The Many Faces of Artemisia

| October/November 1993

With two to three hundred diverse species, the genus Artemisia offers something for every herb lover—gourmet flavor in the kitchen, outstanding ornamentals in the garden, and mainstays for the craft shop.

The group includes annuals, biennials, and perennials; many species are woody or semiwoody, and some with creeping rootstocks are ­invasive. Except for white mugwort (see below), artemisias generally have insignificant yellow or white flowers. But they are usually grown for their superb foliage, which comes in countless shapes: broadly strap-shaped, lobed, ferny, delicately lacy. Colors run the gamut from dark green to grays and silvers, even sparkling white. The green species tend to have smooth leaves, while the grayer leaves may be hairy, woolly, or felted; you may need a magnifying glass to make out the hairs.

Artemisias, members of the vast daisy family, Compositae (Asteraceae), are native to north temperate lands as well as western South America and South Africa. Many are native to the American West: The characters in Zane Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage traveled through artemisias (Artemisia tridentata, most likely), not purple ­garden sage (Salvia officinalis ‘Purpurascens’), which is native to Mediterranean Europe. Settlers familiar with the European sage noted the resemblance in aroma to the American herb and not only gave it the same common name but sometimes also used it to flavor their food. In fact, pungent fragrance is characteristic of many artemisias, although the flowers of sweet Annie and white mugwort are sweetly scented and the leaves of the epicurean herb French tarragon smell deliciously of anise.

Most artemisias thrive in lean, well-drained soil and full sun, and most are eminently suitable for xeriscapes. Most are hardy in zones 4 through 9, ­although the humid heat of southern summers can do them in, especially if they are planted in rich soil.

Some forms tend to flop. Avoid fertilizing or planting in shade to help prevent this. Pruning will help keep plants compact, and sticks or inconspicuous cages can prop up the droopiest.

A few artemisias can be grown from seed, but most, especially French tarragon and the cultivars mentioned below, are propagated vegetatively. ­Divide plants in spring or fall. You can also root stem cuttings of new growth taken in early summer, or try rooting slightly older cuttings taken with a “heel” (a bit of the main stem) later in the summer (see “Growing Herbs from Stem Cuttings”, Herb Companion, February/March 1993). Go easy on misting, as the cuttings rot easily.

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