One of the things that continues to draw me to herbs is the panorama of aromas available in an herb garden. High on my list of must-have scented herbs to grow is southernwood, a tough plant for Southwest gardens.
Southernwood (Artemisia abrotanum) is a member of the artemisia family of hardy perennials. It’s a kissing cousin of the popular ‘Powis Castle’ artemisia. Southernwood’s leaves are finely divided and thread-like and have a fragrance somewhere between lemon and tangerine. This aromatic herb grows three to four feet in full sun to partial shade. In late summer it sends up thin spires with tiny yellow flowers.
Southernwood is an ideal plant for Texas and other Southwestern states. It has minimum water requirements and tolerates poor soil. It’s one of the few herbs I know that will thrive in the thin soil surrounding the base of a large tree. I’ve been growing it around the edge of our Chinese tallow tree for more than a decade.
Plant southernwood where its pale green feathery foliage will make a nice contrast to neighboring plants with dark glossy leaves. It is also a good container plant, where its fine leaves will trail over the side of your pot.
Southernwood is generally a trouble-free plant. In the years I have grown it I don’t recall any insect infestations or fungal problems. It holds its own in the searing heat of summer and is hardly disturbed by freezing temperatures and snow.
You can propagate southernwood by cuttings or division. When left on its own it will gradually spread in garden beds. The branches will flop over and produce roots where they touch the soil. In the fall pull back or transplant the new side shoots.
As the old leaves drop off the lower portions of southernwood branches, the bark becomes woody. The sprawling herb takes on a somewhat disorderly appearance. Periodic harvesting or trimming will keep the plant bushy and attractive. In early spring prune branches down to 2-4 inches from the soil for attractive growth throughout the year.
In Elizabethan times southernwood was known as “lad’s love” and “maiden’s ruin.” Young men in rural England would include branches of southernwood in bouquets for their lady love. To hasten the appearance of their beard (thereby providing a more manly face) they would also burn southernwood, combine the ashes with oil, and use it as a paste to stimulate facial hair.
Before the discovery of germs and their role in disease, bunches of southernwood were combined with rue and carried as nosegays to prevent “jail fever” and other contagious diseases. It also had a reputation as an astringent and was used to fight acne.
In the home southernwood branches can be placed in clothes closets to repel moths. The French call this herb garderobe for its ability to guard or protect clothing. Dried leaves of southernwood can be included in sachets to repel moths and fleas. Some sources suggest burning a sprig on the stove to kill strong cooking odors.
For a more fragrant garden and home, grow southernwood. This drought tolerant herb will provide years of aromatic leaves for your pleasure.