Synonyms: Green Ginger
Scientific Name: Artemisia absinthium
Family: Compositae/Asteraceae (Daisy Family)
Summer-dry regions around the Mediterranean, Asia Minor and North Africa.
0.15-0.4 % bitters (absinthin), 0.25-1.32 % essential oils (thujone, thujole, phellandrene).
In its favourite locations wormwood can reach a height of more than 6 feet, giving it the appearance of a small grey-felty copse. It thrives best on fertile soils with a high lime content, e.g. in vineyards, on cliff sides, roadsides, banks of streams and rivers, on ruins and walls, and prefers dry-summer regions. In spring the rootstock, which can reach an age of 3 to 10 years, produces several stems which are surrounded by a wealth of finely divided grey-felty leaves with a silky shimmer. In winter all the above-ground parts of the plant die and it over-winters as a woody rosette. From July to September the stems are crowned with racemose panicles composed of numerous inconspicuous drooping yellow heads. Wormwood is spread by the wind, which carries the pollen to the pistils of neighbouring flowers.
The flowering stems of wormwood are harvested, dried and used for preparing tinctures or distilled to obtain the essential oil. Wormwood's typical bitter taste is not exactly pleasant but the bitterness holds potent healing powers. The bitters and essential oils make the plant a particularly effective digestive stimulant. In folk medicine wormwood has been used since time immemorial for treatment of poor appetite, gastric discomfort, bloating and flatulence as well as for problems with the liver and particularly the gallbladder. It was also used for mild cramps, e.g. menstrual pains, and as vermifuge. In homeopathy Absinthium is used for epileptic seizures, nervous and hysterical convulsions. In cooking, the fresh herb is often added to fatty dishes such as roast goose because of its properties as digestive stimulant. With this wide range of uses it is easy to see why Hildegard von Bingen called wermuda one of the most effective medicinal herbs.
The name wormwood is a corruption of the Old English wermod which is also the source of the German name Wermut. However, the precise origin of the word is not definitely known. It has been suggested that the Old German spelling wermuota or weonmuot may derive from the words werm = warm and uota = root, thus meaning 'warming root'. The scientific name Artemisia is derived from the Roman goddess Artemis, the sister of Apollo the god of healing, and the epithet absinthium from the Greek word absinthos = without pleasure, possibly a reference to the bitterness of wormwood. Unfortunately scarcely anything is known about the connection between wormwood and the virgin goddess Artemis. The Greek word artemisia means 'intactness' a clear reference to the virginity of the goddess who, as goddess of wild animals, was something of a cross between an Amazon, a witch and a shaman.
The first mention of wormwood is found around 1600 B.C. in the Egyptian Papyrus Eber where it is called saam. In the centuries that followed it is often not clear whether common wormwood was described. However, it was used even then for the treatment of many diseases such as cholera, plague, palsies, poisoning, inflammation of the eye, yellow fever and many more.
Wormwood was not always used for medicinal purposes only. In ancient Rome it was customary for the winner of a chariot race to be given a glass of wormwood liquor in honour of his achievement. In the 19th century absinthe liquor became a veritable in-drink. However, the consequences of excessive consumption were extreme. Apart from problems of addiction, the lipid-soluble thujone contained in wormwood, which dissolves particularly well in alcohol, could lead to irreparable damage of the nervous system, to muscle cramps or loss of consciousness. However, some famous artworks of Expressionism are the result of the visual hallucinations of absinthe intoxication. The distorted colours and slanting axes in the pictures are not the product of artistic imagination but reflect how the world is perceived under the influence of absinthe.
The plant from another perspective
Wormwood belongs to the Compositae family, a family of plants which delight us with their striking, open flowers, e.g. sunflowers, daisies, marguerites, cornflowers, arnica and many more. Wormwood, on the other hand, has the appearance of a grey, reserved being which makes its little flowers so inconspicuous that even bees do not find there way there. Entirely inward-looking, it presents a relatively unstructured and formless figure. Maybe a little like a weary, listless person whose energy does not pervade the whole of his body and who therefore has a tendency to digestive disorders. As medicinal herb wormwood counteracts this lack of energy and drive with the help of its bitters which stimulate bile flow and gastric acid production.