“How dry I am, how dry I am
Nobody knows how dry I am”
(No hiccup necessary)
This ditty could be the theme song of dusty miller, a plant that grows in the desiccated dunes of the seashore. As a dune dweller, dusty miller has had to adapt or perish.
To help it survive in such a harsh habitat, this seaside stalwart has white cotton-like hairs or fibers on its leaves and stem. These hairs serve important purposes — they reduce water loss, protect against whipping winds, reflect sunlight, and provide insulation. These hairs also gave rise to the plant’s other names.
Dusty miller has been called old woman and beach sage too, both of which seem flattering to me as I imagine the plant wise, sturdy and determined.
But back to the hiccup. Perhaps a spirit-induced eruption may become necessary since this plant, also called sea wormwood, belongs to the genus Artemisia (of Artemis, virgin goddess of the hunt and moon). Plants in this genus are famous for being the most important ingredient in the liquor absinthe. Now don’t go out and destroy the dunes harvesting this plant. This variety of Artemisia has little of the necessary component of that desired drink.
There are other reasons to value this hearty herb. Seventeenth century botanist Nicholas Culpeper offers the following uses: “Boiling water poured upon it produces an excellent stomachic infusion, but the best way is taking it in a tincture made with brandy. Hysteric complaints have been completely cured by the constant use of this tincture. In the scurvy and in the hypochondriacal disorders of studious, sedentary men, few things have a greater effect: for these it is best in strong infusion. The whole blood and all the juices of the body are effected by taking this herb. It is often used in medicine instead of the Roman Wormwood, though it falls far short of it in virtue.”
Another herbalist notes, “This is a very noble bitter: its peculiar province is to give an appetite, as that of the Common Wormwood is to assist digestion; the flowery tops and the young shoots possess the virtue: the older Leaves and the Stalk should be thrown away as useless. . . . The apothecaries put three times as much sugar as of the ingredient in their Conserves; but the virtue is lost in the sweetness, those will not keep so well that have less sugar, but ‘tis easy to make them fresh as they are wanted.”
The proverb “As bitter as wormwood” says enough of this plant that few would consider its consumption for anything other than medicine.
Dusty miller blooms with yellow flowers in late summer, but by now those flowers are long gone. This hairy old dame with her silvery stem and leaves will continue to reign at the fall beach and hold herself up as the wise sentinel of the seashore.
Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown.