Are you beginning to think about what you’d like to plant this year? I’m behind in this regard, but it’s just as well because I’m still changing what I’d like to do with many of my beds. Beyond our regular food garden, we are thinking about how we would like to design our various teaching gardens that we have for students and visitors here at the farm.
A big initiative this year will be growing herbs that are used in the Traditional Chinese Medicine and Ayurvedic traditions. I am a big believer that our medicine should be local, but that doesn’t always mean that it has to be native. As TCM and Ayurveda gain more of a foothold here in the United States, wouldn’t it be better if we could get to know these plants in our own gardens instead of importing them from across the ocean?
A favorite TCM plant of mine is one many of you may be familiar with for another reason: sweet annie (Artemisia annua) is a plant people either love or love to hate. A few years ago, I didn’t really know much about it, so I bought three plants from a local nursery and placed them in my kitchen herb garden. Some of you may guess what happened next.
Sweet annie is in the wormwood family. It grows really well Ohio’s clay soils, preferring full sun, well-drained soil and at least 95 days in the growing season. Some suggest that it won’t grow as big if you transplant it, but either way, sweet annie quickly becomes a sweet smelling monster. Over the course of a growing season, this ferny invader will grow to the size and shape of a Christmas tree. If you don’t thin it out, you wind up with a hedge.
I vaguely remember a few of my student’s concerned looks when I shared that I had purchased sweet annie—comments were made to the effect of “you’ll never be without that plant again.” The following year I found out what they meant. Those three plants turned into hundreds of thousands of sweet annie in almost every conceivable nook and cranny covered in blank soil on our property. This is because the plant covers itself in flowers and the seeds are so tiny and numerous as to be almost dust-like.
The good news: If you have a lot of sweet annie, there are many good uses.
Crafting With Sweet Annie
Sweet annie has made its name among folks who like to use dried flowers in their homes. The scent you get when brushing against this plant is heavenly. Place a dried wreath or sprig anywhere in your house where there will be a bit of humidity, and it will fill the air with its perfume.
Sweet Annie Medicine Medicine
In TCM, sweet annie is known as Qing hao. It’s used to cool the blood and to treat malaria and fever. In fact, Western herbalists have also used it for malaria for quite some time. The plant is antibacterial and very useful for stomach upset due to its high volatile-oil content. Many modern malaria outbreaks are immune to quinine, and sweet annie has been a lifesaver in these cases.
Recently, Western practitioners have also begun to use the plant in treating Lyme disease with quite a bit of success. In all situations, the herb can be used as a tea, pill or alcoholic extract.
If you decide to grow Sweet Annie, I’d recommend you put it somewhere that you will routinely brush up against it or smell it on the wind. It isn’t particularly attractive, but lining a path makes for a sweet walk. It is harvested when the flowers are just opening. You may either cut it down to the base to prevent it self-seeding or leave a few branches behind to populate your garden for years to come.