Named after the Greek goddess Artemis, this soft aromatic shrub
is one of the most popular medicinal plants in South Africa. Easy
to grow, Artemisia afra is an essential part of the herb
garden, and with its silver-grey foliage it makes a striking display
in any garden.
afra grows in thick, bushy, slightly untidy clumps, usually
with tall stems up to 2 m high, but sometimes as low as 0.6 m. The
stems are thick and woody at the base, becoming thinner and softer
towards the top. Many smaller side branches shoot from the main
stems. The stems are ribbed with strong swollen lines that run all
the way up. The soft leaves are finely divided, almost fern-like.
The upper surface of the leaves is dark green whereas the undersides
and the stems are covered with small white hairs, which give the
shrub the characteristic overall grey colour. A. afra flowers
in late summer, from March to May. The individual creamy yellow
flowers are small (3-4 mm in diameter), nodding and crowded at the
tips of the branches. Very typical of A. afra is the strong,
sticky sweet smell that it exudes when touched or cut.
Derivation of the name:
The genus name Artemisia honours Artemis, the Greek goddess
of hunting (Jackson 1990). Another interesting link to the name
is Artemisia, the wife of the Greek/Persian King Mausolus, who ruled
after his death in 353 BC. In his honour she built a magnificent
tomb called the Mausoleum, known as one of the Seven Wonders of
the Ancient World. She was also a famous botanical and medical researcher
(Bremness 1988). The species name afra means from Africa.
Artemisia afra is a common species in South Africa with a
wide distribution from the Cederberg Mountains in the Cape, northwards
to tropical East Africa and stretching as far north as Ethiopia.
In the wild it grows at altitudes between 20-2 440 m on damp slopes,
along streamsides and forest margins. A. afra is the only
indigenous species in this genus. A. vulgaris is naturalized
in the Eastern Cape. It is an annual, indigenous to Europe, Iran,
Siberia and North Africa, is commonly known as mugwort, and is described
by Huxley et al. (1992) as 'a condiment with supposed magical properties'.
World-wide there are about 400 species of Artemisia, mainly
from the northern hemisphere. Many of the other Artemisia
species are aromatic perennials and are used medicinally. Lesley
Bremness (1988) in The complete book of herbs, mentions that
wormwood is included for its internal worm-expelling properties
in the ancient Greek text of Dioscorides; Indians from New Mexico
use similar varieties to treat bronchitis and colds; and the Chinese
still use wormwood rolled up in the nostril to stop nosebleeds.
Economic and cultural value
Artemisia afra is one of the oldest and best known medicinal
plants, and is still used effectively today in South Africa by people
of all cultures. The list of uses covers a wide range of ailments
from coughs, colds, fever, loss of appetite, colic, headache, earache,
intestinal worms to malaria. Artemisia is used in many different
ways and one of the most common practices is to insert fresh leaves
into the nostrils to clear blocked nasal passages (Van Wyk et al.
1997). Another maybe not so common use is to place leaves in socks
for sweaty feet (Watt & Breyer-Brandwijk 1962). The roots, stems
and leaves are used in many different ways and taken as enemas,
poultices, infusions, body washes, lotions, smoked, snuffed or drunk
as a tea. A. afra has a very bitter taste and is usually
sweetened with sugar or honey when drunk. Wilde-als brandy is a
very popular medicine still made and sold today. Margaret Roberts
(1990) lists many other interesting uses in her book, Indigenous
healing plants, which includes the use of A. afra in natural
insecticidal sprays and as a moth repellent. She also mentions that
wilde-als with its painkilling and relaxing properties could be
of real value to today's stressful society.
Growing Artemisia afra
Artemisia afra has traditionally been part
of the herb garden, but this indigenous species is just as attractive
in the garden used for display. Many of the exotic artemisias are
popular garden plants. This tough and easy-to-grow species adds
texture and colour with its fine, silver-grey foliage. At Kirstenbosch
it is often used in herbaceous plantings mixed with other summer
and autumn perennials like the wild sages Hemizygia
labiatus, Leonotis leonurus
and Syncolostemon densiflorus, which make very interesting
combinations of foliage and flower colour throughout the summer.
Artemisia afra needs full sun and heavy pruning in winter
to encourage new lush growth in spring. Actively growing in the
summer months, it should be able to take quite low temperatures
during the winter months. Fast-growing, established shrubs are very
tough and will slowly spread to form thicker clumps. New plants
can be propagated by division or from cuttings that root easily
in spring and summer. Seed can be sown in spring or summer.
References and further reading
- Bremness, L. 1988. The complete book of herbs. Dorling
- Germishuizen, G. & Meyer, N.L. 2003. Plants of southern
Africa: an annotated checklist. Strelitzia 14. National Botanical
- Goldblatt, P. & Manning, J. 2000. Cape plants. A conspectus
of the Cape flora of South Africa. Strelitzia 9. National
Botanical Institute, Cape Town.
- Hutchings, A. 1996. Zulu medicinal plants. University
of Natal Press, Pietermaritzburg.
- Huxley, A., Griffiths, M. & Levy, M. (eds). 1992. The
new Royal Horticultural Society dictionary of gardening. Macmillan
- Jackson, W.P.U. 1990. Origins and meanings of names of South
African plant genera. University of Cape Town.
- Leistner, O.A. (ed.). 2000. Seed plants of southern Africa:
families and genera. Strelitzia 10. National Botanical
- Pooley, E. 2003. Mountain flowers. The Flora Publications
- Roberts, M. 1990. Indigenous healing plants. Southern
Book Publishers, Halfway House, South Africa.
- Van Wyk, B., Van Oudtshoorn, B. & Gericke, N. 1997. Medicinal
plants of South Africa. Briza Publications, Pretoria.
- Watt, J. & Breyer-Brandwijk, M.G. 1962. Medicinal and
poisonous plants of southern and eastern Africa. Livingstone,
Liesl van der Walt
Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden