Southern wormwood (Artemisia abrotanum, Asteraceae), also known as southernwood, lad’s love, maid’s ruin, old man, and lemonwood, is a semi-shrub which can reach two to four feet in height.1,2 The blue-green twigs, which turn brown or ash-gray as they age, grow upright with highly branched stems covered in secretory hairs. The leaves are gray-sage green, hairy on the top, and smooth on the underside. The small, tubular, light yellow flowers, although rarely seen, gather in ovoid to spherical ovoid hanging heads forming a loose branching cluster of flowers known as a panicle. The entire plant has a characteristic lemon aroma. The dried herb, which consists of the leaves and blooming stem parts and is grey-green in color, has a slightly bitter taste and a spicy, citrus aroma.
Native to Southern Europe, Syria, and China, southern wormwood was brought to Great Britain in the 16th century and to the United States and Canada by early colonists.1 The genus Artemisia receives its name from Artemis, a Greek goddess who aided women, especially in childbirth, as well as being the goddess of the moon and the hunt. Theophrastus of Eresos (371-287 BCE), considered the first scientific botanist as well as being Aristotle’s successor at the Peripatetic school, stated that arbrotanum may refer to the body constitution of thin, frail individuals, in other words, those experiencing chronic respiratory ailments. Ibn Sena (Avicenna; 980-1037 CE) suggested the herb for loss of appetite, skin diseases, ulcers, hair growth, and as an amulet to ward off evil spirits. [Note: Artemisia plants and other plants high in ketones and/or with grayish leaves and bark have been seen as plants that dwell between the living and the Other Realm or realm of the dead and used for shamanic journeying or experiences similar to Carl Jung’s active imagination technique where the contents of one's unconscious are translated into images, narrative or personified as separate entities.]
In the 10th century, southern wormwood was prescribed for breathing difficulties, bladder, spleen, and uterus pain, wound healing, to promote bile production in the liver, and to deter evil spirits. Hildegard of Bingen would use it as a leg compress in the 11th century. Viewed as drying and warming, the herb has been used for various ailments thought to be cold and humid, with secondary properties of cleansing, dispersing, diluting, and opening. A Polish herbalist and botanist, Simon Syrenius (1540–1611 CE), who also saw the herb as drying and warm, recommended southern wormwood as a venom and poison remedy and for repelling venomous animals, as well as for diseases related to the lungs, digestion, and feminine aliments.
In the 19th century, southern wormwood applications included skin disease (in baths), to treat throat and ear issues, sprains and inflammation, and for women and childhood ailments. As the name indicates, the bitterness of the plant repels worms in the digestive tract.2 The repellant abilities aid in keeping chickens safe from lice, fruit trees from moths, and cabbage from white butterflies.
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1Ekiert H, Knut E, Świątkowska J, et al. Artemisia abrotanum L. (Southern wormwood) – history, current knowledge on the chemistry, biological activity, traditional use and possible new pharmaceutical and cosmetological applications. Molecules. April 25, 2021;26(9):2503. doi.org/10.3390/molecules26092503.
2Artemisia abrotanum. The Medicinal Plant Garden of Birmingham-Southern College website. Accessed January 5, 2022. https://medicinalgarden.trekbirmingham.com/artemisia-abrotanum/.