Praising the Artemisias!
This year’s Herb of the Year* is actually a large and diverse group of plants. Important in medicine, in cooking, and as landscape plants, the artemisias are richly deserving of the honour. They include tarragon, one of the finest and most important ingredients in French cuisine, sweet annie, the source of a medicine crucially important for the prevention and treatment of malaria, and wormwood, the defining ingredient of vermouth, without which the martini could not exist.
|Artemis, Greek Goddess of the wilderness and the hunt|
Man’s connection to artemisia goes back a long way. They are found growing in large expanses throughout the world and surely would have caught the eyes of early hunters and gatherers. According to the Greek myths, Artemis, the goddess of the wilderness and of the hunt, gave the power of the plant to Chiron the Centaur who was a great healer and teacher. It was Chiron who then developed the first medicines from artemisia.
What would have impressed early herbalists are its bitter qualities. Bitter herbs kick-start the digestive system, stimulate the liver, and boost the immune system. As our lives become more sedentary and our systems become sluggish, we may need to be taking bitter artemisias like wormwood, santonica and mugwort for better health.
Even if adding bitter herbs to food or medicine seems too hard on the tastebuds, adding silver or grey artemisias to the landscape creates a beautiful, serene effect. Many artemisias are hardy and drought tolerant, and adapt very well to many garden situations.
The Artemisias: A Cast of Characters
More 400 species of artemisias are known to botanists. And from those 400 or so species many more varieties were developed by selection and breeding. Let’s look at a few of the more interesting species and varieties.
Ask a gardener what artemisias are good for and he or she will point to the garden where grey and silver artemisias are planted for their aesthetic value. But he or she may be surprised to know that artemisias are useful in the kitchen too. That’s because the artemisias used in the kitchen are not usually called "artemisia", nor are they silver or grey.
(Artemisia dracunculus sativa)
By far the brightest culinary star among the artemisias is French tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus
). In ways it is so different from other artemisias. It is the piece de resistance of French cuisine, essential in sauces such as bearnaise, hollandaise and mousseline, and used in vinaigrettes, omelettes, marinated meats and poultry stuffing. Esteemed for its sweet anise-licorice flavour when fresh, the flavour and aroma disappear when the herb is dried. Yet when you think of artemisias, a group of mostly bitter plants, it is actually surprising that French tarragon has none of the bitterness common to the others. As it turns out, tarragon has close wild relatives that grow in the American West, Eastern Europe and much of temperate Asia, and these wild tarragons are bitter and can’t be used in the kitchen.
Just how the French variety first came on the scene is a mystery. Not only does it have that exceptional bitter-free flavour, it is also sterile. For a plant to be sterile means that it flowers but can’t produce seeds, and it can only be propagated by division or by cuttings. Meanwhile its fecund wild relatives freely produce seeds, and have over the eons succeeded in spreading across much of the northern hemisphere. This inability to produce seeds means that the French variety owes its existence today to the help of humans. A mutant plant must have been discovered in the wild by humans and kept alive in cultivation for perhaps centuries, maybe even millenia, until today. Without human intervention, that first seedless mutant plant probably would have died out. One can imagine some prehistoric gourmand stumbling upon that first mutant plant in the wild, taking a liking to its vibrant new taste, and deciding to transplant it to his or her garden.
|Wild tarragon growing in Nevada|
Today we know that the French variety has twice as many sets of chromosomes as its wild relatives, which suggests that sometime in the past a mutation must have occurred. Something interfered with normal cell division and caused the chromosomes to double in number, from the normal two sets to four sets. Doubling the chromosomes can cause noticeable changes in plants, and may be responsible for the change in tarragon’s essential oil profile, changing its aroma and flavour into what we know today. But doubling the chromosomes can also cause serious negative effects such as sterility and the loss of the ability to produce seeds.
Another mutant tarragon became what is known as Russian tarragon, a bitter-free variety that produces seeds like the wild species do, but has none of the flavour and aroma of the French variety. Russian tarragon has ten sets of chromosomes instead of the usual two. In the past, the seed industry foisted this tasteless variety on an unsuspecting public as the real McCoy, but it has no redeeming culinary use. But it does have medicinal properties, and it has been used for a wide variety of illnesses in Eurasia.
