Latin: Artemisia absinthium
Common Names: Absinthe, Old Man, Ajenjo, Artemisia, Green Ginger, Sweet Annie, and Old Woman’s Weed
Associated Deities: Artemis
Wormwood is a close relative of mugwort, coming from the same botanical family. It grows wild in many parts of the USA, and can keep insects out of a garden. Wormwood has an extremely bitter taste. In brewing beer, wormwood can replace hops. Wormwood gets its name from its reputed ability to cure intestinal worms, which was its primary medicinal use in the past. Wormwood’s best-known role is in the making of absinthe, an alcoholic drink popular in the mid-1800s. Most people look at absinthe as some kind of mystical elixir, but it was simply a cocktail. Though absinthe is not a banned substance in the USA, liquor stores currently do not sell it (although this may soon change).
Wormwood’s rather unsavory reputation and the banning of absinthe in the United States has added to the glamour and mystery surrounding wormwood. The active constituent thujone can be toxic in high doses, though the degree of this which caused the panic that had it banned in 90 countries for over a century has been determined to be untrue, Wormwood has a long association with both bitterness and liquor, being an ingredient in Pernod, vermouth, absinthe and other alcoholic spirits.
“As bitter as wormwood,” goes an ancient proverb, and wormwood is indeed one of the most bitter of all plants. Named after the Greek goddess Artemis, the plant is said to have been delivered to Chiron, the father of medicine, by the goddess herself.
Wormwood, often called absinthe, was once thought to have hallucinogenic and psychoactive properties and was said to affect the brain in much the same way as THC. Today it is known that absinthe does not cause hallucinations, especially ones similar to those described in 19th century studies. Thujone, the supposed active chemical in absinthe, is a GABA antagonist and while it can produce muscle spasms in large doses, there is no evidence that it causes hallucinations. It has been speculated that reports of hallucinogenic effects of absinthe may have been due to poisonous chemicals being added to cheaper versions of the drink in the 19th century, to give it a more vivid color.
However, the debate over whether absinthe produces effects on the human mind additional to those of alcohol has not been conclusively resolved. The effects of absinthe have been described by some artists as mind opening. The most commonly reported experience is a ‘clear-headed’ feeling of inebriation — a form of ‘lucid drunkenness’. Some modern specialists, such as chemist, historian and absinthe distiller Ted Breaux, claim that alleged secondary effects of absinthe may be caused by the fact that some of the herbal compounds in the drink act as stimulants, while others act as sedatives, creating an overall lucid effect of awakening.
Long term effects of low absinthe consumption in humans remain unknown, although it is known that the herbs contained in absinthe have both painkilling and antiparasitic properties.
Wormwood is often used as a companion plant, as it has strong pest repellant properties, and deters the growth of weeds.
Its best known use is in the making of absinthe, a liquor distilled from wormwood and other herbs. “The Holy Trinity” herbs are those herbs that essentially define absinthe as a drink, or set it apart from all other alcoholic beverages. These are the herbs that largely give absinthe its characteristic taste and cause its unusual effects. These three herbs are always present, in any absinthe made: Wormwood, Anise and Fennel. Taste enhancing herbs include: Calamus, Star Anise, Hyssop, Angelica and Coriander. Melissa, Roman Chamomile, Roman Wormwood (small absinthe), Peppermint and Veronica may be added for aroma and color.
Such famous men as Hemingway and Van Gogh attributed part of their creativity to absinthe induced visions. True absinthe is illegal in many countries, but wormwood is also used as a color and flavoring in other liqueurs, notably vermouth.
The absinthe recommended by the ancient physicians from the Egyptian through the Greeks was likely a very different recipe than that with which we are familiar today. It is most likely that it was simply wormwood soaked in wine or spirits, imparting the medicinal value of the plant to the alcohol. Among its traditional uses, Pliny noted that victorious champions at the races often drank a cup of wine in which wormwood had been soaked to remind them that victory was bitter as well as sweet.
Use wormwood to enhance psychic abilities, divination, astral work and any rituals involving the spirit world. Try adding it to your dream pillow recipe. Be sure to use a well-ventilated room when burning wormwood as incense because the smoke is considered poisonous. Dried wormwood can protect your home as well. According to old folk tales, burning wormwood and sandalwood in a cemetery will enable you to speak to the dead. In addition, a charm of dried wormwood will protect you from sea serpents (in the event you encounter this problem). Some ancient Egyptian writings referred to wormwood as “Blood of Hephaistos.”
Wormwood held a high reputation in medicine among the Ancients. Tusser (1577), in July’s Husbandry, says:
‘While Wormwood hath seed get a handful or twaine
To save against March, to make flea to refraine:
Where chamber is sweeped and Wormwood is strowne,
What saver is better (if physick be true)
For places infected than Wormwood and Rue?
It is a comfort for hart and the braine
And therefore to have it is not in vaine.’
Besides being strewn in chambers as Tusser recommended, it used to be laid among stuffs and furs to keep away moths and insects.
According to the Ancients, wormwood counteracted the effects of poisoning by hemlock, toadstools and the biting of the seadragon. The plant was of some importance among the Mexicans, who celebrated their great festival of the Goddess of Salt by a ceremonial dance of women, who wore on their heads garlands of wormwood.
With the exception of Rue, Wormwood is the bitterest herb known, but it is very wholesome and used to be in much request by brewers for use instead of hops. The leaves resist putrefaction, and have been on that account a principal ingredient in antiseptic fomentations.
An Old Love Charm
‘On St. Luke’s Day, take marigold flowers, a sprig of marjoram, thyme, and a little Wormwood; dry them before a fire, rub them to powder; then sift it through a fine piece of lawn, and simmer it over a slow fire, adding a small quantity of virgin honey, and vinegar. Anoint yourself with this when you go to bed, saying the following lines three times, and you will dream of your partner “that is to be”:
“St. Luke, St. Luke, be kind to me,
In dreams let me my true-love see.” ‘
Wormwood is available as both an essential oil and herb (leaf, stem and flowering parts). You can substitute mugwort for wormwood, if necessary.