COMMON NAMES: Absint-alsem (Dutch), Absinthe, Ambrosia (Ancient Greek), Assenzio Vero (Italian), Gengibre Verde (Spanish, ‘green ginger’), Green Muse, Grune Fee (German, ‘greem fairy’), Hierba Santa (Spanish, ‘sacred herb’), Rihan (Arabic), Sage of the Glaciers, Wermod (Saxon), Wor-mod (Old English).
An upright, branchy, shrub-like herb, wormwood grows to a height of two to four feet tall. The whitish-grey leaves are covered on both sides with fine hairs and have a surface much like silky felt. When crushed, the leaves emit the distinguishing aromatic-bitter scent characteristic of wormwood’s essential oil. Its orb-shaped, clustered yellow flowers bloom from July to September, and its psychoactive constituents are highest when it is harvested during the flowering season (Ratsch 1998, 69-70).
Wormwood is common throughout Europe, Asia, North Africa, and North and South America. Wormwood is an easy perennial to grow, requiring little to no maintenance. The plant will survive even the harshest winter, growing back even more vigorously and aromatically year after year. Seeds should be pressed into the ground and shielded from the rain when first sowing. The plants start off extremely small and delicate. Therefore, take care when watering them; the little sprouts do not like to be shifted about in the soil, so misting is often a better way to first water your seedlings. Wormwood thrives in dry soil, as well as in rocky subsoil (Grubber 1991).
Once your wormwood takes root, simply prune as much as you wish by harvesting leaves. There are plenty of leaves in a single season, and if you are careful and consistent, you can get quite a multi-branched Bonsai-looking bush by the end of the growing season. In the fall, the stalks wilt and in the spring the rootstock produces new shoots. Make sure you leave the seeds that fall to the ground to take root or keep ones that you harvest in order to ensure the plants return next season (Grubber 1991).
TRADITIONAL USES: Knowledge of wormwood and its psychoactive properties may be traced back to ancient times. The scientific name Artemisia absinthium stems from the plant’s association with the virgin Greek goddess Artemis, who held this and other species of Artesmia sacred. The Greek word artesmia means “intactness,” an apparent reference to the chaste condition of the virgin goddess, who, as the mistress of wild animals, functioned as warrior, witch, and priestess. In ancient Greece, Artemis (sister of Apollo, the Greek god of healing), was regarded as the patron goddess of virgins. In the ancient Orient, she was revered as the ruler of the Amazons (Ratsch 1998, 71).
During the Italian Renaissance, Artemis morphed into the witch goddess Diana, who spawned ecstatic and orgiastic festivals all through the period of the Spring full moon. As part of these celebrations, the goddess was symbolically devoured in the form of wormwood and mugwort plants. It has been noted that in Laconia, rowdy Artemis celebrations were held that highlighted lascivious activities as part of mystery rites and fertility rituals. Wild dancing and sexual role-playing were features of these wild festivals, with men donning women’s masks and women strapping on phalluses (Gianni 1994 cited in Ratsch 1998, 71).
Artemesia species are favored by the Biblical Lilith. According to various mythologies, wormwood sprouted from the ground where the serpent crawled as he was expelled from the Garden of Eden. In India, Artemisia is said to be sacred to Shiva and Vishnu (Voogelbreinder 2009, 92). Tuvan shamans in Siberia burn it, along with juniper, heather, and mugwort as part of exorcising and purifying rituals (Mongush 1987).
In more recent times in Europe, the essential oil of Artemis absinthium was extracted from wormwood and combined with alcohol to make the popular drink known as absinthe, “the green fairy”. Much speculation surrounds the name “the green fairy.” Some say it may have to do with the effects of the drug, for absinthe is said to make people float off into other realms, as if they had been enchanted by a fairy. Others claim that the name refers to the green color of the libation. The beverage became very fashionable, particularly in nineteenth century artistic circles. Many believed that chronic use caused madness or brain damage. This, along with the misuse of the drug by con artist “doctors” as an illegal abortifacient, led to its being banned in many countries, including the United States, until as recently as mid-2007 (Albert-Puleo 1978).
TRADITIONAL PREPARATION: It is documented that in 1797, a Frenchman known as M. Pernod brewed the original concoction known as absinthe. He distilled an herb preparation of wormwood, anise, fennel, lemon balm, hyssop, angelica, star anise, dittany, juniper, nutmeg, and veronica. It is said this original recipe, using the above herb mash, caused the green fairy to have a very bitter taste. The drink definitely has a much more pleasant taste when only the essential oil of wormwood is used (Albert-Puelo 1978).
Dried wormwood herbage may be smoked alone or as part of a smoking blend. It is also used as incense, generally in smudge bundles. Fresh or dried wormwood herbage may also be added to boiling water and allowed to steep for five minutes. One gram of dried leaves in a cup of hot water corresponds to a single medicinal dose (Roth et al. 1994 cited in Ratsch 1998, 70).