Our fascination with this most famous culinary artemisia, French tarragon, overshadows other artemisias that are used in cooking. Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris
) is a herb that was once popular in cooking but deserves another fresh look today. Mugwort is not bitter-free, but it is not too bitter either, and it is used to season foods that are hard to digest. Rich meats and poultry such as goose and duck and game are high in fats and are much improved by the judicious use of mugwort. What happens is the bitter principles in mugwort stimulate the digestive system, causing the bile to flow and helping the system to process fats more efficiently. More efficient digestion reduces indigestion, bloating and discomfort that is often associated with rich foods, and it improves the body’s ability to assimilate nutrients. Mugwort, in effect, is like a dietary supplement that you take for better health, and for that reason we think that mugwort has a place in today’s overly rich diet. In fact, we think adding herbs like mugwort to foods may help people to lose weight because better digestion means less food is required to supply the nutrients the body needs. Mugwort is a tall hardy perennial that is easy to grow in any sunny or partially sunny location.
|Yomogi dumplings made with gelatinous rice.|
The Japanese have their own variety of mugwort called yomogi (Artemisia princeps
). They make delicious dumplings from gelatinous rice flavoured with yomogi leaves. The young leaves and seedlings are also used in soups and salads. Like the European mugwort, yomogi has a trace of bitterness that is essential to the taste and character of the herb. But the bitterness is not dominant, and it allows the underlying flavour of the foods to come through.
|Various absinthe and vermouth products, all made with wormwood |
Did James Bond know that his favourite cocktail, the martini, owes its existence to artemisia? Did the painter Vincent van Gogh know that the absinthe he drank to excess was made with artemisia? Maybe not, but absinthe is flavoured with Roman wormwood (Artemisia pontica) and common wormwood (Artemisia absinthium), and those same wormwoods are used to make vermouth, the essential ingredient of the martini. Indeed ‘absinthe’ is the French word for wormwood and ‘wermut’ (pronounced ‘vermut’) is the German word, which goes to show how deep is the connection between the artemisias and some of Europe’s classic alcoholic drinks. The liqueur chartreuse is made with black wormwood (Artemisia genipi) and other herbs. Another classic European liqueur, genepi, is made with the same black wormwood.
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|Roman wormwood |
|Common wormwood |
|Black wormwood |
It was once thought that wormwood-based drinks are dangerous, and absinthe in particular was banned in Europe and America by 1915. The fear was that thujone, a compound present at very low levels in absinthe, was alleged to cause harmful effects. But those fears have been debunked and the bans on absinthe were lifted in the 1990s.
Artemisias have a long history of use in alcoholic beverages. The forerunners of vermouth and absinthe were fortified wines made by steeping wormwood in wine, a practice that goes back to at least the 15th century in Europe and to as far back as 1,200-1,500 BC in India, Egypt and China.
|Herbal bitters made with wormwood. Traditionally served after dinner to help digestion.|
Beyond the many aperitifs and liqueurs made with herbs, there are many alcoholic herbal bitters available today, especially in Europe. Herbal bitters were developed for medicinal purposes, going back hundreds or thousands of years. They are made with dozens of herbs but the common thread through most of them is artemisia. It is interesting how bitters are typically taken in Europe: after a heavy dinner the evening would end with a shot of bitters. Bitters help the body to digest the meal, by firing up the digestive system. They help the body process food quickly and help to settle the stomach before retiring for the night. If you have noticed how sleep is less restful when you go to bed with a full stomach, it is because the body is still working hard to process the food. The nerves in the gut are telling the brain, “Hey, we can’t sleep yet, we’re still busy down here!”
From the French tarragon example we know that artemisias have the potential to change from bitter, wild forms to sweet, highly fragrant forms. The aromatic essential oils can change dramatically with the right natural mutations of the plant’s genetic code.
Maybe it is not so surprising then that there are other artemisias with pleasant aromas, despite the preponderance of bitter species. In southern India a highly aromatic herb called “davana” (Artemisia pallens) is grown for davana oil that is exported for use in high end perfumery.
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|Dried davana |
|Camphor southernwood |
Closer to home, many herb gardeners are familiar with the southernwoods, a handful of hardy herbs with soft feathery foliage in a range of scents from lemon, fruity, to camphor. The standard variety (Artemisia abrotanum) has a lovely fruity odor and can reach as high as 2 m (7 ft). Citrus southernwood has a slightly different aroma profile with hints of lemon along with the more complex fruity backdrop of the standard variety. Camphor southernwood is a different species altogether (Artemisia camphorata) and is low growing, rarely exceeding 60 cm (2ft). As you might expect its foliage has a camphor-like scent, yet it is surprisingly pleasant.
|Smudge stick made with sagebrush, one of the ‘white sages’ traditionally used by native Americans.|
Artemisias are important to native Americans for traditional ceremonial use. Dried leaves tied into small bundles called ‘smudge sticks’ are burned to purify the ritual area. Like incense, a burning smudge stick releases fragrant essential oils into the air. These volatilized oils often have antibacterial and antifungal properties, which may hint of why smudging is associated with purification. The main herb used for smudging is ‘white sage’. But ‘white sage’ differs in the different regions and among the different tribes. In California, a true sage, Salvia apiana
, is ‘white sage’. But in the colder northern states where Salvia apiana
does not grow, artemisias are used instead, and are known as ‘white sage’ also. Big sagebrush or desert sage (Artemisia tridentata
), is the ‘white sage’ across the mountainous West, while prairie wormwood (Artemisia ludoviciana
) (also known as silver wormwood or western mugwort) is the ‘white sage’ of the prairies and of eastern North America.
