Silver Maidens of the Garden


Above: big sage drying – picked middle of March 2017

Artemisia is a large genus of plants that appears in one form or another in gardens or in the wild throughout the U.S. It grows in temperate regions of both hemispheres. I first fell in love with Artemisia in Italy where I gathered large fragrant bouquets of wild wormwood from the hills of Assisi and brought them back to perfume my room. When I moved to Andover I planted the same species and within a couples of years I had huge swaying seed tipped plants springing up in the fields around my house. If Artemisia likes an area you can plan on its ability to re –seed itself and eventually takeover your garden.

Common names include mugwort, wormwood, silver mound, dusty miller, sweet annie (an annual variety) and sagebrush. Most species are perennial. These plants are known for their hardiness and the powerful chemical constituents present in their essential oils. Most species have strong scents and are bitter tasting which discourages some herbivores like our cottontail rabbits from eating them.

Artemisias are often grown for their silvery – gray foliage and for their aromatic, culinary, and medicinal properties. They have alternate, sometimes deeply divided leaves and the flowers are hardly noticeable. These plants are a great choice for rock gardens and other sunny, dry landscape sites.

The aromatic leaves of some species are used for flavoring. An example is tarragon, which is widely used as a culinary herb. However tarragon has difficulty wintering over in our climate.

The plant we call “garden sage” and use in cooking is not an Artemisia/sagebrush but a European Salvia. Although it doesn’t taste or smell minty, you can call it a mint because it is in the mint family, Lamiaceae. It is related to a host of important culinary herbs, not just clary sage, spearmint and peppermint, but also plants as diverse as lemon balm, catnip and oregano.

Members of the mint family can be recognized by the combination of a square stem and aromatic leaves, both of which garden sage has. No other plant family has square stems and aromatic leaves. Flowers of all mint family plants are similar in structure, if you look closely.

Artemisia absinth is used to repel fleas and moths. I notice if I rub the plant on my skin it gives me some protection from bugs. (most pungent Artemisias are natural flea and bug repellents). The fragrant stalks when picked in the fall make a wonderful sweetly scented smudge. This species also re-seeds itself in odd places. It is also used in brewing beer and wine. The aperitif vermouth was once made with wormwood. Absinthe, a highly potent spirit also contains Artemisia. Some teas are made from the leaves of these plants. Other species besides Artemisia absinthe are grown as ornamental plants and they can all be recognized by their lovely gray – green leaves that provide such a wonderful contrast to other garden plants.

The compound Artmisinin and its derivatives taken from Artemisia annua are used today to treat malaria.

The same Asian Artemisia, sweet annie in English, and qinghao in Chinese is widely used in Chinese medicine.

I cannot write about Artemisia without discussing the sagebrushes although we don’t have any of them growing in the wild in Maine.

Sagebrushes or sageworts, are a large genus in the same daisy and ragweed family, Asteraceae.  Common American Artemisias include prairie sagewort, Afrigida. big sagebrush, A. tridentata, and Louisiana sagewort, A. ludoviciana. There are 37 species of Artemisia native to the lower 48 states, and another 7 in Canada and Alaska. They are herbs and low shrubs of dry regions with aromatic leaves, some pleasant to smell, some not. Like other members of the aster family, what looks like a flower is actually a group of tiny flowers. The Artemisias are wind pollinated, so the flowers are inconspicuous and usually the color of the leaves. (Note that, although the leaves are aromatic, the stems are not square). Prairie sages’ closest relatives are ragweeds and asters.

Sagebrush is not a desert plant but is a resident in areas that get 7 to 14 inches of rain a year. Big sage and other Artemisia species are dominant plants of the Great Basin covering some 422,000 square miles in eleven western and Canadian provinces. The shrubs are found from 4000 to 10,000 feet in elevation. Sagebrush ecosystems have the largest habitat range in the United States. Big sage often grows in areas like the cold desert shrub or in juniper and pinion pine woodlands. The perennial shrub (that often looks like a small tree) grows from 2 -7 feet tall. The young stems are smooth and silvery but as the plant matures the stems turn gray and the bark starts to grow in long strips. The plant provides food and habitat for a variety of animals like the sage grouse, pronghorn, birds, the pygmy rabbit and mule deer. It also creates habitat for many species of grasses and herbs. Besides providing shade and shelter from the wind, the long taproot of sagebrush draws water up from deep in the soil, some of which becomes available to these surrounding shallow rooted plants.

Damage to sagebrush and other Artemisia species that grow in our gardens results in the release of volatile chemicals that are used to signal a warning to nearby plants, so others can protect themselves by increasing the production of repellent chemical compounds. This plant to plant communication extends over long distances, and is probably not the only way these plants converse. It has been argued by some that the actual “brain” of the plant is in its underground root system where most exchanges take place (see Stephen Buhner’s work). What I find so compelling is that sagebrush and many other Artemisia species appear to behave altruistically putting the lives of the whole community of plants before that of the individual.

Many Indigenous peoples use big sage as a medicinal herb, most notably for smudging. Zuni use the plant vapors for body aches. Navajo use big sage to cure headaches. My three favorites for smudging (when I am in an area where I can find them growing wild) in are Artemisia frigida, Artemisia ludoviciana, and Artemisia tridentada, (big sage), but none of these plants grow in Maine, and I refuse to buy Artemisia because I don’t know how the plant was harvested.

Unfortunately, some areas of big sage are under siege because the plant is picked, bundled and sold indiscriminately by entrepreneurs as “the” Native American purifying agent. In the Northeast we can gather Artemisia plants from our own gardens to make a smudge by bundling the stems of Artemisia vulgaris or Artemisia absinth together in the fall. We also can gather cedar bundles to purify the air in our homes like local Indigenous peoples once did. I put sprigs of cedar, Artemisia, or balsam on my woodstove to clear the air. Each is an effective antibacterial remedy for airborne bacteria, and also purifies by putting negative ions back into the air.

In mythology the Greek Goddess Artemis is Mistress of the Wilderness, protector of wild animals, who apprenticed young women to become “bear women” that is, young girls who learned how to become self directed individuals before they could marry, or dedicate themselves as priestesses to one of the temples. This is a practice we would do well to resurrect today for young girls who often lose themselves at adolescence. This goddess who presided over childbirth was also a protector of all women, and all animals. With so many restrictions being lifted off the protection of wild animal species I am invoking Artemis’s power by writing about this plant that has been named after her. Animals and plants need all the help they can get. Dark days lie ahead.

I also find it curious that Artemisia, (wormwood) is the name of the star in the Book of Revelations. This star is cast into all the waters (by an angel) making the water bitter and undrinkable. When we recognize that water is the source of all life this prophecy becomes a chilling reminder that we must not continue to pollute our waters.