Broken Forest

Study of Silver: Artemisia

Something about silver foliage makes me think of bones, stars, and heavenly energies.

Fescue achillea artemisia

Silver brocade (Artemisia stellariana) with achillea ‘Moonshine’ and blue fescue.

I have this thing for moon gardens, and it seems to be a lot of silver plants prefer sand, too. Silver foliage on a plant implies it knows how to conserve water by reflecting light and reducing wind desiccation via tiny hairs called trichomes

Let’s get to know Artemisia. 

It’s a profound experience smelling freshly crushed wormwood for the first time – familiar, striking, communicative, it’s telling you to use it – but for what? You don’t want to eat it… but you like it. You sniff it again. The evolutionary spidey-sense at the very innermost nook of your cranium pings to life with wonder. Wonder what this is for? It smells like something you take seriously. 

Artemisia is a genus of plants up to 400 species wide and known for its high concentration of curious essential oils. It grows in temperate climates in both hemispheres, and is often found in dry and semiarid habitats, in clearings and at the edge of paths.

The name comes from Artemis (Aρτεμις), the adored Greek goddess. Homer wrote “Artemis Agrotera, Potnia Theron”: Artemis of the wild land, mistress of animals. She ruled over virginity and childbirth. The deer and the cypress were sacred to her. The word artemis is of unknown origin, and could be pre-Greek; relating to arktos: bear (some evidence places her within the context of of palaeolithic-origin bear cults).

Plato called artemes “safe”, “unharmed”, “uninjured”, “pure”, and “the stainless maiden”. And ever since then, no garden writer in history can out-do him for accuracy or originality.

Garden on a sheer, sandy sun-baked cliff? Garden on a gravel pile? Left a litre of sand in a pile on the driveway? Drought, poor fertility, extreme circumstances: Artemisia will grow there – the stainless maiden unharmed.

WORMWOOD Artemisia absinthium
AKA mugwort. 
A local guy calls it stinkweed.

Scoggan Observation: Earliest plant noted at Fort Garry, 1860. A naturalized European. 

wormwood landscape

Artemisia absinthium forming a hedge – which I pulled out. But not before sowing millet and phacelia in it. 

The common weedy Eurasian wormwood you and I remember first encountering by scent (and the one I will know forever after I let a swath of it prosper) is Artemisia absinthium. This is the kind you’d make a bitter tincture from (with two other herbs) to summon the green fairy

It is used in the pharmaceutical industry for contributing a chemical constituent in the treatment of Crohn’s and malaria, among other serious things.

But back up- don’t let this wormwood go to seed, and watch those big-ass woody roots- they don’t come out too easy, eh. 

This is by no means a thing to let establish in a small garden – or dare I say – a large one. This is something that may come up and you just deal with it; probably best so by pulling it out if you’re on a tight growspace budget. This one is tolerable only when you have bigger weeds to fry or if you’re rural. Why?

Because it has some use for you, compared to worse.

First, you can cut and burn it for a property-wide smudge because the bloody mosquitoes and flies is what.

I harvest prior to seeding* (some deadlines are more serious than others, consider this one serious) and bundle and hang them dry in the woodshed. Essential oils in plants are at their highest concentration just prior to bloom. 

Story goes I thought I heard this old folk tale about it being good for keeping flies away, so one day when the flies were reallllllly bugging me out, I hung TWELVE BUNDLES of it on my porch windows – wherefrom I hovered like a villain waiting for the flies to spontaneously f-ck off. 

Flies driving me bonkers neurotic.

It wasn’t thirty seconds before I saw two flies land and mate on the artemisia. So I knew monarda (bergamot, yo) and nepeta (catmint) were sometimes on the list of oils for natural bug repellant, so I stuffed some of those in there too.

Let it be known flies enjoy mating on every one of these herbs indiscriminately.

After the experiment was over, I tossed a bundle of the stuff on a fire just prior to dusk, and voila! The whole yard hung with a great big smudge, and that did help keep mosquitoes and flies away. 

In dirt-floor house days, wormwood was used for delousing and was probably a very refreshing scent. A modern use for it is scattered in the poultry coop, tossed to your chickens should they wish to self-medicate for intestinal worms.

In fall I’ve seen dozens and dozens of lady bugs all over it up to something – k so I googled that and what is it with bugs having sex on wormwood though?

Other Questions I Answer As I Go Here

Rudbeckia 'Sahara' wormwood

Wormwood is allelopathic. Rudbeckia wants to gtfo.

In Carrots Love Tomatoes, author Louise Riott says you plant this at the edge of the garden to keep animals out. But why?

This reminded me of how Buffalo Bird Woman said she planted sunflowers around the edge of the garden, too. There was a patch where I planted sunflowers one year. Nothing grew in the same spot a year after that. Not even grass.

The clue here is allelopathy – some plants are BFFs underground, and some plants establish a no-go zone for certain other species. Sunflowers aren’t just a good windbreak- it turns out their juju (chemicals in the roots) keeps a lot of other plants at bay. So it makes a lotta sense to plant sunflowers on the edge of a garden against the encroaching hordes of wild things.

Wormwood contributes a lot of tannins to its surroundings, sending other crops running – its presence within 100 cm will knock out your wheat seed (thing #371 I learned the hard way). There’s a scholarly article here on how aqueous extracts of wormwood prevents germination of a LOT of other species. Innnnnteresting!

