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Woeful Wormwood

By Audrey Stallsmith

artemisia absinthium

O'er me there shines a baleful star,
Whose rays of disappointment are;
The spring for me hath doff'd its bloom,
And comes all clad in garb of gloom.

I plant young roses, and the rose
To briars and to wormwood grows. . .

"The Parting Girl," Hasznos Mulatsagok

Wormwood has always had a depressing reputation.  Being one of the most bitter of herbs, It is frequently paired with "gall"--the acrid digestive juice that sometimes rises in the back of your throat--to mean "bitterness of spirit."   And folklore alleges that wormwood sprang up in the wake of the devil when he was driven out of the Garden of Eden. 

We have to remember, however, that bitter herbs and bitter digestive juices both have their uses. On the theory that what tastes the worst must be best for you, wormwood (Artemisia absinthium) was for centuries one of the most popular of herbs as well.  

Artemisia derives from the Greek goddess Artemis and absinthium refers to the "absence of sweetness."  That may explain why wormwood stands simply for "absence" in the Language of Flowers.  Its common name means that it expels internal parasites, i. e. intestinal worms.

That name greatly puzzled me when I was a child.  Reading a book titled The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew,  I had no idea what the author meant by wormwood and concluded it must be wormy wood.   I couldn't conceive how anyone could get medical help from that!

That medical help may actually have been dangerous, as almost any herb that can expel worms must be--to some extent--toxic.  Wormwood was the main flavoring for absinthe too, a green spirit often favored by creative types such as artists and writers. 

It is blamed for sending some of them off their heads, but that probably had as much to do with the potency of the alcohol as with the herb.  The problem could have arisen from the copper that often tinted cheap absinthe as well.  The spirit was banned in some countries around the early part of the twentieth century, perhaps due to its association with such a supposedly decadent set as well as to its toxicity.  But it has recently made a comeback.

Because wormwood can cause dizziness and convulsions if consumed in large amounts, its internal use is discouraged these days.  I will assume from its former popularity, however, that it can be safe enough in the proper doses.  It was once used to treat just about every complaint out there, being considered a tonic, digestive aid, diuretic, and sedative--among other things.

Some people still make sachets from the plant, due to its reputation as an insect repellant and strewing herb.  It reportedly has one of the musky odors, somewhat like sage, that you either love or hate.

With silver-tinged ferny leaves and clusters of greenish yellow flowers, wormwood is an attractive--albeit somewhat invasive--plant.  Although I haven't raised the herb itself, I have grown its close relative, Sweet Annie, which has a pleasant and  very strong scent.   Sweet Annie self-seeds heavily, and I've heard that wormwood does the same, so be sure that you like its perfume before you plant it.  It can also irritate the skin of sensitive gardeners.  

If it seems that your life is overrun with wormwood, remember that it sometimes takes a little sorrow--like a little wormwood--to help us digest what is really important.  And, if there were no difficulties, what would we creative types have to write about?


Artemisia absinthium image is from Kohler's Medizinal-Pflanzen, courtesy of the Missouri Botanical Garden.