to the garden to play his flute for Rosemary and dance with her. And when the dance is over, when they have conversed, held hands, and kissed, she retreats into the spiky, fragrant foliage.

dancing couple

The king must leave on official business. He tells Rosemary to wait for him in her bush, and says he will alert her to his return with three notes on his flute, but until then, she mustn’t emerge. He warns the gardener that if he comes home to find Rosemary withered in the least, the gardener will be beheaded.

The king’s three sisters are curious maidens, much entranced by their brother’s afternoon visits to the garden with his flute. Visits that last well into evening. Now that he’s gone, they enter his bedchamber, find his flute, and carry it to the garden.

The first sister toots a note. The second sister toots a second note. The third sister toots a third note. Out pops Rosemary. The sisters grab her by her long hair, and beat her unmercifully. She flees back into her rosemary bush and the bush begins to wither.


The gardener is frightened. Nothing he does, no buckets of the sweetest goat’s milk, seem to revive the rosemary bush. He runs for his life.

In the woods, he hears two dragons gossiping about the king’s rosemary bush. “Is there no way to save it?” the she-dragon asks the he-dragon.

“Keep this a secret,” the he-dragon says and bends low to whisper. A dragon’s whisper projects for miles around. The gardener listens.

After dark, the frightened gardener climbs the dragon tree, and sneaks through the dragon’s horrid snoring. He quickly draws blood from the he-dragon’s windpipe and scrapes fat from the she-dragon’s scruff. He runs home as fast as he can. He boils the blood and fat in a pot and greases the whole rosemary bush twig by twig. The bush dries completely. The girl emerges, healthy and whole. The gardener takes her into his house. His wife cares for her.

When the king returns, he wastes not a minute getting to the garden. He blows his flute three times, but no one appears. He tries again. Again no one appears. The rosemary bush is withered, not a leaf left.

The king is furious. He screams at the gardener. “Your head will roll this day!”

“Come in,” the gardener replies. “There is something wonderful within.”

And there is Rosemary.

The king punishes his sisters. He sends a messenger to the king and queen of Italy of tell them of his marriage to their daughter. Those two, who had despaired, are overcome with joy and soon their ship sails into the Spanish port. Rosemary awaits them on the dock. They all rejoice and at the feast the foods and wine are flavored all with rosemary.

–Retold from Italo Calvino, Italian Folktales, 1956