Artemisia is 2014 Herb of the Year

February 16, 2014 lawanda Newspaper Columns

The International Herb Association makes an annual selection for Herb of the Year based on the herb being outstanding in at least two of three categories: culinary, medicinal, or ornamental.  IHA has selected Artemisia as its Herb of the Year for 2014.  This is a rather unusual selection, because there are about 400 different species in the genus Artemisia!  You are probably already familiar with some of them. 

      The ubiquitous ‘Silver Mound’ Artemisia was used everywhere in formal landscapes in the 1990s and early 2000s.  The mounded clumps of soft silver foliage are perfect for edging beds and in rock gardens.

      In your spice cabinet you might find tarragon, also one of the artemisias.  Tarragon can be grown as a perennial plant in our Wisconsin herb gardens.  If you grow tarragon from seed, be sure to buy those of French tarragon, Artemisia dracunculus var. sativa, rather than the Russian variety that lacks strong aromatic oils.  Most gardeners buy tarragon plants or get cuttings or divisions from friends.  Tarragon is not an especially attractive plant and is grown primarily for its culinary value.

      Another of the well-known artemisas is wormwood, Artemisia absinithum.  Perhaps you can guess from its Latin name that it is used to make the alcoholic drink absinthe.  This perennial plant grows 2-3’ tall and has deeply lobed aromatic, silvery-gray leaves covered with silky hairs.

      White sage is another artemesia.  ‘Silver King,’ ‘Powis Castle’ and ‘Valerie Finnis’ are some well-known cultivars.  These shrubby plants grow 2-4’ tall and have lance-shaped leaves 4-6” long. 

      White mugwort, Artemisia lactiflora, is the only artemisia grown for its flowers rather than its foliage.  In late summer, plumes of small, cream-colored flowers are held atop erect leafy stalks 3-6’ tall, similar to astilbe.  The flowers are excellent in fresh arrangements and can be hung upside down to dry for use in dried displays.  Foliage is dark green with silvery undersides.

      In general, artemisas thrive in average, well-drained soil in full sun.  A soil too fertile will cause them to flop.  They are good for hot, dry areas and once established are quite drought tolerant.  Because most of them are so aromatic, deer tend to avoid them.

      Fast-spreading, clumpy types – especially the white sages – need dividing every few years in spring or fall to keep them in place or to rejuvenate old clumps.  To prevent them from taking over the garden, consider planting them in large, sunken, bottomless flower pots.  Woody types are not as aggressive.

      Prune all species back hard if they start to lose their shape or become scraggly.

      In the landscape, artemisias are good weavers, plants used to unify more colorful perennials.  The silvery foliage makes nearby pinks, reds and oranges look even brighter, or presents a cool, relaxing feel when combined with blues, purples or soft pinks.  The tallest species provide a good backdrop for the border, while the shorter ones make a neat edging.



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