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Knot Garden - Herbs - Artemisia Arbrotanum - Artemisia Absinthium Southernwood and Wormwood...Artemisia Arbrotanum and Artemisia Absinthium

The Knot Garden

Insights into Herbs and Their Uses

Artemisia Arbrotanum - Artemisia Absinthium

Southernwood and Wormwood...Artemisia Arbrotanum and Artemisia Absinthium

My first brush with the Artemisia family was quite literally that. A luxurious bush of Southernwood (Artemisia Arbrotanum) grew next to my spectacular childhood sand pit (spectacular because it was formed by the junction of two rock faces in the old stone quarry which my family gardened...) and I would often use a snapped off branch to sweep collapsed castles back into the fold.

I was, even then, enchanted by it. Its grey-green, fractal-branched foliage is soft as feathers to the touch and exudes a comforting, hot pungence when bruised which will always, for me, conjure warm summer afternoons spent wrist deep in cool sand.

Knot Garden, Herbs, Insights Their Uses, Artemisia Arbrotanum, Artemisia Absinthium, Southernwood, Wormwood, Purgative, Intestinal worms, Bronchitis, Nosebleeds, Rheumatism, Lambroke Silver, Powys Castle,  Goddess, Healer, Virgin

At the time I failed to appreciate what good companions we were, but I’ve since learned that rain washes a growth-inhibiting hormone from Artemisia leaves into the surrounding ground, weakening competition from other plants and doubtless keeping my sand pit free from promiscuous self-seeders. I wonder if it could also explain why my dad and brother were both 6’2”, my mum 5’4” yet I stopped growing at 5’2”?!!!

Southernwood Artemisia Arbrotanum

Back in the pit, by breaking off branches during summer months I was co-incidentally pruning it just at the right time of year, and any sand that ended up round its roots enhanced the sharp drainage that practically all of this family demand. Indeed the North American desert sage is a close relative.

I had to compete with my grandfather for the best pickings. He would use branches in the vegetable garden to protect against onion and carrot fly, and also as protection against cabbage butterflies and fruit tree moths. The bantams appreciated it too, for a few sprigs of Southernwood mixed in with the straw also keeps lice away from the henhouse.

Medicinally, it is infused as a tonic, and can be used as a mild antiseptic, but should NEVER be taken by women who are pregnant or who hope to conceive, as one of its old folk uses was to ‘stimulate delayed menstruation’. Some surmise that it is from this quality that its folk name ‘Lads’ Love’ came. Others know it as ‘Old Man’ and the French name, ‘Garde Robe’ hints at the protection it offers from moths.

Knot Garden, Herbs, Insights Their Uses, Artemisia Arbrotanum, Artemisia Absinthium, Southernwood, Wormwood, Purgative, Intestinal worms, Bronchitis, Nosebleeds, Rheumatism, Lambroke Silver, Powys Castle,  Goddess, Healer, Virgin

Although Southernwood was welcome, my mother wouldn’t have Wormwood (Artemisia absinthium) in the garden. She had suffered too many childhood encounters with the herb at the hands of her (otherwise much loved!) grandmother and her bitter recollections of its taste were echoed by the venom with which she spat out the welsh name for it... ‘Wermwnt’.

It is as digestive stimulant and a purgative for intestinal worms that it is best known in the west, but some say it is named Wormwood because the plant sprang up in the wake of the serpent as it was expelled from Eden. Native Americans use similar species to treat bronchitis and the Chinese favour a rolled leaf inserted in the nostril to stem nose bleeds as well as using small cones of Wormwood in moxibustion to treat rheumatism.

Wormwood Artemisia Absinthium

Its name is synonymous with bitterness and appears in apocalyptic accounts in the bible: "The third angel sounded his trumpet and a great star, blazing like a torch, fell from the sky on a third of the rivers and on the springs of water - the name of the star is Wormwood." Revelations 8:10-11

Like almost all herbs of the family, it can be extremely toxic in sufficient quantity and should never be used haphazardly. The making of Absinthe – infamous for transporting the brains of regular drinkers to the verges of madness with its poison – is now illegal in France, but some cultures still use Wormwood as an aid to psychic activity and many potions which claim to enhance journeys of the mind have this herb as their main ingredient. It was also thought by the ancients to counter poisoning by toadstools, the bite of seadragons and the dark kiss of hemlock.

Today, ornamental wormwoods are found in many gardens where their silver foliage offers a cool backdrop and textural variety. I grow two – both in my moonlight garden - where they swallow the glare of the sun by day and reflect the touch of the moon by night. Graceful ‘Lambroke Silver’ reaches six foot, whilst shaggy ‘Powys Castle’ – a compact, fat, green-white sheep of a plant – grazes the earth at a third of the size. I’ve been amazed this year though to find it covered in blackfly – perhaps they haven’t yet read of its repellent qualities?

It seemed apt to plant them in the moonlight, for the whole family is named after Artemis, goddess of the new and waxing moon, botanist and healer. She is also a figure of contradictions – sworn virgin yet protector of women in childbirth, suckler of wild creatures yet famed huntress... I rather like her lol...

Wormwood with Blackfly

And perhaps if I wish hard enough next new moon she’ll come and shoot the blackfly for me....?

 

 

 

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