Wormwood (Artemisia absinthium)
Absinthe Wormwood, Louisiana Artemisia, Cudweed, Western Mugwort, White Sage, Absinthe
About This Plant
Artemisia absinthium, or Wormwood, as it is commonly known, belongs to the Artemisia genus which consists of more than 300 species. Artemesias are members of the Asteraceae family, though unlike their cousins, lack showy flowers and are more known as heavily scented foliage plants with bitter tastes. Many are covered with whitish hairs that give them a silvery, grayish look.
Wormwood can be a beautiful addition to a garden, enhancing spaces with a dramatic statement with its silvery-green, feathery texture. It is an aromatic and bitter herb that was used to brew beer before being replaced by hops. It is, in fact, known as one of the most bitter herbs available. The root of its scientific name is the Greek word “absinthion” which means “undrinkable”. It can be found growing wild along roadsides and other disturbed places throughout Europe, Siberia, and the United State. In many places, it is considered an agricultural pest and it is considered a noxious weed in Colorado, North Dakota, and Washington. It can create dense patches in degraded fields, pastures, and empty lots but does not seem to invade more high-quality habitat.
Wormwood is a drought-tolerant herbaceous perennial growing about three feet high in clumps two to three feet wide. It is not frost tender and is hardy in USDA zones 4-9. Hundreds of short-stalked, tiny, dull yellow button-like blooms appear on its feathery stalks in late July through October with colonies blooming for two to three weeks at a time. The flowerheads are loosely arranged in branching clusters on the upper portion of the plant and appear similar to Tansy flowers. They are petal-less with only dozens of tiny disk flowers in the center. