Southernwood – Artemisia arbrotanum

The attractive, aromatic foliage mixes well with other plants, earning this herb a place in the border.

Before the advent of fly sprays, Southernwood was grown as an insect and moth repellent. It would be strewn on the floor or hung in closets. Its name comes from its Southern origins, while another name, Lad’s Love, is derived from the fact that it was once believed to be an aphrodisiac. It was also known as Old Man, possibly for similar reasons.

Eberraute (Artemisia abrotanum)

Eberraute (Artemisia abrotanum) (Photo credit: Olaf_S)

Although it is often considered to be herbaceous, Southernwood is a handsome, woody shrub that is characterized by its finely-cut, greenish-grey foliage. It’s yellow flowers are small and of little consequence.

The leaves are very aromatic and the slightest touch will release their fragrance. It is a good idea to plant it where it will be brushed on passing, such as beside a path. It can be used in a herb garden or anywhere in a more general border, where it will combine quite happily with a wide variety of plants. It is particularly useful as a link between dissimilar colours or for cooling the hotter ones.

This is a plant that is happy to grow in quite poor soils, so it can be used in difficult gardens or parts of gardens that have light or stony soil.

There are no cultivated varieties, but there are plenty of other species to enjoy, especially if you like silver foliage.

Another shrubby species is A. arborescens, which has wonderful filigree foliage that is more silver than A. arbrotanum. Plant out young plants in Spring. If the soil is poor, dig in some old potting compost or material from the compost heap to ensure that the plant enjoys a good start. If more than one plant is used, set them at least 45cm (18in) apart.

Prune Southernwood each Spring to keep it reasonably compact. It does not require any form of support.

This is best increased by taking cuttings in mid to late Summer.

Water when first planted, but once established, Artemisia is usually capable of looking after itself. It is quite drought- resistant.

Despite its Mediterranean origins, this is quite a hardy plant. However, like most Artemisia, it is not keen on damp Winters, which can cause plants to die if the soil is not well-drained.

Shoots on a wormwood bush (Artemisia absinthum)

Image via Wikipedia

Artemisia need a sunny position away from shade to give of their best. They will become very open and leggy when grown in light shade.

Southernwood is still grown as a decorative herb, but it has few modern uses. It is still used as a moth repellent in some places, being hung directly in a cupboard or dried and the leaves stripped off. Its young leaves can be used in salads or cakes, where it imparts a lemony flavour.


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