Plant Profile: Wormwood

Wormwood (Artemisia absinthium), syn. Common Wormwood, Grande Wormwood, Green Ginger, Absinthe Wormwood

Family: Astraceae

Image from the La Flore et la Pomone Françaises, by Jaume Saint-Hilaire, Jean Henri (1828-1833). Missouri Botanical Garden, http://www.illustratedgarden.org

Wormwood is one of the members of the Artemisia family that is a shrubby, aromatic perennial. Other members of the family vary from small shrubs to herbaceous perennials. Its silvery green, flat leaves are smooth to the touch, and it has small round button-like yellow flowers, making it an attractive addition to the garden. Another plant in our garden, southernwood (Artemisia abrotanum), is a relative of wormwood, along with tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus), a culinary herb. Wormwood was originally native to Russia and Europe, and was brought over to the United States. It has been found growing in Kashmir up to 1,500 to 2,000 m.  Now, it grows happily in our burgeoning garden, brought to our Hereford hill by years of cultivation and transport.

Our Wormwood growing in the Demonstration Garden, in its entire silvery-tinted splendor. Rub the leaves upon your fingers to give them a unique, pleasant fragrance. Photo taken August 16, 2011.

The herb was known in ancient Egypt, and has long been used as a vermifugic or de-worming agent, as well as a stimulant and tonic. It was also used as an insect repellant and strewn on the floor as an insecticide. It has been ascribed anti-septic properties and was used in poultices and in wraps for wounds. Additionally, it has been used as an aid in childbirth and to stimulate digestion. Because of its taste, in Shakespeare’s time it was commonly used to wean infants. This unpleasant attribute of the herb even earned it mention in the Bible as the epitome of bitterness:

“He hath filled me with bitterness, he hath made me drunken with wormwood.” Lamentations, 3:15

Wormwood contains a chemical known as thujone, which targets and excites the nervous system, causing anyone who takes too much of it to risk a seizure. Wormwood oil contains at least 40-60% thujone. The FDA has listed wormwood as a causer of neurological defects, including auditory and visual hallucinations, delirium, numbness of the limbs, and convulsions. It is not entirely known whether or not these are all caused by thujone and is a topic of study.

One of wormwood’s most notorious and well-known uses is that it is used to make absinthe, a highly alcoholic spirit with a strong anise flavoring. Ever since the discovery of its hazardous and toxic attributes, its use in the production of this drink is its main modern usage. The drink was popular with Impressionist painters and with the wealthy intelligentsia of Western Europe, especially France. It is now illegal in the US and some European countries because of its thujone concentrations, even though there were potentially other causes of what came to be known as “absinthism.” Imitation absinthe, which contained antimony and copper sulfate, flooded the markets once the drink became popular, around the time when the harmful effects absinthe had on people began to be noticed.

Absinthe is not the only alcoholic drink that employs wormwood. Soaking wormwood leaves in white wine creates vermouth. The German word for wormwood, wermuth, is the source of the modern word vermouth.

While wormwood has had a long, tumultuous history, today the infamous herb exists in the TJDG as an example of a medicinal, useful herb that was used during Thomas Jefferson’s time. Wormwood serves as a testament to how certain plants can affect society in such a way that their name becomes documented, for reasons savory or unsavory, for centuries to come.

~Sharon Ellison, UVA Class of ’13~

Sources:

Garland, Sarah. The Complete Book of Herbs and Spices. London: Frances Lincoln Limited, 1979.

Prajapati, N., Purohit, S.S., Sharma, A., Kumar, T. A Handbook of Medicinal Plants A Complete Sourcebook. India: Agrobios, 2003.

http://www.herbalist.com/wiki.details/Wormwood/  (accessed October 2011)

http://www.erowid.org/plants/wormwood/wormwood_bits.shtml  (accessed October 2011)

http://www.thujone.info/  (accessed October 2011)

http://www.glenbrookfarm.com/store/wormwood.html  (accessed October 2011)

http://www.seborabsinth.com/chronicles/wormwood/default.asp  (accessed October 2011)

*Please note: The above information is for educational purposes only. Consult a qualified practitioner before use.

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