Many artemisias graced old-time gardens, earning their spot of ground for both practical and aesthetic reasons. Today, every one of them remains valued for its beauty and hardy self-reliance. Some of our best-known artemisias today came to this country with the colonists. They proved so adaptable that they quickly naturalized alongside their North American cousins, among which is perhaps “the most agreeably scented of the race,” according to Louise Beebe Wilder in The Fragrant Path. It’s the western sagebrush, A. tridentatum.
Among artemisias originally from Europe are southernwood (A. abrotanum), common wormwood (A. absinthium), French tarragon (A. dracunculus), sweet Annie (A. annua) and mugwort (A. vulgaris).
Common wormwood and sweet Annie easily are raised from seed; the others are easier bought as young plants and multiplied from tip cuttings or simple divisions. In olden times, artemisias were grown mostly for medicinal, culinary or household purposes (most make great substitutes for mothballs among precious woolens). Various ones reportedly cured everything from baldness to lovesickness, to a host of women’s ills. The wormwoods were particularly noted as intestinal wormicides, although their poison potential makes them too dangerous as home remedies.
In counterpoint, ornamental uses have grown, and with good reason. Artemisias have interestingly shaped foliage, which often is fragrant, and the plants are very drought and cold hardy. Those with gray leaves make excellent visual counterpoints to the greens of our gardens, and they’re also good candidates for the ever-popular white garden plantings.
Here’s a rundown of the artemisias in my garden, Back in Thyme:
This must have been the most beloved of the European garden artemisias, judging from its many folk names. Old Man, Lad’s Love, Boy’s Love, Appleringie, Kiss-me-quick-and-go and Meeting plant are just some of the favorites.
Maude Grieve says in her Modern Herbal that this southern European native moved into English gardens in 1548. Its clean, lemony fragrance is very agreeable; turn-of-the-century U.S. garden writer Alice Morse Earle declared southernwood “bears a balmier breath than is ever borne by many blossoms.”
That characteristic, and its drought-hardy good looks, endeared it to many. The plant was even carried to church (hence its “Meeting” name) to keep true believers from dozing off during the sermon. Tucked into posies, often with moss roses, for male friends, it signified “bantering” in the Victorian language of flowers. And its branches are said by Grieve to dye wood a deep yellow.
At Back in Thyme, southernwood remains evergreen nearly until spring, when it wants a bit of a trimming for a tidier appearance (deer will “trim” it, too, on occasion). The scented geranium called southernwood is a completely different plant.
A. absinthium was a favorite medieval strewing herb and later, the main ingredient in the liqueur absinthe, now outlawed. The modern garden favorite, ‘Powis Castle’ artemisia, is thought to be a cross between this plant and the more-tender tree wormwood (A. aborescence), which we haven’t grown.
In olden times, common wormwood was used as a wormicide and as an ingredient in homemade ink—a tactic intended to keep mice from eating the paper on which the ink was used. Also, agricultural authorities recommended it be grown “in every poultry yard,” apparently so the chickens could worm themselves.
Common wormwood is a fairly coarse but not unattractive plant in the growing season. With silvery, gray/green foliage, a sprig will balloon into a fair-sized bush — 2 to 3 feet tall and just as wide — in a season. In Herbal Renaissance, Steven Foster says this plant inhibits the growth of nearby plants just as black walnut trees do, so we keep it outside the garden proper; actually, it’s in the poultry yard.
Grieve says this is the bitterest herb known, with the exception of rue; the smell is a bit reminiscent of a kindergarten cloak closet.
Here’s an artemisia much more pleasing to the palate, and one that should be in every ornamental and culinary plot. Emerald shoots appear very early each spring, and with little attention the plant endures beautifully until frost.
The leaves, which are about 2 inches long and 1/2 inch wide, and are not divided like the other artemisias, smell of nothing at all but taste delightfully of licorice. They make a delicious salad vinegar said to have been Thomas Jefferson’s favorite.
Grieve says French cooks usually mix their mustard with tarragon vinegar, and she notes the leaves also are used as salad greens. Richter’s catalog has called it the “piece de resistance of all culinary herbs.”
This plant generally does not bloom — it’s never bloomed for me — but to keep a specimen vigorous, just divide it every few years. To make the vinegar, stick some sprigs in a bottle of good white or champagne vinegar and give it a few weeks to steep. Then, enjoy over your greens.
Everlasting flower arrangers favor this artemisia for wreath bases because of its delicate look and apple-scented foliage. An annual, it self-seeds itself in rather an indelicate way, so you’d almost swear it is a perennial.
Happily, you can rein in out-of-control sweet Annie populations with a mower before they set seed, and it’s a fragrant task, indeed.
Ed Rasmussen, of The Fragrant Path seed company in Nebraska, has written in his catalog that this plant, which he calls sweet wormwood, “ought certainly to be used in public plantings, as well as any herb or fragrance garden. He suggests it for an informal hedge, and indeed, it will grow easily to fill such a space. Wilder calls it “a wayside weed that is very sweet indeed.”
And finally, to this vulnerable, old plant, which grows into a fine bush that shows more refinement of line than the common wormwood.
Mugwort’s leaves are deep green on tip; silvery gray on the bottom, kind of like the old silver maple trees. Both look very pretty fluttering in the wind, even though neither ought to be brought into the garden proper. Our mugwort encircles a purple martin house post; historically, herbalists employed it for women’s complaints. It smells simply “green” to me.
Two more interesting artemisias have yet to take up residence at Back in Thyme, but they’re on my planting list. A. maritime, called sea wormwood or “Old Lady,” is said by Grieve to “somewhat resemble A. absinthium but is smaller.” And Roman wormwood, A. pontica, she notes, has “an especially delicate and pleasing aroma,” and looks much like common wormwood, except it’s more refined. This plant is used in the making of vermouth.
Nancy Smith, managing editor of Mother Earth News magazine, writes and gardens at her home in Leavenworth County, Kansas.
To be surest of your plants’ identities, choose reputable nurseries selling mints propagated from cuttings.
In most of the United States, peonies, irises and roses are in bloom by Memorial Day, so all were favored as permanent old-time cemetery plantings, too. Writing in the Wichita Beacon (Kansas) in 1959, Mrs. H.F. Anderson, a past president of the Wichita Rose Society and one who thought Kansas could just as easily be called the “Rose Bowl as the Dust Bowl,” reported the following roses in early-day southern Kansas cemeteries:
Native prairie roses (Rosa setigera) - described by Anderson as “fragrant and very thorny, with the starched, pristine look of a little girl in her first communion dress.”
‘Harison’s Yellow’ – “the sweet-scented harbinger of spring.”
‘Persiana’ – “deep gold with its homemade soap fragrance.”
Damasks – with the sweetest perfume of any early or modern rose. Those that bloomed more than once a year were known as the Rose of Four Seasons, she wrote.
Centifolias – “better known as the old cabbage roses.” Most Kansas centifolias, Anderson noted, were the old “steeple” type, with a hard, green, bud-like growth in the center of each bloom. A deep, dark red centifolia with streaks of white was “universally known as the ‘Red Rose from Kansas’.”