Survival Gardening

7 Things You Need To Know About Growing The Herb That Smells Like Cola

The sweet and citrusy smell of cola hits me all of a sudden and with it come memories of my childhood. Of sticky snacks and cherries and ice cream floats. 

I’m nowhere near my childhood home though. My husband and I are strolling through a historical herb garden on a sunny summer day. And the unexpected trip down memory lane is triggered by the simple gesture of rubbing my fingers on the fronds of a plant that smells like cola. 

It looks like a shrubby fennel, but it smells like cola.

Everything is carefully labeled in this historical garden (it’s been in the same location and with the same layout since the seventeenth century). So I take a photo of the cola plant label to remind me to look it up later: Artemisia abrotanum ‘Maritima’

Fast forward to a few years later, I’m back to having my own garden, and I remember how much I enjoyed the scent of the cola plant. So I embark on a journey to find it, plant it and enjoy it every day in my own backyard. 

Mission accomplished (after quite a search), so of course now I want to write about it and get as many of our readers to bring this spectacular herb into their own gardens too. 

Here’s what you should know about the plant that smells like cola. 

1. Double-check the name before you buy it. 

The official name of the cola plant is Artemisia abrotanum. 

You may find it under the cultivar names ‘Artemisia abrotanum ‘Maritima’, ‘Maritima Pure’ or ‘Cola.’ A popular name often used for this variety is Southernwood, although some southernwoods describe other cultivars as well (which smell just as nice, of absinth, lemon or camphor). 

It’s an important detail to pay attention to because just buying Artemisia abrotanum might not get you the right plant.

I bought my cola plants online from a specialized herb grower.

Artemisia is a popular herb genus that includes other herbs such as tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus), white sage (Artemisia ludoviciana) and Mexican sagebrush (Artemisia mexicana). 

Some Artemisia are native to North America, but the cola plant is believed to have originated in the South of Europe. My local friends tell me it’s a common addition in herb gardens in France and Italy. 

When I was looking for places to buy the cola plant, I wasn’t able to find it in regular garden stores or big box stores; so I had to do a bit of digging to get my hands on it. 

This looks like a fairly mature plant.

In the end, I found it at specialized herb growers and herb farms. Etsy is also a good source that some growers use for selling small batches of plants.

And one more tip: when you search online, type in ‘Artemisia cola herb.’ Looking for ‘cola plant’ will often point you to the nearest fizzy drink factory. 

2. Artemisia ‘Cola’ really does smell like cola. 

It’s not just a trick of the mind. The feathery leaves of the cola plant release their oils when you rub them. Their smell reminds me of old-fashioned cola – with hints of anise and lemon – before the high fructose corn syrup took over the caramel taste.  

And just to make sure I wasn’t imagining things, I did a little taste test. You know, for science! 

I had to do a side-by-side comparison.

Armed with a bottle of said fizzy drink and some flavored gummies, I poured and sniffed all three in quick succession (cleansing my palate with some roasted coffee beans in between). 

The smell of the cola plant and that of the refreshing drink are very very similar.   

3. But the cola plant doesn’t taste like cola. 

Here comes the real question: does it taste like cola? 

The cola plant tastes bitter when you consume it raw.

Sorry to disappoint you, the cola plant doesn’t taste like cola. (I was disappointed myself when I nibbled on it.) When you first taste the young shoots, the cola herb has mild hints of cola and lemon. But it turns bitter quickly. 

In trawling the internet far and wide to see how other people consume the cola plant, I managed to find an article in Fine Dining Lovers. French chef Christophe Hay recommends steeping it for five minutes at a lower temperature (140 degrees Fahrenheit or 60 degrees Celsius) and then filtering it out, as you would tea leaves. 

He uses the resulting infusion to make sorbets and gravy. 

I dabble in neither sorbets nor gravy, so that’s a no-go for me. But since I’m writing this in the summer, I decided to see if I could infuse it in cold water and make a refreshing drink. Again, for science!

The young shoots have a much better fragrance and taste than the resinous stems.

I picked only young shoots – the twigs themselves are rather resinous, so they are best avoided. Then I added them to a carafe of water and stuck it in the fridge for a couple of hours.

Now for the taste test. 

I could definitely taste a hint of cola, albeit subtle, and overall, I would say this is a refreshing drink. It tastes like cola gone flat, but without all the sugar. I know I’m not selling it much, but it actually does taste fresh and delicious. 

