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.
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.
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....?