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|Big sagebrush or desert sage |
(Artemisia tridentata tridentata)
|Prairie wormwood |
Humans first used artemisias for medicine as far back as 3,500 years ago, and probably much earlier. According to Greek legend artemisia was the first herb to be used for medicine. Even if you believe the Greek legends are more fancy than fact, it is not hard to imagine that an artemisia might well have been one of the first plants used for human health. For early hunters and gatherers the large expanses of aromatic artemisias growing across Eurasia would have been a constant temptation to try. And it probably didn’t take them long to discover that artemisias could make them feel better – a lot better.
|Adult beef tapeworm|
Almost immediately their digestion would have improved. Early hunters faced a constant battle with worms and other intestinal parasites from the meat they ate, something we no longer worry about because our meat is government inspected to ensure it is sanitary. Taking wormwood would have cleared those intestinal infestations because wormwood is a powerful vermifuge, or an agent that expels worms. Free of parasites they would have felt stronger and healthier.
This discovery that wormwood could make you feel better would have had a huge impact in health terms among the early peoples, equivalent to the modern impact of vaccines or antibiotics. The knowledge would have spread far and wide. Indeed, we know from the folkloric record that wormwood and other artemisias were used by diverse peoples across the globe to treat digestive problems. While Europeans and Asians mainly relied on wormwoods and santonica (Artemisia cina, as well as A. chamaemelifolia and A. pauciflora), native Americans used the many sagebrushes that grow throughout the American West for the same purpose.
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|Russian santonica |
|Sweet Annie wormwood |
In recent decades another artemisia has entered the medical limelight. The aromatic herb sweet annie (Artemisia annua) has become the source of a critically important medicine for the treatment of malaria. In areas of the world where the parasite that causes malaria (and is spread by mosquitoes) is resistant to antimalarial drugs, a compound extracted from sweet annie is our last line of defense. If it weren’t for that compound, artemisinin, and its chemical derivatives, large parts of the tropics would be unsafe to travel to, and the full devastating impact of malaria on the local people would return.
Artemisias have other medical uses in modern herbal medicine. Wormwood is used for loss of appetite, upset stomach, intestinal spasms, and for the gall bladder. It is also used for fever, liver disease, to stimulate sweating, and as a sex tonic.
|Moxa burning on acupuncture point. Moxa is made with dried mugwort (Artemisia princeps or A. vulgaris).|
A curious Oriental practice is to burn moxa on the body, a practice known as moxibustion. Moxa is dried mugwort pressed into small cones or sticks. Both the Japanese mugwort (Artemisia princeps
) and the European variety (Artemisia vulgaris
) are used for this purpose. The burning cones or sticks are placed on acupuncture points in order to stimulate the flow of qi
), much like needles do in acupuncture. Sometimes the moxa is pierced with a needle and the needle with the burning moxa is stuck into the patient. Practitioners say moxibustion is effective for the treatment of chronic problems and what is categorized in Oriental medicine as "deficient conditions" or weakness. It is also effective for age-related problems among the elderly. There is even evidence it can be used to turn breech babies.
|Artemisia garden in Los Alamos. A wave of artemisia surrounds patches of Russian sage and yellow yarrow. © 2008 Bob Walker |
The greens, greys and silvers of the artemisias offer a palette of colours and textures that can be woven into any landscape to create a beautiful serene setting. With few exceptions artemisias are hardy perennials that tolerate a wide range of growing conditions. Many can thrive in dry, poor soils, making them excellent choices for xeriscaping, the art of gardening with reduced water. But the artemisias insist on good water drainage, so where rainfall is high and the soil is heavy, it is important to add sand or gravel so water drains from the roots easily. Sloping the garden bed helps too.
