If you’re looking for graceful, easy-care plants to light up a sunny, dry area, look no further than Artemisia. Artemisias are found all over the world, but all prefer dry, exposed sites in silty soils. The genus includes the ancient herbs Wormwood and Mugwort, the culinary herb Tarragon. Also, the plants known all over the desert West, sagebrush are Artemisia tridentata. Although definitely sun-loving plants, Artemisias are perfectly at home in a moon garden, where the silvery leaves catch the pale evening light. Wendy Johnson, in her book Gardening at the Dragon’s Gate, evokes their subtle magic:
“All the Artemisia plants in the garden are under the dominion of Artemis, Greek goddess of the moon and of the hunt, and guardian of the sovereign chastity of those who choose to travel in her band of solitaries. The plants of Artemis all carry her unmistakable signature: finely cut silver foliage, acrid scent, and abidingly bitter taste. All light a path through the midnight copse, welcoming night hunters home to the garden.”
Like their namesake, the solitary huntress of mythology, Artemisias prefer to be more or less left alone. As long as they are planted in a sunny spot with very well-draining soil, they require little from the gardener. A trim here and there in the summer to clean up rangy foliage and encourage a denser habit will keep them looking nice. Regular fertilizer is not necessary, but a drink of compost tea or fish emulsion once in the spring may be beneficial.
The notable fragrance of Aretmisia leaves range from delightfully sweet to pungent, and some have a camphor-like, medicinal odor. This is due to the presence of oils and compounds which have been used for centuries in various medicinal and herbal applications. Wormwood, for instance, was known as a vermifuge, flea repellant, and bittering agent, but also as a women’s tonic and cure for sea-dragon bite (very important if you live in a maritime climate, as we do in the Pacific Northwest. Be wary of those sea dragons!).
Artemisias blend well with many different kinds of sun-loving perennials or shrubs, but especially those with similar drought tolerance, such as coneflowers, rock rose, heathers, etc. They blend especially well with blue and white tones. Try adding a Silver mound or a White Mugwort to an area planted with bright blue Lithodora and pure white Dianthus or Baby’s Breath for a lovely effect, especially at twilight.
Often referred to as sages or sagebrush, Artemisias are not to be confused with true or herbal sages in the genus Salvia.
Some varieties you can find at Portland Nursery:
Southernwood is an ancient, sweetly-scented herb once used for dyes and flavoring. Also known by a host of other colorful names, such as “lad’s love” and “maiden’s ruin”, it sports small yellow flowers in summer. Upright and shrubby with fine bright green foliage, it grows to 3’ tall and wide. Photo credit: Kurt Stüber.
Wormwood is a silvery, fragrant perennial herb with a storied history. While it is used for various medicinal purposes, it is most commonly used to flavor absinthe and vermouth. It typically grows to 4’ tall or more, and slightly narrower, but can be pruned to be shorter and bushier. Tiny (some say insignificant) pale yellow button flowers bloom in summer. Self-seeds. Photo credit: AfroBrazilian
Sweet Annie is a wonderfully fragrant annual herb that grows to a bushy but graceful 5’x2-3’. It has finely-cut, soft green foliage and inconspicuous flowers. Used for dried arrangement and wreaths, it also contains an anti-malarial compound. Self-seeds. Photo credit Jorge Ferreira.
Tarragon is a popular herb used in cooking. The true culinary variety, French tarragon, is not propagated from seed, but only by cuttings, as its flowers are sterile. Russian tarragon is sold in seed form, but is bitter and not commonly used as an herb. For best results, grow in a sheltered or protected site in very well-drained soil. Typically grows to 2’ tall and 1’ wide.
White mugwort is an upright perennial, with larger, deeply-cut leaves and feathery sprays of white flowers similar to Astilbe. ‘Guizhou’ is a cultivar with dark green and purple/bronze-tinged leaves. Grows to 5’x3’.
Western mugwort is a perennial with striking lance-shaped, silvery-white leaves. Upright, it grows 2’ tall and wide, although it can spread wider by runners. Popular varieties include ‘Silver King’ and ‘Valerie Finnis’.
Silver Mound Artemisia is a low-growing, spreading groundcover growing in a tuft of fine, soft & fuzzy, silver-gray foliage. To 12” tall and wider. ‘Nana’ is the popular cultivar.
Often called beach wormwood or Dusty Miller (not to be confused with another plant in the same family, Senecio cineraria, although they are similar). This is a low, spreading perennial with pretty, velvety silver-white, scalloped leaves. ‘Silver Brocade’ is the most popular cultivar. 12” tall and wider.
Mugwort is another old herb, once used to treat many complaints. It is a very tall perennial with lacy foliage, growing to 5’ tall or more and 3’ wide. It spreads prolifically by seed and can be quite aggressive. ‘Oriental Limelight’ is a pretty variegated cultivar, with splashy green and pale yellow leaves, and is said to be more compact. Photo credit: Christian Fischer.
A. ‘Powis Castle’
This woody perennial forms a bushy mound of soft, silvery foliage. Typically 2-3’ tall and wide, it can spread quickly via rhizomes. Shear back lightly in summer to keep it looking fuller.
Family: Asteraceae (Daisy family)
Common Names: Depending on the variety, wormwood; mugwort; sagebrush
Origin: This very large genus is distributed widely throughout the world.
Culture: Artemisias prefer full sun in very well-drained or sandy soil on the dry side.
Maintenance: Most ornamental Artemisias are herbaceous perennials that die back in the winter, but some are semi-evergreen. In this case, prune in early spring after new growth begins to remove dead material and to shape. Avoid cutting plants back to the ground or too severely, as this can stunt plants or even kill them. A light shearing, for all varieties, midseason helps keep plants compact and will encourage bushier, denser growth.
Pests & Diseases: Artemisias are not often bothered by pests or diseases. Although aphids can colinize some species such as A. absinthium. Rust or powdery mildew can occur, generally when plants are grown in heavy or water-retentive soils.
Propagation: Most Artemisias are easily propagated from stem or root cuttings, and many from seed.