See where I’m going with this? When life hands you weeds, make weed control. No idea regarding the animals, yet, though. Maybe they just don’t like the smell. 

Here’s an interesting piece on how one could treat weedy wormwood by incorporating chopped alfalfa in to the soil.

PASTURE SAGE Artemisia ludoviciana
AKA white sagebrush, silver wormwood
ludoviciana = Lousiana

This is a native prairie plant and has a long history of use by the Indigenous of North America. It is ceremonial, medicinal (fever-reducing), a spice, used on skin, and you can find 180 more catalogued uses for it in the Native American Ethnobotany Database here.

Pasture sage smudge

Pasture sage for smudging.

Pasture sage has rhizomes for daaaaaays and will show its gratitude for being in your garden by spreading throughout it quickly. On this rural landscape that’s well and fine. It pops up amidst the prairie grasses and perennials and silver matches everything.

It takes a lot to make a bundle for burning, so for some of us this rapid growth occurs at exactly the right pace – that is, the best plants tend to grow as profusely as you need to use them. Note that unlike the wormwood above, this sage doesn’t seem to force other things out – it just weaves a web between and seizes opportunity.

Pasture sage looks beautiful as cut foliage and has a long vase life. It twists up when dried loose and looks pretty in wintry wreaths you can burn after (if you don’t use plastics or glue).

Just don’t expect it to grow in rows.

Propogation is best by taking up a stem with the root intact and sticking it in sand somewhere else. It’ll go.

Scoggan Observation: there are three varieties of A. ludoviciana noted in Manitoba (varieties gnaphalodes, latifolia and pabularis), and all confined to the southern part of the province. Noted in prairies, sandhills, thickets and clearings, in sandy depressions around Grand Beach, and at Riding Mountain.

PRAIRIE SAGE Artemisia frigida
AKA fringed sagebrush, prairie sagewort
frigida = think frilly.


Artemisia frigida

Artemisia frigida (prairie sage) will drape later in the season like a fine lace. This is a clue to propagate by layering.

Prairie Sage Broken Forest

Prairie sage surrounds a corn poppy.

A lot of the same uses and history of pasture sage (above) applies here, but with a more limited geographic range. So prairie sage was also used for purification rites, headaches, nosebleeds, bringing menstruation, as menses pads, cough and cold treatments, reviving comatose patients, mosquito smudges over a campfire, and more – notably different this time was that the Plains people used it for a green dye, and the Zuni wet it and planted it with the sowed corn “so it would grow in abundance”.

For now it’s establishing, and has behaved very well, forming a small cluster of woody roots at its base and sending ethereal twinkly stalks into the air at about 20 inches in height.

There’s a thoroughly heavy piece on it here, useful for understanding the other plants and ecosystems it associates with, and how it recovers from grazing and fire.

Prairie sage an be propagated by layering (pin a piece of the stem to the soil until roots form from it), by cuttings in spring, and by dividing roots. Transplanting is a risky affair – artemisia in especially dry locations will form a taproot (and taproots are not keen to transplant).

Scoggan Observation: Dry prairie, sandhills, rock outcrops and clearings in the southern half of Manitoba. Northernmost collection at Herb Lake Village on Wekusko Lake, 90 miles northeast of The Pas on a rocky shore. Earliest collection seen near Winnipeg on dry, gravelly soil. First report: “On limestone rocks on the higher parts of the Assiniboyne River, and sparingly on the Red River.” (Hooker, 1834). 

Silver Brocade Artemisia stellariana 
AKA hoary mugwort, beach wormwood, and oldwoman

Silver Brocade at Broken Forest

Artemisia stellariana in bloom.

This one was introduced to the horticultural trade by the University of British Columbia, and is an Asian and Aleutian Island native that has naturalized elsewhere in the US and Scandinavia. It likes beaches. Some people call it dusty miller, and while it’s related, this one is perennial to zone 3.

It forms a low-growing mat for most of the season, and has leaves best described as “scalloped”. At some point after midsummer it will bloom, and it’s up to you whether you want the taller stalks of tiny flowers or not, if not cut them off (campfire smudge? wreath foliage?) and it will continue on its merry (low-down) way. A real “edging” plant if there ever was one, you can propagate it by layering or transplanting a short stem with roots (they look sad a long time after transplanting, but will take).

I like how in late fall silver brocade will turn to shades of rose and copper. It’s growth rate is medium, and every year I send more to line the driveway with. It’s sprawling flat growth is especially good for the moon lit walk, and for highlighting plants growing above it.

Artemisia stellariana

Fall foliage of silver brocade has pink tones, here over top wooly thyme.

Silver Mound Artemisia schmidtiana

Silver mound sedum

Silver mound winds its way through ‘Purple Emperor’ sedum.

This one is native to Japan but has been a staple in gardens for ohhhhhh as long as I’ve been alive maybe. ‘Nana’ is the standard cultivar, being a bit smaller. It forms a mat of very fine foliage and takes on the character of reindeer lichen throughout the growing season – that of a lump filling the airspace between it and any nearby plants with silver.

I think it’s a bit of a cliche plant at this point, at the same time I’m sentimental for the retro stuff and have seen more than one adult friend go to “pet” the mound like they did in their grandmother’s garden.

If the soil is really shabby or too fertile, it will spread out and then die in the middle of its mound. Avoid this by dividing it every other year or so. You can also give it a midsummer haircut which may prevent splitting in the middle.



The Study of Silver will continue, this has been Part One: Artemisia