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|Silver King wormwood |
|Silver Queen wormwood |
|Silver Mound wormwood |
Some of the most useful artemisias for landscaping are the well known cultivars ‘Silver King’, ‘Silver Queen’, ‘Silver Mound’ and ‘Powis Castle’. ‘Silver King’ is a robust cultivar developed from the wild prairie wormwood (Artemisia ludoviciana), one of the sacred species used as ‘white sage’ by native Americans. It forms dense, almost white ghost-like clumps about 1 m (3 ft) tall. ‘Silver Queen’ is also a prairie wormwood, but it forms low silvery patches only 30 cm (1 ft) high. ‘Silver Mound’ is low growing too, but it comes from a different species (Artemisia schmidtiana). Its soft, feathery leaves are so inviting to touch you’ll won’t be able to keep your hands off of it. A new golden version, introduced in 2014, is called ‘Ever Goldy’. But we prefer to call it “Gold Mound wormwood” because it is a perfect complement to ‘Silver Mound’. ‘Powis Castle’ is another striking artemisia that grows in shrubby mounds 60-90 cm (2-3 ft) high. It is popular for landscape use because of its outstanding colour and shape. In 1993 it was awarded an Award of Garden Merit from the Royal Horticultural Society. No one is sure of its origin but it is presumed to be a hybrid between common wormwood (Artemisia absinthium) and a North African species known as tree wormwood (Artemisia arborescens). This parentage, if true, may explain why ‘Powis Castle’ is not quite as hardy as other artemisias. It is hardy in USDA zones 6-9, which less hardy than common wormwood (zones 3-9) and more hardy than tree wormwood (zones 8-9). Still, it is often grown in colder zones even though it may not come back every year and may need replanting every few years.
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|Gold Mound wormwood |
|Powis Castle wormwood |
|Tree wormwood |
The just mentioned tree wormwood (Artemisia arborescens) is special case among the artemisias. It grows as a small tree, sending up a woody stem that develops a stately mini canopy of silver-grey foliage. It behaves very well in containers, reaching just 1 m (3-4 ft) or so, making it an elegant specimen plant for containers on balconies, patios or terraces. But in many areas it is tender and must be wintered indoors. A Moroccan immigrant once told us that this is the species that Moroccans depend on for traditional medicinal use.
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|Silver sagebrush |
|Black sagebrush |
|Dwarf sagebrush |
The iconic sagebrushes of the American West, covering huge expanses of dryland, are probably too common and too wild to be thought of as landscape plants. But we think they deserve another look as possible garden plants. In these times of increasing scarcity and cost of water, when some counties of the American Southwest have banned the use of water for lawns and gardens, these richly aromatic plants could become horticultural saviours. We think breeders will develop improved garden varieties from them in the future; but for now, the wild species are definitely worth trying. But make sure they get excellent drainage because like the wormwood they don’t like wet feet. Some of the more interesting American sagebrushes to try are silver sagebrush (Artemisia cana), black sagebrush (Artemisia nova), dwarf sagebrush (Artemisia arbuscula), and the previously mentioned desert sage or big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata). Two close cousins of big sagebrush are mountain sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata vaseyana) and Wyoming sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata wyomingensis), and they are worth trying too. An Asian species, white sagebrush (Artemisia lercheana), from the vast steppes of central Asia, is an outstanding choice for the dry garden.
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|Mountain sagebrush |
(Artemisia tridentata vaseyana)
|Wyoming sagebrush |
(Artemisia tridentata wyomingensis)
|White sagebrush |
|Homemade bug spray made with wormwood.|
Finally, it is worth mentioning that the artemisias, with their rich aromas and bitter qualities, are the product of thousands of years of pitched battle with pests. If a plant is growing in dry areas where growth is limited by the availability of water, then it has to make darn sure that any leaves and stems and flowers it produces don’t get eaten up. The artemisias have, in effect, waged chemical warfare on pests, throwing up all sorts of essential oils and bitter principles that have deterrence value or can actually kill bugs and bacteria. And it turns out that we can put these munitions to work in the garden by planting artemisias next to other plants that don’t have defenses. This is what is called companion planting, where a plant is planted to help another. It is even possible to make homemade sprays from wormwood to help control pests.
If we have sung the praises of artemisias well, you’ll want to try growing some yourself – we hope! Richters carries a great selection of popular and rare artemisias, over 30 species and varieties in all. Here pictured below are more of the amazing artemisias that we carry.
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|White mugwort |
|African wormwood |
|Alpine wormwood |
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|Beach wormwood |
|Dog wormwood |
|Fringed wormwood |
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|Hakusan wormwood |
|Redfoot wormwood |
|Ukranian wormwood |
*About the Herb of the Year™ Program
Each year the International Herb Association celebrates the Herb of the Year™ as part of its program to raise public awareness of herbs and how they enhance our lives. The IHA’s Horticulture Committee selects herbs that are outstanding in at least two of three major categories: medicinal, culinary, or decorative. Herb societies, groups, and organizations, around the world, work together to educate the public about these herbs throughout the year. The IHA publishes a book annually on the year’s Herb of the Year™, featuring material contributed by members on growing, uses, botany, history and recipes for each year’s herb. The public may purchase the book on the IHA’s website. For more information about the IHA and its Herb of the Year program, please visit the IHA’s website at iherb.org