Artemisias Enjoy a Long Run as Garden Plants

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The deep green tips of mugwort (A. vulgaris) show off nicely as the plant grows into a refined bush that serves well as a landscape plant in borders or at the garden’s edge.
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A favorite medieval strewing herb, wormwood (A. absinthium) gets its name from its ability to fend off worms.
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The clean, lemony scent of southernwood (A. abrotanum) is welcoming in the garden and in fresh-cut arrangements.

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:

Southernwood

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.

Wormwood

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.

French tarragon

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.

Sweet Annie

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.”

Mugwort

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.

ROSES FOR MEMORIAL DAY

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.”

Old moss roses

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’.”

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