Wormwood, Old Man, Old Woman
This plant was named after the Greek goddess Artemis, the goddess of chastity and, apparently, a few other things that are no longer remembered outside of the classics. Chiron the Centaur (remember him, the great healer?) was given these plants by Diana (goddess of the hunt) and he named them after her. The Romans called her Diana but the Greeks called her Artemis.
The term Wormwood should not come as a surprise if you’ve ever tasted it but I was unable to find any reference that described the origin of that name. Old Man and Old Woman apparently come from the silvery appearance of the leaves that resemble the gray hair of old folks.
- Bloom time: Summer
- Height: 12” to 72”
- Sun needed: Full
- Bloom color: White, inconspicuous
- Planting space: 18” to 24” apart
- Soil preferred: Well-drained, not overly fertile
- Propagation method: Cuttings, division
Known as Southernwood, this is a 48-inch-tall, spicily fragrant-leaved plant. It is not invasive but is rather a slow spreader.
The species is interesting in that it might be the only one worth growing for flowers as well as for foliage. While the flowers are not outstanding, they are do make excellent cut or dried material. This is one of the few Artemesia to prefer damp soils over well-drained sites.
‘Guizhou’ has blackish-green leaves and mahogany stems that make it an interesting plant. It grows to 48” tall and spreads out to 36” wide.
This plant is 24” to 30” tall. It is leafy and does not have the fern-like, finely cut leaves of most of the family. This is a bushy upright plant that spreads quickly through the garden. It requires constant attention and edging to keep it under control. It has excellent heat and drought tolerance.
‘Silver King’ is 30” to 36” tall, with silvery leaves and a good upright growth habit. It is not floppy unless it is overfed.
‘Valerie Finnis’ is a compact form of ‘Silver King’ and grows to 24” tall. It is not as aggressive as ‘Silver King.’
This is more of a ground-hugging species than many of the other family members. Growing 12” to 18” tall, it is fine at the front of the border. This plant can be invasive if it likes where it grows. I had one of these plants in a sandy, miserable soil for four years and it never moved past a foot of its original planting. When I moved it in anticipation of improving and renovating the garden, it took off and became a pest within two years.
‘Powis Castle’ is the best-known variety and at 24” tall, it has not been invasive at all in my gardens (even the good soil ones). It has been a bit tender for me in zone 4 which may explain why it doesn’t spread all that much. A protected zone-5 garden should not have any trouble, and zone 6 is easy.
‘Silver Mound’ is commonly known by its variety name rather than any other wormwood or Latin name. This is probably the most popular gray-leaved plant in the garden center trade. If it gets too leggy in midsummer, simply shear it back to the ground and it will re-sprout to form a nice mound again. It does get too leggy in fertile, moist garden soil. Treat it rough and it stays bushier.
‘Silver Brocade.’ At 12” tall, this plant resembles the annual Dusty Miller more than it does other perennials. While it is evergreen in mild regions, here in zone 4, it dies to the ground in winter. If it gets a bit ratty looking in midsummer, do trim it back and let it re-sprout.
This is a plant family that as a rule likes it hot and dry. Once established, these plants will take almost as much heat as a garden can deliver. Overfeeding leads to rank, unattractive growth and in the case of the spreading species, you’ll almost be able to see them throw new colonizing shoots to take over your garden, they’ll expand so fast. They make excellent cut and dried flowers and the fragrance of some of the species is quite powerful and spicy. As gray-leaved plants, they are deservedly one of the most popular plants in the garden.
Potions and Poisons
The plant has a long history of medicinal and folk use. It is quite bitter and it is unlikely that any person would willingly eat it directly from the garden. Its use was generally as a tonic and stimulant (not to mention a love potion).