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Wild and Wooly Wormwood

December 9, 2016 Back to Picks >

Every family has a black sheep, a member that walks on the wild side. Wormwood (Artemisia absinthium) fulfills that role in the artemisia family of perennial herb shrubs. Although it�s well-behaved in the garden, it has served throughout the centuries as a dangerous ingredient in liqueurs and as a symbol of doom and judgment.

Wormwood has finely divided silver leaves with a velvety texture. It emits a faint aroma somewhere between the scent of pine and tansy. The tiny yellow flowers appear on tall stalks that tend to flop over when mature. You might not see the species wormwood often in nurseries but most of us are familiar with its most famous cultivar �Powis Castle,� selected and bred in Wales.

Wormwood tolerates poor or gravely soil. It tends to be short-lived so plan on propagating it by division or layering every other year. Its low-growing shape (two feet in most cases) and gray color make it a good companion to delphiniums, foxgloves, and other plants with tall flower spikes.

The bitter flavor of wormwood has long been symbolic of regret, judgment, and doom. In the Bible, a close relative of wormwood (Artemisia herba-alba) was used to symbolize the judgment of God. The wormwood more commonly grown in Europe and the U. S. contains thujone, a chemical which acts on the brain in a similar manner as marijuana. Wormwood was a key ingredient in absinthe, an emerald green bitter liqueur popular among artists and writers in the nineteenth century. Absinthe liberally laced with wormwood was a powerful hallucinogenic. The disastrous effects of prolonged use eventually made absinthe illegal in Europe.

Setting aside the doom and gloom, wormwood can be a great addition to your herb garden. Plant it in a dry sunny spot and you�ll be pleased with the results.