Friday, May 21, 2010

Wormwood In Legend, Liquid And Garden

Few herbs have been so steeped in legend and liquid as Wormwood.  The botanical name of the genus is Artemisia (pronounced ar-te-MIZ-ee-ah, or ar-tuh-MEEZ-yuh, in the South).  Artemisia is in the Asteraceae or daisy family.  There are over 200 species native to the Northern and Southern Hemispheres.  Most are found in dry climates.  Many of the species are known for their volatile oils useful for medicine and flavoring.

As the name suggests, Artemisia might have been named for the Greek goddess Artemis, also known among Romans as Diana, goddess of the hunt.  Artemis was a vindictive charmer.  Though newly born, she observed the difficult birth of her twin brother, Apollo, and helped her mom, Leto, deliver.  So traumatized by the pain which her mother experienced, Artemis vowed to remain unmarried and childless.  Celibacy, however, was not part of her vow.

Insults, real or imagined, stirred her wrath.  She was especially protective of her mother.  Proud Niobe, daughter of Tantalus, made the mistake of insulting Leto, so Artemis assassinated all her children.  Tityus tried to rape Leto, and paid with his life.  Actaeon, who accidentally saw Artemis naked, was turned into a stag and torn apart by hounds.

Artemis was passionately in love with young Dardamis of Abydos.  He, however, failed to appreciate her beauty and return her affection.  As her final act of cruelty, she poked his eyes out while he slept, then committed suicide.

Artemis, goddess of the moon and of the hunt, was worshiped throughout the Greco-Roman world, principally at Ephesus and Marseilles.  She was also the patron goddess of amazons and unmarried women.  Human sacrifices, presumably male, may have been among the ceremonies.

But there was another Artemis for whom the plant might have been named:  Artemisia II of Carius.  This stunning beauty was wife and sister of King Mausolus.  She was an unusually able queen and admiral of her own fleet.  Botany and plant collecting were among her interests.  Upon the death of her husband, she was stricken with such extraordinary grief that she mixed some of his ashes with her daily draught.  To preserve his memory, she commissioned the building of a majestic monument, a mausoleum, at Halicarnassus to his honor.  Artemis II never saw it completed.  She died in 350 BC, two years after her husband.

Now, Artemisia, the genus, is as legendary.  Two common names, Wormwood and Mugwort, are shared among many of the species, indicating some uses.  Wormwood is derived from Artemisia's use as a repellant of moths, fleas and worms.  Mugwort is derived from its use as a flavoring in beverages, particularly beer and wine.  It was originally an ingredient in vermouth.

A. annua, Sweet Wormwood, is an ingredient in anti-malarial therapy.

A. arborescens, Tree Wormwood, is native to the Middle East.  Very bitter, it is mixed with mint to concoct a drink appropriately known in Israel as Shiva, or "Queen of Sheba."

In addition to its use as a vermifuge, A. absinthium was the key ingredient in absinthe - that notorious green spirit favored by bohemians which was said to eventually caused blindness, abstract paintings and lunarcy.

A. dracunculus, also known as Tarragon, is a mild-flavored wormwood often used as a culinary herb.  In fact, I shall use some tonight on my grilled sea trout.

A. stelleriana (Dusty Miller) and A. schmidtiana are popular ornamental plants.  They are often planted in "moon gardens" because of their silvery sheen and association with Artemis, goddess of the moon.

Artemisia has been used to wean children from their mother's breasts by rubbing the bitter extract on nipples.  Fair Juliet was ablactated just so.

Tis since the earthquake now eleven years,
And she was weaned—I never shall forget it—
Of all the days of the year, upon that day.
For I had then laid wormwood to my dug,
Sitting in the sun under the dovehouse wall.
My lord and you were then at Mantua.—
Nay, I do bear a brain.—But, as I said,
When it did taste the wormwood on the nipple
Of my dug and felt it bitter, pretty fool,
To see it tetchy and fall out with the dug!
Shakespeare - Romeo and Juliet, Act 1, Scene 3

A. vulgaris contains thujone, which is also found in arborvitae (meaning "tree of life").  Arborvitae (Thuja or Platycladus) shrubs are often planted in cemeteries as symbols.  Anyway, thujone is claimed to have many healing properties, and may actually possess them.  But it can be toxic.  Oh well, of such is life.

Speaking of toxic, A. vulgaris is also referred to in the Ukrainian name, Chernobyl, which means "place where the mugwort grows."  Mugwort is known to be an invasive weed that inhabits waste places.  The notorious site was named Chernobyl, perhaps prophetically, before the nuclear (properly pronounced NEW-kew-lahr) meltdown.

The same species has been used to flavor roasted Christmas geese, to smoke, and to tuck into pillows to induce vivid dreams.  Its common names include Felon Herb, Sailor's Tobacco, and Naughty Man - all of which suggest trickery and something to be avoided.

In addition to Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, wormwood has figured in other great literary works such as C.S. Lewis's Screwtape Letters, Shakespeare's Hamlet, Rowling's The Draught of Living Death, and in St. John's Revelation.

species are suitable for perennial borders, herb gardens, fragrance gardens, butterfly gardens and container gardens.  Most are semi-evergreen to evergreen, depending upon the climate zone.  Height varies.

Artemisia thrives in well-drained to dry soil.  Take care not to over-water.  There is little need to fertilize.  Hardiness and pH range vary by species.  Since Artemisia is drought tolerant, it's perfect for xeriscaping.

Begin by taking a soil sample to your local Cooperative Extension Service office for testing.  The results will specify any soil amendments needed.

Prepare the planting bed by cultivating at least 6" deep, removing all traces of weeds. Compacted soil should be cultivated to 10" deep.  Add enough soil to raise the bed at least 4" above the surrounding ground level. This will help to promote good drainage. A little compost may be incorporated into the soil.

Plant spacing varies by species. Dig planting holes into the cultivated soil a little less deep than the depth of the growing container.  Water the plants in the pots, then drain.  Place the plants into the holes and back-fill, watering as you go. Press soil around the root balls. Do not cover entirely the root balls with soil. The tops should be slightly exposed. Add a top-dressing of mulch around the plants, not on top of them, about 1" deep.

Plant Artemisia with other plants having similar cultural requirements.  If you do fertilize, do so sparingly and allow soil to dry between watering.

Artemisia benefits from occasional pruning, but take care not to cut back into old wood.  Prune only during the growing season; do not prune in fall or winter.

Artemisia has no serious pests or diseases, and deer don't like it.  The greatest cause of failure is planting it in an environment that is not to its liking.

Certainly, a plant as interesting as Artemisia should be in your garden.

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