by Matt Gibson
When people think of wormwood, they typically think of its use as an intoxicating ingredient in absinthe, the alcoholic beverage that was famously banned in most countries around the world for its toxic properties. However, this plant that’s native to Europe, Asia, and North Africa is most commonly cultivated by modern gardeners not for use in beverages but for its value as an ornamental plant.
Wormwood boasts a wide variety of greenish-gray foliage and stunningly-bright yellow tubular flowers, and the plant comes equipped with both male and female reproductive organs. The pale silvery-white foliage of the wormwood plant also makes an excellent contrast to the darker and greener leaves in the garden, spreading its leaves in pale rays to highlight the vegetation with its characteristic feathery fan shapes.
This herbaceous perennial can grow to reach heights between one to three feet, and it can live up to 10 years if provided with the proper growing environment. In the wild, wormwood can be found growing plentifully near cliffs, roads, and riverbanks.
The flowering beauty blooms during the summer and autumn months, and wormwood is pollinated by the wind. This unique plant is actually known as much for its one-of-a-kind foliage as it is for its flowers. Wormwood plants produce three different types of leaves on the bottom, middle and top of the plant. The leaves at the bottom of the stem are bipinnate or tripinnate leaves with long petioles. On the middle of the stem are smaller, less divided leaves with much shorter petioles, and at the top, the plant produces very simple leaves without petioles at all.
Each of these foliage types are bi-colored, featuring greenish-gray tops and hairy silver-white bottom sides. The leaves are covered in glands that release a substance that repels insects. In fact, you can make your own potent and all-natural pesticide by mixing apple cider vinegar with fresh wormwood leaves.
Wormwood is a very hardy plant, and it’s developed a reputation among gardeners for its tolerance to poor growing conditions and its ability to keep a wide variety of leaf-damaging insects out of the garden due to its pungent and bitter odor.
The word “Artemisia” in wormwood’s botanical name is a tribute to the Greek goddess Artemis, who was worshiped or invoked to influence matters of birth and chastity. Absinthium comes from the Greek word “absinthion,” which means “undrinkable,” referring to the extremely bitter taste of the plant.
Varieties of Wormwood
There are many different varieties of the wormwood plant. Some of the plants that make up the Artemisia genus include wormwood, tarragon, mugwort, estragon, sagebrush, southernwood, ghostplant, and summer fir, all of which hail from the daisy family. The most commonly grown species of Artemisia are listed below.
This is the most commonly known form of wormwood, and it’s the one that is used in absinthe, the drink made famous for its hallucinatory properties. Artemisian absinthium is also the variety of Artemisia that is the main focus of this article.
This variety is commonly known as tarragon or estragon, and it’s widely used in culinary and medicinal applications. Tarragon is a wonderful herb to use in the kitchen, boasting a slight licorice aroma and a flavor that is somewhat bittersweet. Never fear that tarragon will make your dishes bitter, though—it doesn’t take much of this potent herb to do the trick. Recipes usually only call for one teaspoon of dried tarragon or three teaspoons of fresh tarragon to add its unique flavor to exotic dishes with a moderate hand. Tarragon is used in many traditional French dishes, often to add flavor to chicken, egg, and fish dishes, as well as a main ingredient in the classic sauce Béarnaise. In Italian cuisine, tarragon is put to work as a traditional flavorant in lasagna.
Also known as Big Sagebrush, this shrub is the dominant plant species of large portions of the Great Basin.
This species of Artemisia is most commonly known as mugwort and has medicinal and insecticidal applications.
This variety is the tree version of the wormwood plant and is considered an evergreen perennial.
Growing Conditions for Wormwood
Wormwood plants grow best in USDA Hardiness Zones 4 through 9. The plant requires a sunny location with quickly draining soil. It does best in a fertile soil that is rich in lime with a pH level around 5.5. Though wormwood is very hardy and famously adaptable to poor growing conditions, it can still benefit greatly from occasional watering, especially during droughts or in areas with especially hot climates.
How to Plant Wormwood
Sow seeds in flats. For annuals, plant seeds at a depth of an eighth of an inch beneath the soil in spring or autumn. For perennials, sow in autumn on the surface of the soil. Provide 55- to 65-degree Fahrenheit temperatures, and allow the seeds two to nine weeks for germination. Perennials will require around 12 hours of light per day. Transplant seedlings from flats to their outdoor homes after the last frost has come and gone, allowing 12 to 24 inches of space between each plant.
Care of Wormwood
Water frequently during your plant’s first summer, providing one inch of water every seven to 10 days and allowing the soil to dry completely before watering again. Once wormwood is established in your garden, you can cut back on watering drastically, only providing hydration every two to three weeks during the summer and then cutting your wormwood plants off from extra moisture completely during especially rainy weather. Prune back any overhanging tree branches or shrubbery that blocks the wormwood plants from getting plenty of exposure to sunlight.
Deadhead your wormwood plants during the summer to prevent self-seeding and to keep them looking their best. Snip faded flowers at the base of the stems, and carefully rake up any seeds that may have fallen during the pruning, then discard all seeds and scraps. Cut the entire plant back by half during midsummer if it starts to look leggy or droops. Using a sharp pair of shears, snip the top half of stems just above a pair of leaves.
Prune wormwood in autumn to encourage a more compact, bushier plant, cutting the entire plant down to a height of two inches. If you start to notice drooping stems or discolored foliage, cut off watering for a week, and check the plant’s drainage conditions.
Divide and transplant your wormwood plants every two to three years during autumn by following these steps. Remove the entire root ball from the ground. Cut the outer parts into sections, made up of equal parts root and stems, then discard the center of the plant. Replant divisions one to two feet apart in a sunny well-draining location.
Patience is key when it comes to harvesting from wormwood plants. Experts advise gardeners to wait until wormwood plants are at least two years old before harvesting, as the herb’s strength and potency will increase as the plant matures. There are many different uses for wormwood aside from making absinthe. For example, you can use the upper stalks as a potpourri ingredient or harvest the oil to make a powerful antiseptic or an all-natural pest spray.
Garden Pests and Diseases of Wormwood
As mentioned above, the wormwood plant actually repels garden pests. Its powerfully bitter aroma drives away flies, mice, ants, moths, and more vermin that tend to cause problems for gardeners. Wormwood is also rarely troubled by any typical garden diseases. However, it is susceptible to root rot when exposed to overly wet soil conditions.
Videos About Growing Wormwood?
Check out this tutorial with information on how to grow wormwood:
For a more in-depth look at how to grow wormwood and benefits, watch this video:
Want to Learn More About Growing Wormwood?
doityourself covers How to Grow Wormwood in 5 Quick Steps
Gardeners HQ covers Guide to Growing Wormwood and Tarragon
Gardening Know How covers Wormwood Plant – Growing Sweet Annie
SFGate Homeguides covers How to Grow a Wormwood Plant
SoftSchools.com covers Wormwood Facts