Wormwood (known to botanists as Artemisia absinthium) is the key ingredient of the controversial aperitif known as absinthe. A combination of herbs and herbal extracts is required for the delicate balance of the absinthe recipe, and of these herbs, wormwood is the most essential and also the most controversial. Wormwood gives absinthe many of its distinct qualities, and it is used in many other wines and spirits, including bitters and vermouth.
The wormwood plant was cultivated in the French-Swiss border regions near Pontparlier and Val de Travers, two villages known as the historical “home” of absinthe, but it can now be found across much of North America. Initially prescribed as a tonic for a variety of ailments, from headache to dysentery, the use of wormwood extract as a pharmaceutical cure for several different illnesses can be traced as far back as the Egyptian dynasty of 1600 B.C.
Wormwood is a relative of the plant family commonly known as daisies. Pre-modern doctors were happy to use what is essentially a wildflower to ease the pains associated with menstruation, anemia, and arthritis. One explanation for the name “wormwood” itself comes from the plant’s use as a medicine meant to treat intestinal worms. Greek science scholars championed wormwood’s curative properties, and so too do the naturalists of today: wormwood oil is sold in drug stores the world over.
The only fluctuation from this long history of wormwood being put to good use is the absinthe scare of the early 20th century. A hundred years after wormwood was combined with other wild herb extracts to create the infamous absinthe blend, wormwood was said to cause not good health but, instead, madness and loutish, criminal behavior.
The psychoactive element of wormwood is known as thujone. In the dark period of absinthe (and also wormwood’s) recognition, the blame for the alleged misbehavior of absinthe drinkers fell to the chemical thujone’s reportedly hallucinogenic character. However, it has since been proved that thujone (pronounced with a long u and a soft j) is not inherently dangerous, psychically or physically, except in extremely high doses.
The true appeal of thujone is that it is the chemical compound found in wormwood that gives wormwood its healing properties. Thujone is a close organic cousin of menthol, and in its purest form, thujone does in fact carry the minty aroma known to menthol. As mentioned above, absinthe or wormwood oil is still commonly used today as a natural healing agent; the active ingredient thujone makes up about 60% of most common wormwood oil preparations sold in modern drug stores.
Thujone is processed naturally in sources other than wormwood, including different types of tree bark and herbs. Substantial amounts of thujone can be found in the common cooking spice, sage, as well as certain other spirits, such as vermouth and bitters.
How Wormwood is Used Today
In addition to being the star feature in the creation of absinthe, wormwood has many other naturally occurring uses in its environment. Gardeners and small-scale farmers alike use wormwood as a natural repellent of pests. In- and out-doors, wormwood can be an effective defense against insect larvae, fleas, and moths. Wormwood can also be used to inhibit the growth of weeds and other unwanted plant life when selectively planted with other crops or treasured flowers.
Therapeutically, wormwood in dried form as well as wormwood or oil of absinthe can be an effective organic tonic for stomach ailments. A powder form is also available, known as a wormwood tincture. Civilizations for the past four thousand years and counting have used proper dosages of wormwood and wormwood extract to treat all manner of illness and inflammation, as we continue to do today.