Beneath the Leaves: Southernwood’s Rich Tapestry of Meanings

Southernwood (Artemisia abrotanum) may sound like a plant with a very limited spread, but it’s traveled worldwide in the last few centuries. Naturalized across North America, it has mythology and meaning from its original and new homes. It has much smaller flowers than most plants used symbolically, but its scent and appearance give it meaning instead. Take another look at Southernwood to gain a deeper appreciation for this common but beautiful flowering herb.

Ultimate Guide to Southernwood (Artemisia abrotanum)

Southernwood Symbolism – Key Takeaways

Southernwood is a delicate-looking plant with a symbolic history stretching back through the ages. It’s widely considered a symbol of devoted or new love and a potent form of protection, particularly from insects.

Etymological Meaning

The name Southernwood is a simple contraction of the two words southern and wormwood. Since this variety of Artemisia grew in more southern native ranges than other wormwoods, it quickly earned an obvious name. 

Some cultures refer to the plant as southern wormwood. Its scientific name, Artemisia, is derived from the Greek goddess Artemis, to whom wormwood was sacred.

Southernwood Flower Meaning & Symbolism

Southernwood in bloom

Despite being a relatively plain-looking plant compared to other flowers, Southernwood has earned a complex set of meanings that give it symbolic value today.

Southernwood only produces two flower colors depending on the variety. White flowers carry a general symbolism of purity, peace, healing, clarity, and even holiness in the language of flowers. Yellow and cream-colored blooms convey the meaning of joy, growth, youthfulness, fun, and exuberance.

The Cultural Significance of Southernwood Flowers

A close up shot of the forest green southernwood plant

As a herb long used for medicinal and ceremonial purposes, it’s no wonder Southernwood has developed symbolic use as well. 

On the most practical level, planting Southernwood in an orchard can help repel insects and protect the trees. This has evolved into a more general meaning of protection, healing, and good health shared by multiple cultures.

Southernwood Flower Myths & Folklore

One of Southernwood’s most enduring myths that is widespread through European cultures links it to love. Young people pining for their lovers would include sprigs of Southernwood flowers in their bouquets. The pungent smell of the plant was supposed to help attract your love back to you over any distance. 

In other cultures, southernwood, due to its general protective use against insects, developed a reputation for protecting new homes when gifted as a dried or fresh bouquet.

Southernwood in Ancient Egypt

Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs

In Ancient Egypt, Southernwood grew wild and could be harvested in large volumes. Its distinctive scent became part of a popular perfume mixture known as Cyprinum. The balm-like solid perfume also included myrrh, cinnamon, and cardamom all mixed in a base of henna. 

The resulting scent is warm, spicy, and welcoming. Some modern perfumers have speculated that it may have been a good choice for attracting romantic interest due to its fresh yet warm blend of scents.

Southernwood Flower Symbolism in French Culture

Since Southernwood is native to much of Europe, it’s not surprising the plant has developed a special meaning in French culture as well. 

The French don’t call the plant Southernwood but rather garderobe. This name means “preserver of clothes”, representing the plant’s believed ability to protect stored clothing from moths and other insects. 

Putting a few springs of the plant in a wardrobe or dresser was certainly an easy way to try and control wardrobe damage. As with many other European cultures, the French also include this plant in bouquets to send a romantic message.

Suitable Gifting Occasions

A potted Southernwood plant

Southernwood’s long history of symbolizing love makes it an ideal flower for gifting when indicating romantic interest. Since it is commonly given by young people first starting a relationship, it’s not as passionate or intense as flowers like red roses. 

It can also make a great gift as a potted plant for someone starting something new. Lemon-scented varieties help brighten up an office or new home while sending a message that you care.

Wrap Up

From its frilly and delicate foliage to its nodding and bell-shaped flowers, Southernwood has plenty of appeal in the garden and bouquet alike. Try a lemon-scented variety if you’re not a fan of the spicy scent of the original plant.

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