In ancient Egypt, wormwood was commonly used as a curative preparation, as an aromatic essence, and as an additive to wine and beer. It was also used as an additive to rice wine in China (Ratsch 1998, 70).
Absinthe was legendary among artists and Bohemians at the end of the nineteenth century. It was popularized in large part due to the absinthe paintings of Toulouse-Lautrec and Edouard Manet. Absinthe was a documented severe addiction of Vincent van Gogh, whose work reflects the enhancement of color and swirling alteration of reality associated with its hallucinogenic effects. The work of both Pablo Picasso and Paul Gauguin was influenced by absinthe, as exemplified during Gauguin’s Tahitian period, where he was said to have brought with him to Tahiti an plentiful supply of absinthe. Absinthe was also a literary muse for such writers as H.P. Lovecraft, Oscar Wilde, Jack London, Ernest Hemingway and Victor Hugo. It has been reported that Dale Pendell, one of the Beat poets, developed his own absinthe recipe that produces profound psychoactive effects (Pendell 1995).
MEDICINAL USES: In European folk medicine, wormwood was one of the most important gynecological agents for abortion and was used to induce menstruation and labor. In tea form, it is consumed primarily for stomach pains, lack of appetite, bloating problems, gallbladder issues, vomiting, and diarrhea. Homeopathically, wormwood is employed to treat such ailments as epilepsy, nervous ticks and muscle spasms (Pahlow 1993 cited in Ratsch 1998, 71).
In the medieval era, the scholar Hildegard von Bingen praised wormwood as “the most important master against all exhaustions.” In small doses, wormwood has been used as an effective digestive aid. It is also said to cure fever, bronchial troubles, and insomnia. Sprigs of wormwood have been said to repel insects and vermin when placed around the house and garden (Ratsch 1998, 69).
TRADITIONAL EFFECTS: All parts of the plant above the ground are psychoactive and contain the main alkaloid known as thujone, as well as the bitter material known as absinthine. Wormwood essential oil is very rich in thujone. Its pharmacological effects are very similar to those of THC, the psychotropic chemical compound found in Cannabis (Ratsch 1998, 71).
There are four primary chemical components of the essential oil that develop in a variety of ways; thus, the composition of the essential oil can vary considerably. Any one of these four primary components can dominate, depending on the climate and altitude where the plant originated. In addition to the essential oil, the herbage is also psychoactive, containing sequiterpene, lactones, glycosides of camphor oil, tannins, and quecertin. The leaves, especially near the flowering tops, have more thujone than the lower parts of the plant or the stems, but the stems may still be used, especially if trying to obtain a full spectrum extract from all parts of the plant (Ratsch 1998, 71-72).
Because of the presence of thujone, an extremely potent psychoactive substance, absinthe liquor is much stronger than other types of liquors, and produces very different effects. There are frequent reports that after drinking absinthe one experiences a profound sense of euphoria, aphrodisiac sensations, hallucinations and a feeling of floating. The effects of absinthe have been compared to the effects of marijuana, to the extent that it has been called cannabis in a bottle by some. However, chronic use can have awful side effects, including brain damage. The resulting syndrome is called ‘absinthism’. It is hard to say whether this syndrome was a direct result of thujone consumption or whether it was due to other ingredients such as heavy metal salts used in dying the drink its characteristic bright green color (Ratsch 1998, 72).
According to Dale Pendel, “Absinth can excite sexuality, stimulate ideas and conversation, or dissolve the brain. Difficult choices, indeed.” He mentions one Maurice Zolotow, who claimed that absinthe was “without equal in counteracting airsickness and seasickness” (Pendell 2009, 105).
After the first glass you see things as you wish they were. After the second, you see things as they are not. Finally, you see things as they really are, and this is the most horrible thing in the world. – Oscar Wilde
Albert-Puelo, M. “Mythobotany, Pharmacology, and Chemistry of Thujone-containing Plants and Derivatives.” Economic Botany 32 (1978): 65–74.
Grubber, H. Growing the Hallucinogens. Berkeley, CA: 20th Century Alchemist, 1991.
Mongush, K.L. “Tuvan Shamanic Folklore.” In Shamanic Worlds, edited by M.M. Balzer. Armonk, New York: North Castle Books, 1987.
Pendell, D. Pharmako/poeia: Plant Powers, Poisons, and Herbcraft. San Fransisco: Mercury House, 1995.
Pendell, Dale, Pharmakopoeia. Berkely: North Atlantic Books, 2009.
Ratsch, Christian, The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Plants: Ethnopharmacology and its Applications. Rochester: Park Street Press, 1998.
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