Growing and Caring for Artemisia

Wormwood (Artemisia ludoviciana)
Typical of the lovely foliage of artemisias, wormwood can also be a bit of a thug in the garden, spreading quickly. Photo: Ayla87 / Stock.xchng

Artemisia Overview and Description

The genus Artemisia contains about 300 species of plants, so there's a good deal of variety, including evergreen and deciduous shrubs, perennials and annuals. It is in the Asteraceae, or daisy, family, but you won't see a lot of showy flowers. Most artemisia plants are grown for their filagree-like leaves. Some you might be familiar with are southernwood, wormwood, Sweet Annie, Absinth, mugwort, sagebrush and the culinary herb tarragon.

Artemisia is often considered an herb, either culinary or medicinal. Most of the species are heavily scented and many have a somewhat bitter taste, which makes them very unattractive to browsing animals, but useful for their essential oils.

Leaves: Alternate, in various shapes. Very often the leaves are lobed and they are generally covered with whitish hairs that give the leaves a silvery, gray look.

Flowers: Small (1/16 - 3/8 in.), white or yellow, cylindrical flowers, often in panicles, but sometimes single.

Botanical Name

Artemisia (Pronounced ar-the-MEEZ-ee-uh)

Design Suggestions

Silvery-gray foliage can be tricky to work with. While it blends well with most other colors, it can also overwhelm them or fight against clear, bright colors.

 A vignette of all silvery and white plants looks striking in semi-shade, for instance artemisia, ​lamb's ear, pulmonaria and a white variegated grass.

Gray leaves also pair nicely with just about any pastel, especially pinks and blues, as well as with mauve-pinks, like Joe Pye Weed and Centranthus ruber.

My personal favorite use for artemisias is with the spiky, deep blues and purples of salvias and iris. Or watch what it does to liven purple coneflowers.

Small plants are great for containers. Taller and bushier varieties can be used as a summer hedge.

Suggested Varieties

Artemisia ludoviciana (USDA Hardiness Zones 4 - 8) Multiple subvarieties including:

  • 'Latiloba' - Compact, and less aggressive than most, with heavily lobed leaves. 2 ft. Hx 2 ft. W)​
  • 'Silver King' - probably the most widely available. Attractive and nice for arrangements, but it can be very aggressive. 'Silver Queen' is similar, with more finely cut foliage. (3 - 5 ft. H x 3 - 4 ft. W)​
  • 'Valerie finnis' (western mugwort, white sage) - a North American native, it tends to spread quickly, but it has attactive, coarsely toothed leaves. Washes out in hot sun.  (2 - 3 ft. H x 2 - 3 ft. W)

Artemisia 'Powis Castle' Very delicate-looking, deeply cut, gray leaves. Can become woody and looks best if cut back by ½ to 2/3s, before new growth starts in the spring. USDA Hardiness Zones 6 - 8; 2 - 3 ft. H x 2 - 3 ft. W)

Artemisia schmidtiana 'Nana' A dwarf cultivar, also known as Silver Mound, forms tight clumps of lacy, silver foliage. They can become woody, without pruning, and can look somewhat ratty in the center in hot, humid summers. (USDA Hardiness Zones 3 - 8; 1 ft. H x 1 ft. W.)

Artemisia stelleriana 'Silver Brocade' Deeply cut, almost oak-like leaves and very tolerant of poor conditions. (6 - 12in. H x 24 - 30 in. W)

Growing Tips

Soil: Artemisia are not particular about soil pH and they do not like overly rich soil.

As with most silver-gray leaved perennials, they are very drought tolerant. They will need regular water, until the plants are established, but can take care of themselves after that. With a few exceptions, like Artemisia lactiflora, artemisias need well-draining soil. If left sitting it damp soil, they will decline and/or be short-lived.

Planting: Plants can be started from seed, divisions or cuttings. Many of the newer hybrids are sterile and the others won't grow true to seed.

Exposure: They will grow best in a full sun location, although most varieties can handle partial shade.

Maintenance

Since artemisia do not like rich soil, no supplemental fertilizer should be necessary, if you are regularly adding organic matter to your beds.

Perennial artemisias can be cut back in the fall or spring.

Shrubby varieties should be pruned in the spring. They can handle being cut back hard, if you want to keep their size in check.

Even non-woody artemisia can get floppy, especially after flowering. Give them a shearing mid-summer, to prevent them from splitting open in the middle.

Divide plants every 2 - 3 years, or when you start to notice the center beginning to die out.

Pests and Problems

Pests: Because of their strong scent, insects tend to avoid artemisias.

Diseases: Artemisia can be prone to many fungal and rusts diseases, like white rust, powdery mildew and  downy mildew. Hot, humid weather exacerbates these problems. Growing them in an open area with good air flow will help mitigate the problems.