There are hundreds of species in the Artemisia genus. And the fern-like southernwood (Artemisia abrotanum) is one of the oldest and most widely grown. This herbaceous perennial grows in a small, bushy, shrub-like mound with upright branches. It has gray-green to green foliage which gives off a pleasant lemony, camphor-like odor. Historically southernwood was used as an air freshener, but these days it is often used as an effective natural insect repellant. It is also commonly grown in orchards to repel fruit tree moths and is said to help keep ants at bay. Its flowers are small and not particularly ornamental. Southernwood has a fast growth rate and is best planted in the spring.
|Botanical Name||Artemisia abrotanum|
|Common Names||Southernwood, southern wormwood, lad's love, old man, European sage|
|Plant Type||Perennial, herbaceous|
|Mature Size||3–4 ft. tall, 2–3 ft. wide|
|Soil Type||Loamy, sandy, clay, well-drained|
|Soil pH||Acidic, neutral, alkaline|
|Bloom Time||Late summer, early fall|
|Hardiness Zones||4–8 (USDA)|
|Native Area||Europe, Asia, Africa|
|Toxicity||Toxic to people and animals|
Southernwood is a good choice for growing as a low hedge or border, and it is a common addition in herb gardens or containers. It will grow in dry, infertile soils where other plants struggle to survive, and it needs relatively little maintenance. It also doesn't typically have any serious issues with pests or diseases.
Your main care task will be to prune your southernwood plants to maintain healthy growth and to divide them when they become overgrown. Southernwood also occasionally might need supplemental watering and feeding.
Although southernwood prefers a spot with full sun, meaning at least six hours of direct sunlight on most days, it can still grow well in some shade. Growth just won't be as vigorous, and the plant's lemony scent won't be as apparent. Too much shade can also cause the foliage to become less compact and straggly in appearance.
Southernwood can grow in sandy, loamy, and clay soils of varying pH levels. The soil must be well-draining and never waterlogged, as the plant is susceptible to root rot.
Once it's established, southernwood is a drought-tolerant species that likes dry or moderately moist conditions. It doesn't like to be overwatered. During hot weather or a prolonged period of drought, water to prevent the soil from drying out. Otherwise, supplemental irrigation often isn't necessary.
Temperature and Humidity
Southernwood thrives in hot and dry regions, where it tends to live longer, be hardier, and produce a stronger aroma. Despite its name, it's not suited to the hot and humid climate of the Deep South. The plant can cope with colder temperatures, though it will benefit from mulching over the winter in the cooler parts of its growing zones. In hotter regions, the plant is more likely to flower. In the colder regions, the flowers won't usually appear at all.
Because southernwood can thrive in infertile soils, it might not need additional feeding with a fertilizer. However, the plant might benefit from feeding if it's losing its compact shape and the foliage is looking elongated and weak. Mix some compost into the soil in the spring for an organic nutrient boost.
Is Southernwood Toxic?
Although the plant has uses as a medicinal and culinary herb, all parts of southernwood are toxic both to humans and animals when ingested. In general, large amounts must be ingested for poisoning to occur.
Symptoms of Poisoning
Symptoms of toxicity in both humans and animals include nervousness, convulsions, confusion, and delirium. If you suspect poisoning, contact a medical professional as soon as possible.
There are multiple varieties of southernwood, including:
- Artemisia abrotanum ‘Cola’: This cultivar has foliage that really does smell like soda.
- Artemisia abrotanum ‘Leprechaun’: This is a particularly hardy and compact cultivar.
- Artemisia abrotanum ‘Silver’: This cultivar features soft silvery-green foliage.
Pruning southernwood is more important than it is with most other herbs. If you don't rigorously cut it back to the ground in the early spring, it can lose its compact shape and new growth can be limited. The foliage tends to become overly tall, weak, and loosely spread when left to its own devices.
Southernwood is easy to propagate from cuttings or root division. For cuttings, select a 4- to 6-inch portion of new woody growth in the summer, and trim it off. Remove the leaves from the lower half, apply rooting hormone to the cut end, and plant it in a soilless potting medium. Keep it warm and moist until roots form. Once you feel resistance when you tug on the stem, you will know it has developed roots. Then, it is ready to be planted outside.
Mature plants can be divided every three to four years. Simply dig up the clumps, gently pull apart the roots, and replant the smaller clumps wherever you wish. Even if you don't want new plants, it's still a good idea to divide large clumps every few years to maintain healthy growth.