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Artemisia, the 2014 Herb of the Year

This is an ornamental Artemisia, Powis Castle wormwood.
This is an ornamental Artemisia, Powis Castle wormwood.
Patrick Standish,

The herb of the year is Artemisia, which isn’t just one herb but a whole range of species. Artemisia’s grow around the world and are native to many different countries. You may know an Artemisia by the name of Sweet Annie, Mugwort, Wormwood, Tarragon, Southernwood, Sagebrush, or by other names. Artemisia’s of many species have had a long history in herbal medicines, being one of the bitter herbs traditionally used for the digestive system, as a liver tonic and to stimulate the immune system.

Many Artemsia’s have silvery foliage that is fernlike but the foliage and form of Artemisia’s varies widely. Some have dark green narrow leaves, some have broad leaves. Some Artemisia’s form small rounded bushes, some grow as sprawling mats, with many variations in between. There are even species that form small trees. The flowers of Artemsia’s are insignificant for the most part, although some are used in medicinal products.

Cultivation of Artemisia

Because there are so many species of Artemisia from so many areas of the world, this is only a generalization of the care needed for Artemisia. Some species are annual, others perennial. Annual species like Sweet Annie can be grown from seed. Most perennial species are best purchased as plants. There is a wide range of hardiness in Artemisia’s. When you are purchasing plants make sure to check if the species is hardy in your zone.

Most Artemisia’s prefer full sun, but many will tolerate partial shade. They tend to be drought hardy plants once established. Artemisia’s like fertile, well- drained soil and tolerate a wide range of soil pH values. They require little fertilization and rarely have problems with insects. Woody types of Artemisia’s benefit from a hard pruning in summer, trimming them back to about half their height. Since the flowers of Artemisia’s are not pretty they should be kept trimmed off, unless you want them for medicinal use.

Some Artemisia’s may interfere with the growth of plants near them through chemicals in the root system. Most species sold as garden ornamentals do not have this chemical. Some people may also experience an allergic reaction when working with Artemisia either in the garden or in craftwork. Artemisia pollen, especially that of Mugwort ( Artemisia vulgaris) can cause “hay fever” allergy symptoms.

Uses of Artemisia species

Tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus), is a culinary herb used in French and Hungarian cooking and to flavor a soft drink popular in the Ukraine. Many Artemisia’s including Sweet Annie, an annual member of the Artemisia family, are used in herbal crafts. Artemisia’s of many species are also used as ornamental plants, lending a soothing silvery cast to the perennial garden. (There is now a golden foliaged Artemisia ‘Gold Mound’ wormwood on the market too.) In the garden Artemisia’s are used for their foliage.

Native Americans pounded the seeds of sagebrush into flour; they burned the leaves in ceremonial cleansings and used sagebrush for chest congestion. They also placed sagebrush leaves in stored grain to keep away insects. In Europe wormwood was used to stimulate the appetite, expel intestinal worms, as a liver tonic and colic reliever. In Russia and China the shoots of some Artemisia’s were eaten when young, it was used to stop bleeding and cure infections as well as a digestive aid. They were used for male impotence and female reproductive problems.

In Africa Artemisia’s were used as digestive herbs but also in the treatment of malaria. Recent research has isolated a chemical, artemesinin, that is quite effective in killing the malaria parasite in the blood and it is sold as a prescription medicine in Africa, Asia and Europe. This anti-malarial compound is isolated from Sweet Annie, (Artemisia annua). This plant is also used in the treatment of fungal pneumonia’s common to AIDS patients. Dog wormwood, ( Artemisia keiskeana) is being studied as an anti-cancer agent, particularly for breast cancers.

Any discussion of Artemsia’s must mention their use in alcoholic beverages; they are used to make Absinthe (Artemisia absinthium), and Chartreuse, ( Artemisia genipi), some very potent drinks. They are bitter and were probably first concocted as medicinal drinks. At one time vermouth also was flavored with Artemisia, but modern vermouth doesn’t use it. French soldiers were given absinthe or chartreuse to ward off malaria and our current research suggests it may have had some benefit.

Absinthe had a reputation of being a psychoactive drug as well as a drink and it was banned in some places. It was probably the high alcoholic content of the drink that really caused the problems. However it was later found that Absinthe and Chartreuse also had high levels of thujone, a chemical derived from Artemisia (and other plants) thought to cause cancer. That caused some additional restrictions on selling the drink. However modern versions of the drinks do not contain thujone, and absinthe is enjoying a revival in popularity.

Many gardeners already have an Artemisia in their gardens but if you don’t, 2014 might be the year to add the herb of the year to your garden.

Here are some additional articles by the author you may want to read.

Great native shrubs for the landscape

Growing and using Lemon Verbena

Growing Thyme

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