What is Wormwood?
Wormwood, Artemisia absinthium, has been used for centuries as a moth repellent, general pesticide and as a tea/spray to repel slugs and snails. Before its toxicity was known it was used as the name implies a worming medicine for people and animals.
You may have heard of the alcoholic drink "absinthe" a green coloured beverage that is illegal in some countries. Absinthe has a history in Eastern Europe and France; it was used as a stimulant mainly by artists, for example, painter Vincent van Gogh. The story goes that he was imbibing of absinthe when he lopped off his ear.
The name of this plant occurs in many old writings; Egyptian, Roman and Christian. It's sometimes called a poison, sometimes a medicinal herb of value. Its Latin name, Artemisa absinthium, tells us that it was named after the goddess Artemis, who was the goddess of the hunt in Greek mythology.
The intensely bitter, tonic and stimulant qualities have caused wormwood not only to be an ingredient in traditional medicinal preparations but also to be used in various liqueurs, of which absinthe is the chief. The basis of absinthe being absinthol, extracted from wormwood. Wormwood, as employed in making this liqueur, bears also the name 'Wermuth' - preserver of the mind - from its medicinal virtues as a nervine and mental restorative. It was about twice the strength of any other spirit (more than two-thirds alcohol). And the wormwood in it not only provided part of its green colour and a characteristic bitter taste, but also thujone, a hallucinogen that is a relative of the active ingredients in cannabis. No wonder there was being told that it drove people mad and it was banned in many countries early this century. Inferior absinthe is generally adulterated with copper, which produces the characteristic green colour.
The Wormwoods are members of the great family of Compositae and belong to the genus Artemisia, a group consisting of 180 species. In general, it is a strikingly large, shrubby perennial herb with a grey, finely hairy, erect stem growing up to 5 feet tall. Silky gray-green leaves are much divided and featherlike. Tiny yellow flowerheads bloom in loose clusters on the upper ends of branches from July to September.
The whole family is remarkable for the extreme bitterness of all parts of the plant (which can all be used for medicinal purposes), although the root has a somewhat more warm and aromatic taste.
The extracted essential oil, ranging from 0.5 to 1% of the fresh weight of the plant material, appears to be strongly influenced by environmental conditions. Some volatile oil constituents include thujone, phellandrene, thujyl alcohol, cadinene, and azulene. The bitter principle in wormwood comes from absinthin and anabsinthin. Thujone has also been shown to have a very similar molecular structure to THC.
Wormwood is a psychic stimulant. The effect of wormwood is narcotic, lightly anaesthetic, giving a peaceful and relaxing feeling. In combination with alcohol or in larger dosages hallucinations might occur. Wormwood is suitable for making tea, which has a positive effect during post-flu or post-infectious periods. It also increases the appetite.
Wormwood has also been used to improve blood circulation, as a cardiac stimulant, as a pain reliever for women during labour, and as an agent against tumours and cancers. Folk remedies call for the employment of wormwood against colds, rheumatism, fevers, jaundice, diabetes, and arthritis. Furthermore, it's a nervine tonic, particularly helpful against the falling sickness and for flatulence. It is a good remedy for enfeebled digestion and debility.
The three Wormwoods most in use, the common wormwood, sea wormwood and Roman wormwood (see picture), have each their particular virtues' . . . the common wormwood is 'the strongest,' the sea wormwood, 'the second in bitterness,' whereas the Roman wormwood, 'to be found in botanic gardens' - the first two being wild - 'joins a great deal of aromatic flavour but with little bitterness.'
The common wormwood grows on roadsides and waste places and is found over the greater part of Europe and Siberia, having been formerly much cultivated for its qualities. In Britain, it appears to be truly indigenous near the sea and locally in many other parts of England and Scotland, from Forfar southwards.
Roman wormwood (Artemisa pontica) is the most delicate though the least strong of the Wormwoods; the aromatic flavour with which its bitterness is mixed causes it to be employed in making the liqueur Vermuth.
Medicinally, the fresh tops are used, and also the whole herb, dried. Culpepper considered the Roman wormwood 'excellent to strengthen the stomach'. Also that 'the juice of the fresh tops is good against obstructions of the liver and spleen. An infusion of the flowering tops strengthens digestion. A tincture is good against gravel and gives great relief in the gout.'
Sea wormwood (Artemis maritima) possesses the same properties as the other wormwoods but is less powerful. It is a bitter tonic and aromatic.
Wormwood is available as herb, root and oil. Oil is extracted from the herb and is used as essential oil in perfumes and to treat skin diseases. It contains 60% thujone and must be used carefully. Alcohol releases the oil from the herb and that's how absinthe is created. For medicinal purposes the root can be used and so the other parts of the plant; all are able to treat different conditions.
A wormwood tea can be made by adding 1/2 to 1 teaspoon (2.5 to 5 grams) of the herb to 1 cup (250 ml) of boiling water, then steeping for ten to fifteen minutes. Drink three times a day. You can mix it with peppermint leaves or anise. However sweet can't be combined with bitter, so don't mix your tea with sugar.
Tincture, 10 - 20 drops in water, can be taken ten to fifteen minutes before each meal. Either preparation should not be used consecutively for more than four weeks.
Wormwood is poisonous. Long and intensive use can lead to addiction, corporal and psychical decline and it can lead to nervosity, restlessness and cramps. High doses can cause headaches and dizziness. Higher doses are psycho-activating and have a paralysing effect. Intoxication effects due to overdose are arbitrary stools, unconsciousness, coma and death. After making absinthe, try one small glass at first and wait about an hour for the effect. Try it again at another opportunity. Better to dose too less with no effects than too much, risking poisoning yourself or making yourself sick. Do not drive motorized vehicles under the influence of wormwood.
Regular use of wormwood can become addicting. The plant contains glycoside, known to be poisonous, and the volatile oil is a central nervous system depressant. Longer-term use (over four weeks) or intake of amounts higher than those recommended can cause nausea, vomiting, insomnia, restlessness, vertigo, tremors, and seizures. Overuse of wormwood can initiate nervousness, stupor, convulsions, and death. Wormwood is known to be allergenic and can cause contact dermatitis.
Short-term use (two to four weeks) of a wormwood tea or tincture has not resulted in any reports of significant side effects.
Wormwood can be quite easily grown from seed. Spread the seeds on the surface of the soil. When they have sprouted and after all chance of frost, transplant outdoors. Space seedlings 3-5 feet apart. Wormwood is capable of growing in poor soil with full sun to part shade. Pruning is done in fall with the exception of southernwood which is cut back in spring or summer. They require full sun and dry well-drained soil. Some species will go dormant in the summer heat and sprout again when cooler temperatures return. This is most prevalent with the silver mound varieties. Don't plant wormwoods near anise, beans, caraway, fennel, peas and sage. Plants grow to 5 feet tall.
Links / Further reading
This article is based on the following pages:
Plant images taken from wikipedia.org