Friday, July 11, 2014

Artemisia, a spelling misery

The large genus Artemisia in the sunflower family (Asteraceae) contains some very potent plants and is well-known around the world for a variety of good and bad reasons.   Common English names include sagebrush, wormwood, and mugwort.

For people allergic to pollen, the weedy mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris) is probably a large cause of their respiratory problems in early fall.  For people suffering from malaria, the old Chinese herbal derived from the species Artemisia annua has been developed into a highly efficient anti-malarial medicine.  Then there is Artemisia absinthium, the source of the green-colored alcoholic liquid absinthe of early 20th century fame.  And there is more.  Tarragon, the culinary herb, is a sterile, vegetatively propagated  Artemisia species. There are hundreds of species of Artemisia in the world.

Artemisia absinthium, the plant that is included in absinthe.  Species in this genus have finely divided leaves that often are silvery, and wind-pollinated flowers that are clustered in small, hanging heads.
Image source: Köhler's Medizinal-Pflanzen, public domain, via Wikipedia.

Artemisia is named after the Ancient Greek goddess Artemis, and her name is also used as a source of many names and places outside of botany (see Wikipedia list). She was the deity associated with hunting, childbirth, and wild places. A greek botanist and doctor, Artemisia II of Caria, was named after Artemis, and the name of the genus might have been in her honor, especially since these plants are highly medicinal and have been used as herbals since ancient times.

Surprisingly, in a travel article in The New York Times this weekend about 'absinthe trails' on the border between Switzerland and France, the name of the genus was given as Artemesia, not Artemisia.
"In particular, its namesake ingredient, grand wormwood — Artemesia absinthum in Latin, and simply called “absinthe” in French — might have been found all over Europe, but the type of wormwood that grew in the Val-de-Travers and nearby Franche-Comté was said to be vastly superior."  (source)
Yes, The New York Times also didn't italicize the scientific name, but they apparently never do.  But, for a newspaper that pride themselves on accuracy and correct facts and grammar, scientific names do not seem to get spell-checked a lot.  On May 30, 2014, they published an article on dandelions and it included this sentence:

"The dandelion (Taraxacum officianale) arrived with the first Europeans and can now be found throughout North America. "   (source)

The correct name is Taraxacum officinale, for this most ubiquitous of our lawn weeds. No idea how that extra 'a' got in there...  For biology, this is as much of a mistake as misspelling Obama or Boehner in political writing. For more on formatting and use of scientific names, take a look at this blogpost.

Despite Artemisia being widely used and present, the genus name is often misspelled.  The spelling as Artemesia is common (example 1, example 2), and often Artemisia herbals are sold under 'Artemesia' even if the bottle label correctly says 'Artemisia'.  Is there something in the sound of this name that make us misspell this name inadvertently?

"Magic Seed 100 Mugwort Seeds Artemesia" for sale on by Magic Seed company.
Screenshot by
 To conclude, here are seeds of mugwort (as 'Artemesia Vulgaris') for sale on It should be Artemisia vulgaris.   The ad also states "Easy to grow, grows like crazy once established'.  Yes, indeed. It is a common, noxious weed and regulated in some states, and a not something you want to have in your vegetable garden.  If you need some mugwort, you will probably find it really easily anyway, without having to grow it from seed.

(It should be noted that the spelling 'Artemesia' is used for a music band, as a family or given name, and for some buildings. But it isn't used for the plant. )