The Art of Artemisias

Uniting utility and beauty, artemisias are an herb lover’s dream.


| April/May 2000


Nearly forty years ago, I planted my first artemisia, a common wormwood (Artemisia absinthium). Its leaves proved so effective as a medicinal tea for stomach complaints and as a moth repellent that this herb moved with us wherever we went, always settling easily into the outskirts of our vegetable gardens in a rough hedge, handy for harvesting.

Only when we stopped moving and I could grow other artemisias did I discover their beauty: their velvety leaves in subtle shades of soft green, gray, silver, and near white; their range of form—from the round cushions of silvermound (A. schmidtiana ‘Nana’) to tall, arching shrublike white mugwort (A. lactiflora), topped in late summer with sprays of cream white flowers—and their bracing aromas. I now grow artemisias in tubs, borders, trimmed hedges, and as single accents. Never again will I relegate them to the sidelines. Artemisias add sparkle to every planting, enhance neighboring bright colors, and create soothing oases during the hot days of summer and fall when they reach their peak of form. Growing artemisias is an herb lover’s dream, uniting utility and beauty.

Members of the daisy family (Compositae), artemisias are distributed throughout the Northern Hemisphere as well as occurring in South Africa and western South America. Most of the herbal forms are shrubby perennials; most flourish in sunny, exposed sites in dry, lean, or ordinary garden soil. Multitudes of tiny hairs protect the foliage from prolonged drought and drying winds, a characteristic that gives the plants their unusual silvery white hues. With the exception of the annual sweet Annie (A. annua), which are easily grown from seed, the herbal artemisias are best obtained as plants, then propagated by division or cuttings.

Valued for centuries as aromatic strewing herbs and bitter-tasting medicinals, artemisias in the West are now used mainly for crafts, especially in wreaths and swags. Several types of wormwood and mugwort still hold an important place in Traditional Chinese Medicine, however.



Mugworts

Common mugwort (A. vulgaris), a weed of waste places, has unsuspected virtues. If its stalks are picked and dried when the flowers are in tiny, tight grayish buds, the otherwise undistinguished, deeply divided green leaves roll over, revealing beautiful soft silver undersides that match their now silvery buds. (Perhaps this transformation from mundane to magnificent was the source of mugwort’s widespread reputation as a charm against evil spirits.) The bitter-tasting flowers and leaves were once used to flavor beer (the common name is believed to allude to midges rather than to beer mugs, however), alleviate digestive and gynecological disorders, and prevent tired feet (put a leaf in each shoe before you set out on a journey). Asians eat the young shoots and leaves to counter the effects of fatty meats, much as Westerners eat sage.

Mugwort is a shrubby 5-foot-tall plant with purplish stems that sprawls as it ages, bearing tiny flowers that turn from yellowish to brown. Confined to the wild landscape, it is kept in bounds by seasonal trimming of its flowering stems for crafts, tussie-mussies (thought to bring luck to travelers), or a soothing footbath with comfrey and mints. After harvesting the stalks, I cut whatever is left nearly to the ground to encourage a mound of fresh foliage.







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