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by Mordantia Bat

picture from Barnaby Conrad's
Absinthe History in a Bottle.

(Artemisia absinthium),
the herb that makes Absinthe Absinthe, has an interesting history and mythology of its own. Sometimes mentioned in ancient texts as a vile poison and sometimes as an herb of medicinal value, this herb grows in a good portion of the world and has been used by humans since ancient times.

General Information About Wormwood

Wormwood (Artemisia absinthium) is a perennial plant or shrubby plant found all over the world. Its appearance is characterized by deeply-incised leaves and small yellow flowers. Literally and somewhat metaphorically, wormwood often grows in waste places. The leaves are bitter-tasting, and so the word wormwood is also defined as a description of something grievous and bitter.

Historically, this herb has been utilized for a variety of purposes. Wormwood has been used as a medicinal herb, as a vermifuge (an agent that dispels intestinal worms), as a protection against the plague, as a deterrent for vermin (especially fleas), and as the star ingredient in the infamous drink of absinthe, to name a few. The application I find the most perversely curious is the ancient Egyptian documented use of wormwood as part of a treatment for pains of the anus that had been caused by demons. (See Ancient Egyptian historical uses for more details on that one.)

Its Latin name (Artemisia absinthium) illustrates that the herb was named after the goddess, Artemis, the goddess of hunt from Greek mythology.

Nicholas Culpeper, the famous herbalist of the 17th Century, in his book The Complete Herbal called it, among other things, a "cure-all," and said of it: "the herb is good for something, because God made nothing in vain." (See The Complete Herbal section for more info on Culpeper's writings on wormwood.)

Certainly, wormwood must be good for something, or why else would it be the subject of so much controversy and historical lore?


Medicinal Uses & Toxicity

As I am a historical trivia collector and not a medical expert, the following information has been gathered from a variety of sources, and I have no personal knowledge of its accuracy. That wormwood is toxic, it is well documented, but the degree as to how toxic it really is has been hotly debated. That it, also, has been used beneficially as a medicine is also documented. How much to use and under what circumstances is beyond the scope of my ability to advise well. So, please consult other sources. But as a general synopsis, I offer the following:

Although the manufacture of absinthe has been banned in many places of the world because of the toxicity historically attributed to its ingredient wormwood, the herb wormwood itself has not been banned. Wormwood, prior to the hysteria that started over absinthe in the 19th century, generally was not regarded as so dangerous and toxic, and the herb is still used in modern herbal concoctions. Used correctly and in moderation, herbal teas made from wormwood are often mentioned in herbal medicinal guides, mainly as a stomach tonic and sometimes as a concoction to be applied externally to bruises and sprains.

The toxicity of wormwood is attributed to a compound it contains called Thujone. Thujone can be toxic to the brain and liver. The leaves of the wormwood plant also contain a substance called santonin, which is said to cause vertigo and delusion in overdoses. Thus, this is possibly why the excessive and chronic use of absinthe was sometimes reported to cause a wide variety of symptoms and maladies, including convulsions, hallucinations, tremors, and sometimes paralysis, although I'd hazard to say that the high alcohol proof in a typical glass of absinthe and the fact that chronic drinkers of absinthe tended to imbibe several glasses of absinthe daily probably had a little something to do with such maladies as well. The reasons behind the demonization of absinthe were in a large part political in nature, so it's best to question all data gathered and reported during the heyday of the hysteria. This doesn't negate some of the findings necessarily, but neither should they be taken as objective.

Thujone depresses the central medullary part of the brain -- the part involving pain and anxiety. Therefore, some herbalists have recommended wormwood tea to reduce anxiety. However, wormwood is also a cardiac stimulant, so using it for such a purpose may not work in all situations.

In The Herb Book by John Lust, he lists the properties and uses of wormwood to be:

". . . . a stomach medicine, being useful for gastric pain, and a lack of appetite, as well as related problems of heartburn and flatulence. It is also said to be helpful for liver insufficiency by stimulating liver and gallbladder secretions. Wormwood oil is a cardiac stimulant and therefore acts, when taken in proper doses, to improve blood circulation. Wormwood tea has been recommended to help relieve pain during labor. The powdered flowering tops have been used to expel intestinal worms. A fomentation of wormwood tea can be applied externally to irritations, sprains, or bruises. The oil acts as a local anesthetic when applied to relieve pains of rheumatism, neuralgia, and arthritis. CAUTION: Pure wormwood oil is a strong poison, and excessive use of the plant can also cause poisoning. With proper dosage, there is little or no danger."

His book gives information on preparation and dosages of this herb for medicinal uses.