#83 Southernwood







Southernwood is a species of Artemisia, A. abrotanum, a small bushy shrub with grey-green foliage. Members of the Asteraceae or daisy family, other Artemisias include wormwood, sagebrush and tarragon. Southernwood is more fernlike and taller than its better known relative Artemisia schmidtiana, which grows in symmetrical silver mounds widely used in landscape plantings (Hogan 190). It is known especially for its strong “camphorlike” scent, which according to Jack Straub’s book on useful garden herbs, led to its historical deployment “as both pest deterrent and strewing herb” (231). In his Dictionary of Plant Lore, Watts notes that it was used as “an insect repellant,” particularly for “protecting clothes against moths” (358), and the home and garden website, “The Spruce,” claims it “is commonly grown in orchards to repel fruit tree moths.”[1] Various websites maintain that southernwood is native to Mediterranean locales such as Spain and Italy and was named “Southernwood” because it was similar to wormwood but came from southern climes.[2] It seems to have been introduced to Britain sometime in the late 1500’s.[3]  


Although the name “Artemisia” was evidentially derived from Artemis, the Greek goddess of the moon (Staub 228), A. abrotanum had many common names, mostly affiliated with courting practices associated with its scent. Pliny thought it was an aphrodisiac (Folkard 279); perhaps this reputation is what led to the common belief that it would spur beard growth if applied to the cheeks (Staub 231; Watts 359). Numerous sources suggest common names such as “Lad’s Love and “Maid’s Ruin” arose from young men putting it in posies to give to girls, perhaps to hide other less pleasant scents (Staub 231; Watts 359).[4]


Woolf only mentions southernwood three times, twice in her 1919 essay “Reading” and once in her novel The Waves (1931).  All references emphasize the scent of the leaves and suggest it may be redolent with childhood memories of Cornwall.[5]  Although the setting of the long essay is a house in a valley which overlooks the North Sea similar to the one in to To the Lighthouse (the flower beds in the essay look like islands with lighthouses on them [E3 141]), some features of the landscape such as the tennis lawn and an escallonia hedge reappear in later descriptions of Cornwall in Jacob’s Room and “A Sketch of the Past" (E3 142; JR 56; MOB 127, 128).[6] The essay also features “swift grey moths of the dusk. . . hanging an inch or two above the yellow of the Evening Primroses,” which are evoked in Clarissa’s childhood memories in Mrs. Dalloway (E3 150; MD 13 ) and reappear as part of the garden in To the Lighthouse (TTL 74). [7] These Cornish resonances are permeated with the odor of southernwood: “There’s a sweeter air outside—how spicy, even on a still day, after the house!—and bushes of verbena and southernwood yield a leaf as one passes to be crushed and smelt” (E3 145).[8] In fact, the odor seems to open up a kind of Proustian tunnel to the historic past: “If we could see also what we can smell—if, at this moment crushing the southernwood, I could go back through the long corridor of sunny mornings, boring my way through hundreds of Augusts, I should come in the end, passing a host of less-important figures, to no less a person than Queen Elizabeth herself” (E3 145).  


Southernwood is mentioned only in passing in The Waves, but once again evokes a memory of picking the leaves in childhood. As the friends wander away from the schoolroom Louis notes “’There Rhoda sits staring at the blackboard. .  . while we ramble off, picking here a bit of thyme, pinching here a leaf of southernwood while Bernard tells a story’” (TW 14). While Rhoda remains trapped, they have the freedom to roam and pluck what will become memories from the bushy shrub.



[4] See the Gardening Know-How site as well, which also cites its reputation as an aphrodisiac. https://www.gardeningknowhow.com/ornamental/foliage/artemisia/growing-southernwood-plant.htm  Accessed February 19, 2022.


[5] In his review of folkloric beliefs about southernwood, Watts mentions that “In Cornwall [southernwood plants] are said to grow especially well near roses” (358).


[6]  See my essay on Escallonia: https://woolfherbarium.blogspot.com/p/escallonia.html Accessed February 20, 2022.


[7] See my essay on Evening Primroses: https://woolfherbarium.blogspot.com/p/evening-primrose.html Accessed February 20, 2022.


[8] Crushed verbena also appears in the Cornish Section of Jacob’s Room” "Oh, mother! I didn't recognize you!" exclaimed Clara Durrant, coming from the opposite direction with Elsbeth. "How delicious," she breathed, crushing a verbena leaf” (59)

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About 98 Flowers

Welcome to the Virginia Woolf Herbarium.  For many years I have been researching and writing about Virginia Woolf and parks, gardens, and fl...