This season, try the artemisias

By Tom Seymour | Feb 25, 2021

Want to lighten up the garden this year? There is no better way to do it than to plant any of the various types of Artemisia. Members of this group are grown for their bright, greenish-white foliage. This, as opposed to plants grown mainly for their blooms, gives artemisias a long display season.

Artemisia falls in the Aster family and common names include artemisia and wormwood. Plants overwinter by virtue of cold-hearty crowns or rhizomes.

The namesake type, Artemisia absinthium, or common wormwood, was long-recognized as a medicinal plant, with references going back to the biblical Old Testament. Once used commercially as the source of the liqueur absinthe, such use was prohibited early in the 20th century.

However, new research has found that absinthe wasn’t the devil it was made out to be and some small, commercial makers again produce absinthe with commercially grown wormwood.

Wormwood is recognized as a sub-shrub, in that clumps of it can grow over two feet tall and two to three feet wide. The lobed foliage has a pungent, aromatic odor. Once established, wormwood can live for many years, perhaps generations. The plant bears inconspicuous, yellow flowers toward summer’s end.

When planting, choose a site with full sun and well-drained soil. The soil needn’t be overly fertile, either. Care consists of trimming errant strays or broken, dead sections of clumps if needed. Artemisia thrives on neglect. Wormwood is happy in zones three through nine.

Other Artemisias

This may come as a surprise, but the commonly used culinary herb, tarragon, is an artemisia. Tarragon, Artemisia dracunculus, besides being a garden herb, is often grown as an ornamental. Tarragon is said to grow much higher than what I have ever encountered, which us about two feet tall.

The foliage, instead of being deeply lobed, like wormwood, is thin and lance-shaped. So here we have a culinary herb and a fine ornamental, all in one package.

Tarragon is a tender perennial and should be treated as an annual in Maine.

Annual wormwood

An annual version of wormwood, Sweet Annie, Artemisia annua, is a delightful annual that very happily reseeds itself, saving gardeners the trouble of planting every year. Because of its annual nature, Sweet Annie is easily grown from seeds. Seed packets are commonly included in the seed displays found in most garden centers and even hardware and variety stores.

Sweet Annie can grow quite tall, sometimes to five feet tall. I haven’t found that my Sweet Annie grows that tall, though. Usually, one foot or so is the norm. Perhaps mine does not get enough sun to reach its full potential.

Grow Sweet Annie for its light, cheery color and also, for its delightful fragrance. I like to pinch a sprig, crush it and sniff it. It seems to lighten the spirit. What more can we ask of a plant?

Silver mound

Silver Mound Artemisia, Artemisia schmidtiana, is a favorite of landscapers and people establishing new gardens. Growing only to one foot tall and 12-18 inches wide, this version of artemisia makes a stunning groundcover and can go well with other, colorful plants or it can also stand on its own. The leaves are soft and fuzzy. Silver Mound also accepts cultivation in containers.

Artemisia Lactiflora

This version of artemisia has purple stems, light-green leaves and stalks bearing plumes of white flowers that come on in late summer. Also known as White Mugwort (not the wild Mugwort, which we’ll discuss next), grows to six feet tall and is the only artemisia grown for its flowers rather than its foliage.

Another departure from the normal artemisias, this one likes moist soil. Try growing near a building, which can serve as a foil to the tall plant. A. Lactiflora likes full sun and is hardy down to zone 4.

Artemisia Vulgaris

Mugwort, Artemisia vulgaris, is a wild artemisia that grows in rough ground, mostly roadsides where the earth is regularly disturbed by road graders. This plant grows to five feet tall, but can be kept under control by trimming.

Mugwort has some very beneficial medical uses, namely as the substance of a healing tea, which can break fevers and shorten the duration of colds.

Unfortunately, a few years ago the Maine Department of Agriculture declared it illegal to propagate or distribute Mugwort, contending that it displaces wild plant communities. It does no such thing, since it mainly grows on rough ground where the only other companions are aliens, like Mugwort itself. Were Mugwort native, it would not be demonized.

There is even a variegated cultivar, but given Maine’s Draconian dictate, we may not grow it.

However, if Mugwort grows on the roadside along your property, consider it a good thing. This handsome, fragrant plant can provide both good looks and a healing substance.

Each year in late summer I go along the back roads and pick my winter’s supply of Mugwort. Then, at home, the stalks are hung out to dry in a shady nook and when dried, the leaves are put in a glass container for use during the cold and flu season.

No matter which kind you choose, I highly recommend that you give the artemisias a try this year. You’ll love them, I’m sure.

Tom Seymour of Frankfort is a homeowner, gardener, forager, naturalist, Registered Maine Guide, amateur astronomer, magazine and newspaper columnist and book author.

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