Wormwood (artemisia absinthium)

This bitter-tasting—and smelling—perennial is native to Europe but now grows in Africa, Asia, and the United States. It is distinctive, with silvery stems and green-gray leaves that have whitish undersides. Early herbalists valued wormwood for treating intestinal parasites, as the herb’s name implies.

Wormwood

In 1597, John Gerard published his classic Herball, or Generall Historie of Plantes, and noted that “wormwood voideth away the worms of the guts, not only taken inwardly, but applied outwardly … it keepeth garments also from the Mothes; it driveth away gnats; the bodie being anointed with the oyle thereof.” Wormwood’s pest repellent properties were also recognized by Native Americans, who put pieces of the branches in bedding to repel bedbugs and other pests.

Plant profile

Common Names: Green Ginger, Wormwood

Description: Many branching stems; 2 to 5 feet tall; small, yellow-green flowers on erect panicles; downy, deeply divided gray-green leaves; aromatic

Hardiness: To Zone 5

Family: Asteraceae

Flowering: Midsummer to late summer

Parts Used: Leaves, stems, and flowers

Range/Habitat: Native to Europe, naturalized in Asia and the United States; found along dry roadsides and in pastures

Medicinal use

In folk medicine, wormwood has been used as an antiseptic, local anesthetic, topical insect repellent, digestive aid, worming treatment and, since the Middle Ages, treatment for gastric irritation. Native Americans, who had many traditional uses for wormwood, gathered and boiled the tops of the plants and applied them as a warm compress to sprains and strained muscles.

Caution: This plant should be avoided during pregnancy and while breastfeeding.

Other uses

Planted in the garden, wormwood is said to repel insect pests. The leaves can also be mashed in water to make a botanical pesticide. (Always test homemade pesticides on a small area before treating an entire plant.) Pick some of the stem tips, dry them, and place them in clothes closets to repel moths and fleas.

Wormwood is an ingredient in the spirit absinthe (see “The Green Fairy”) and is sometimes included in vermouth and bitters.

How to grow it

Wormwood is drought tolerant and easy to grow in full sun and well-drained soil. Avoid rich soil; wormwood is more aromatic in poor, dry soils. Keep in mind that wormwood’s leaves and roots secrete chemicals that can suppress the growth of nearby plants, and the plant can become invasive. Consider growing it in a large container. Plant wormwood in spring or fall, spacing the plants 15 to 30 inches apart. To harvest, gather the tops of the flowering plants. Hang bundles to dry in a warm, shady location. Store the dried tops in airtight containers. Wormwood can be propagated from semihardwood cuttings taken in late summer or fall, or by division in fall.

The Green Fairy

Near the end of the 18th century, wormwood began to be used in a digestive tonic developed by Dr. Pierre Ordinaire, a French expatriate living in Switzerland. This 136-proof green liqueur with a bitter licorice or anise flavor possessed powerful psychoactive properties and was all the rage in Europe during the 19th century, when it became an important part of the Parisian Bohemian scene. Vincent van Gogh was among the famous artists of the time who were ardent fans of absinthe, as were writers such as Oscar Wilde and Baudelaire. Absinthe gained the name “the green fairy,” and the cocktail hour, between 5 and 7 p.m., became known as the green hour (l’heure vert).

A combination of many herbs, absinthe contained the toxic compound thujone, thought to be responsible for some of its sought-after properties—and also now known to cause brain damage. As the consumption of absinthe increased, a new disease, absinthism, emerged. This form of alcoholism was characterized by delirium, hallucinations, tremors, and seizures. By the 20th century, the drink was banned in most places around the world.

A few decades ago, interest in absinthe reemerged, and versions were made based on the original recipes but without significant quantities of thujone. Since then, consumption of this beverage has increased. If you happen to be in an airport in Europe and wander through a duty-free shop that sells alcoholic beverages, you might find absinthe for sale. Remember, however, that some countries’ versions of the drink are mixed with herbs banned for import into the United States, such as Cannabis sativa, or marijuana. Read the labels carefully, and make sure you ask whether or not the drink can be imported legally.