To my mind, the intensity of the taste is similar to that of water infused with cucumbers or lemon, for example. Not exactly full strength, but just a hint of something extra. If you add a bit of sugar or honey, it starts to resemble a lemonade.

The infused cola plant water. It tastes really fresh.

Would I make the cola herb infusion again? 

Yes, I liked it. I’m sure I will make it again when I give the plant a trim in the fall or next spring, since I can only use the young growth.

Because it contains alkaloids and essential oils, you can only consume it in small quantities. So I  always advise you to check with a medical professional (which I am not) if you have any health concerns or are pregnant or breastfeeding. 

My next experiment will be all about drying the leaves to see if I can use them in salads or sprinkled on pasta dishes. 

4. The cola plant is a hardy perennial. 

Back to the more practical side of planting. First of all, the cola plant is an herbaceous perennial and second of all, it’s frost hardy. 

This is excellent news, considering how tricky it is to track down this plant. We’ll only have to plant it once, and it will regale our senses for years to come. 

The mature shrub will survive the winter, albeit a bit naked.

It’s worth noting that Artemisia ‘Cola’ is a semi-evergreen shrub. That means it’s neither deciduous nor fully evergreen. It will not lose all its leaves in the winter, but it will look decidedly bear. 

Don’t worry, the cola herb will start growing new shoots again as early as March. 

5. The cola plant will do well in either full sun or part sun. 

Ok, now that we’re ready to put it in the ground, where would the cola plant like it best? Considering its Southern European origins, you may have guessed that it likes a sunny spot. 

Welcome to the sensory corner!

But if that’s at a premium (it is in my garden, and the tomatoes take precedence, sorry), then part-shade will do. My cola plants are joining other fragrant herbs, such as lemon balm, sage and perennial geraniums, in the ‘sensory corner’ of my garden. 

The cola plant likes sandy soil, but it will do well in all types of soil, as long as it drains.

Artemisia abrotanum belongs to the Asteraceae family, more commonly known as the daisy family. But I don’t think its flowers resemble daisies that much. They look more like small golden button flowers. Not much to write home about. 

Another indication of its warm southern origins is the fact that the cola plant will do well in most types of soil, including calcareous and sandy soil, as long as it’s well-draining. 

Artemisia ‘Cola’ is a drought-tolerant plant, but make sure to water it in its first season to help it get established. 

Young plants are not drought-tolerant just yet.

6. The cola herb is a low-maintenance plant. 

We’ve already established that the cola plant is drought-tolerant. But it’s also really easy to keep in check. Simply prune off the top in the fall or in spring to keep the shrub a nice shape. 

And if you’re nervous about growing this perennial, just think of it as another lavender or rosemary. Don’t let it sit in pools of water, and don’t let it grow too woody closer to the base. 

Here comes the million-dollar question from renters: can you grow the cola herb in pots? Yes, you can, but it will grow faster and taller in open ground. 

The Artemisia abrotanum ‘Cola’ is a medium-sized herbaceous perennial. At its tallest, it can reach about 3.5 feet (a little over one meter) and about 2 feet (60 cm) in diameter. That’s still doable in pots, I think. 

7. The Artemisia ‘Cola’ herb is easy to propagate. 

It’s super easy to propagate this quirky cola plant if you want to share it with your quirky friends. You can take either softwood cuttings (in spring) or semi-hardwood cuttings (in the summer or in early fall). 

I wrote an entire article on my best tips to propagate plants from softwood cuttings, so I’ll just give you the gist here. 

You can take softwood or semi-hardwood cuttings.

Start by cutting off a piece that doesn’t have any flowers or buds forming. Aim to cut about four to five inches (around 10 cm). Strip the leaves from half of the stem and stick the bare twigs in well-draining potting soil. 

You can plant each section in its own pot. I prefer to stick them all in one container, along the sides of the pot, just for ease of maintenance. 

They’ll be ready to share in a couple of months.

And speaking of cuttings maintenance, remember to keep the soil moist (but not soggy) and keep the new cuttings out of direct sun. 

If you’ve done everything right – and it’s really hard to mess it up – you should see fresh young roots poking out of the drainage hole of the pot in about a month (up to six weeks). At this point, you can separate them into individual plants and share them with your friends.

Send them a link to this article, while you’re at it. Then go make some infused cola water.


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