I’m a plant nerd for sure. I get wild about plants. Last week I was out plant shopping. For medicinal herbs, this is a rarity. Other than the occasional flirtation with a hybridized Chocolate or Pineapple Mint, all of my medicinal herb plants and seeds are purchased online. Sometimes I get lucky and find a rare gem in some forgotten corner of the Hudson valley and I get giddy. No, I mean I literally get giddy. So yeah, last week I was giddy. What was the object of my enchantment you ask? “None other than the winsome wormwood!” she says as Harry Potter fans everywhere perk up their ears. If Wormwood has not been mentioned in the popular tomes, she certainly should be. As full of magic, mystery, and medicine as any controversial herb and with a dazzling past to match! I have your attention now, yes?
Artemisia absinthium. Yes, that Artemisia. The “green fairy”, the once outlawed absinthe said to have driven scores of Parisians insane, rumored to cause tuberculosis, epilepsy, and even blamed for Van Gogh’s insanity. Not to ruin a good scandal but Wormwood’s bad boy reputation is completely overblown. The thujone in Wormwood that gives it its hallucinogenic properties, is also a neurotoxin in high doses, causing seizures and eventually death. The thujone is most high in the concentrated Wormwood oil. Thujone levels in Wormwood oil are around 40% and even small amounts of the oil can cause irreversible damage. Thujone levels in Absinthe were a mere .003% not likely to cause a problem. What is more than likely to blame for their debaucherously driven behavior would be Absinthe’s 70-80% alcohol content as Wormwood is only one of a number of herbs concocted in the famous potion. Although Absinthe originated in Switzerland in the late 18th century, it grew in popularity initially with French soldiers in the 1840’s who had been given the drink to cure malaria for which Wormwood is a traditional remedy. Making its way to America, Absinthe found a permanent home in New Orleans where it is still a featured spirit today at such notable establishments as The Old Absinthe House. Prior to that time, Wormwood had been used medicinally as far back as Egyptian times and is named in the Ebers Papyrus, an ancient medical text that is over 3,500 years old. At around the same time, China was also using Wormwood infused medicinal wines. Wormwood is said to have been a favored herb of Artemis who gifted it to Chiron, “Healer of the Gods”, whereby Wormwood became one of his most important healing herbs.
Back to my obsession. I fall in love with plants for a variety of reasons. Sometimes simply because they exist. I could lose hours in Wormwood’s foliage so irresistible is her silver, feathery leaf. The form so similar to other Artemisia’s, certainly one of my favorite plant genus. For all her power as a medicinal, and an enchantment, Wormwood’s leaf formation divulges a certain softness. Perhaps this she bestows along with her protection on those who appreciate and love her. Her history as a protective herb is a long and varied one but her capacity as a healer is most impressive. One of the most bitter of plants, Wormwood has been utilized as a digestive bitter and a tonic for all ailments of the stomach and digestion. Her effect on the liver is notable as she is said to cure jaundice, hepatitis, and mythologically as an antidote for Hemlock poisoning. Like her sister, Mugwort, she is a diaphoretic and will help to bring down a nasty fever. As another of Artemis’s herbs, she has a history as a women’s herb and considered an emmenagogue. She is a competent pain reliever and will bring much needed rest. Most impressive are her abilities as an anti-parasitic. So much so that she is often found to be more effective than modern antimalarial drugs. Such as it is with plants. They can go where pharmaceuticals can’t. Such is their magic. I don’t find magic and medicine to be in opposition to one another. In fact, I don’t believe you can have true healing without magic and wonder and Wormwood brings that in abundance.
As with all powerful healers, caution must be taken. It is recommended to take Wormwood only under the care of a competent Herbalist. This herb should not be taken by pregnant women or in large doses but certainly invite her into your garden to bless you with her beautiful healing graces.