How to Grow Southernwood

An Aromatic Herb That Thrives in Dry and Infertile Conditions

Green southernwood growing in a garden

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There are over 200 species which are listed under the Artemisia genus. Fern-like southernwood (Artemisia abrotanum) is one of the oldest and most widely grown.

This ancient, bitter, herbaceous perennial was once popular for culinary and medicinal purposes. These days it's more popular because of its ornamental, delicate gray-green foliage, ease of growth, and distinct aroma.

Because it forms in a small, upright, bushy, shrub-like shape, it makes it a good choice for growing as a low hedge or border, and it's a common addition in herb gardens or containers. It'll grow in dry, infertile soils where other plants struggle to survive.

Although southernwood can occasionally flower in North America, the small yellow-white buds aren't ornamentally significant.

The foliage gives off a pleasant lemony, camphor-like odor. Historically southernwood was used as an air freshener, but these days it's mostly utilized as an effective natural insect repellant. It's often grown in orchards to repel fruit tree moths and is also said to help keep ants at bay.

Botanical Name Artemisia abrotanum
Common Name Southernwood, lad's love, old man, European sage
Plant Type Perennial, herbaceous
Mature Size Up to 4 ft. tall, 2 - 3 ft. wide
Sun Exposure Full sun, partial sun
Soil Type Loamy, sandy, clay, well-drained
Soil pH Acidic, neutral, alkaline
Bloom Time Late summer, early fall
Flower Color Yellowish-white
Hardiness Zones 5 - 10, USDA
Native Area Europe

Plant Care

Southernwood thrives in hot, dry, and coastal conditions, where it tends to live for longer, be hardier, and produces a stronger aroma. However, it can do well in a variety of sites provided the soil is well-drained and not overly rich.

Light

Although southernwood prefers a full sun position, it can still grow well in semi-shade or, with the right temperatures, even no shade. Growth just won't be as vigorous, and the lemony scent won't be as apparent. Too much shade can also cause the foliage to become less compact and straggly in appearance.

Soil

Southernwood can grow in sandy, loamy and clay soils of varying pH levels—it just needs it to be well-draining and not waterlogged. It does best, however, in infertile and dry soils.

Water

Once it's established, southernwood is a drought-tolerant species that likes dry or just moist conditions; it doesn't like to be overwatered.

If the roots become water-logged the plant will likely die off. Even during periods of drought, providing the plant with a long watering once a week will be sufficient.

Temperature and Humidity

Southernwood is a great plant to grow in dry and hot regions, where it usually thrives. Despite the name, it isn't suited to the humid regions in the Southern parts of North America.

The plant can cope with colder temperatures, too, although it may benefit from mulching if a serious drop in temperature occurs in the winter.

In hotter regions, the plant is more likely to flower, although they are small and insignificant. In the colder regions, the flowers won't usually appear at all.

Fertilizer

Because southernwood can thrive in infertile soils, it may never need additional feeding with a fertilizer.

The plant may benefit from feeding if it's losing its compact shape and the foliage is looking elongated and weak. This might be applicable if it's located in a less sunny position.

Propagating Southernwood

Southernwood is easy to propagate from cuttings or root division. Select tip cuttings from new woody growth in late spring.

Even if you don't want new plants, it's a good idea to divide the clumps every few years as this will help to keep existing plants healthy.

Pruning

Pruning southernwood is more important than it is with most other herbs. If you don't rigorously cut it back in the spring, it can lose its compact shape, and new growth can be limited. The foliage tends to become overly tall, weak and loosely spread.

How to Grow Southernwood From Seed

Providing southernwood seeds get enough warmth and light; they can germinate relatively easily. Sow them close to the surface and keep them on a windowsill or in a greenhouse.

It can take up to two months for them to germinate, and they can be planted in their permanent position in late spring or summer after the danger of any late frost has passed.