Slow to germinate, late to bloom, and somewhat plain and gawky, sweet Annie (Artemisia annua) is the tomboy of everlasting gardens. Yet this tall annual herb, native to southeastern Europe, northern Africa, and Iran, is a favorite of crafters in this country for its versatility and sweet, lingering fragrance.
A Sweet Annie Garden Wreath
Although each sweet Annie plant lives for only a single growing season, it readily self-seeds, and after one or two have become established in your garden, you’re sure to have plants for years to come. Be patient in waiting for your first seeds to germinate. We usually till the soil, then sow the fine seeds directly in the ground in May (a few weeks before the last frost in our Zone 5 garden), walking back over the sown rows to firm in the seed. It sometimes takes a month for the small, feathery-leaved seedlings to appear. We sometimes sow the seeds indoors in a flat of potting mix about two months before the last frost date. Press the seeds into the soil or just barely cover them, and keep the flat at 60° to 70°F. Pot up the seedlings when they’re about 2 inches high, and keep them indoors until all danger of frost has passed. Harden off the potted plants for at least a week, setting them outdoors in a protected area for a longer period each day, and then transplant to the garden.
Space the plants at least 3 to 4 feet apart in the garden so they’ll grow full and well branched: each one can grow to the size and shape of a Christmas tree by harvest time. The plants will grow steadily until late summer, when they shoot up to 6 feet or more in height. (Transplanted sweet Annie usually doesn’t grow as large as self-sown plants do.) Neighbors may think you have missed pulling some very large weeds, but you can encourage them to brush against the foliage to release its lovely, fruity fragrance.
Sweet Annie is a sun lover and adaptable to many soil types. It needs only average moisture and will grow even under quite dry conditions. We’ve had little trouble with insects; aphids sometimes take a liking to the plants, but it’s usually late in the season when the sweet Annie is so large that the aphids don’t seem to do any harm. We simply harvest the plants, and any aphids that remain will leave as the plants dry.
Harvesting Sweet Annie
In late summer (early September in Zone 5), watch for the development of “beads”—tiny yellow flowers in loose panicles—along the branches. If the branches are cut too soon, they will be of poor quality, so wait until the blossoms open (giving the plants a yellowish cast). Harvested at this time, the plant will dry to a nice medium green but will gradually turn golden brown on exposure to light. Leave one or two branches at the base of a plant to set seed; this will ensure a good supply of seedlings for next year’s harvest.
The stem will have become thick and woody by harvest time, and you’ll need a heavy pair of lopping shears or a hand saw to cut it. Cut the top 2 to 3 feet off the plant and then cut the remaining branches off the main stem. Group these into handful-size bunches and wrap a heavy rubber band around the stem ends several times to secure them. Hang the bunches in a warm, dry, dark location with good air circulation for 1 to 11/2 weeks to dry; garage or attic rafters are ideal. When the centers of the bunches feel completely dry, hang them in a dark, dry place to store them or place them in a cardboard box.
Sweet Annie’s Virtues
Sweet Annie, known in China as qing-hao, has been used in treating malaria and fever since the seventh century. Western herbalists, too, have used the plant for this purpose, and value it also for its effectiveness against diarrhea, indigestion, and certain bacterial diseases. In the past 20 years, scientists in Beijing have isolated a substance from sweet Annie (found only in this herb) which they have used to treat quinine-resistant malaria in thousands of patients, with nearly 100 percent success. Because allergic reactions are common, medicinal use of this herb should be undertaken only under the supervision of a qualified health practitioner.
Sweet Annie’s most common home use is in crafts. It works well as a base material in wreaths (see instructions below) and swags, and it’s an excellent filler in bouquets and arrangements. Long branches can be used whole or broken into smaller pieces, depending on the size of the arrangement. Handling dried sweet Annie can generate quite a bit of dust, but this will be minimized if you mist the branches with water before you start to work.
The fragrance of sweet Annie is more pronounced during humid weather. Some folk like to hang a bunch in a bathroom, where the damp air will release the fragrance. Crumbling the dried herb over a carpet before vacuuming is another way to enjoy its sweet scent.
Unfortunately, some people are allergic to sweet Annie, usually reacting with sharp headaches, sneezing, and sometimes skin irritation (the last usually from the fresh herb). If you’re among them, substitute Silver King (A. ludoviciana ‘Silver King’), a perennial artemisia with silver-gray foliage and a somewhat similar branch size and shape. It lacks sweet Annie’s appealing scent, but I find it a good alternative in many dried floral arrangements.
The following companies carry dried sweet Annie and other dried plant materials and supplies for wreathmaking.
• Black Pearl Gardens, 220 Maple St., Franklin, OH 45005. Catalog $2.
• Clark’s Greenhouse • Herbal Country, RR 1, Box 15B, San Jose, IL 62682. Catalog $2.
• Meadow Everlastings-HC, #16464 Shabbona Rd., Malta, IL 60150. Catalog $2 (refundable).
• Rasland Farm, Rt. 1, Box 65-HC, Godwin, NC 28344. Catalog $2.50.
• The Secret Garden, 1100 Chicago Ave., Goshen, IN 46526. Send SASE for product list.
• Wildwood Herbal Flower Farm, 817 Reems Creek Rd., Weaverville, NC 28787. Send SASE for product list.
Sharon Challand and her husband, John, own Meadow Everlastings, a family business in which they grow and dry a variety of everlasting flowers and herbs on an old farmstead near Malta, Illinois.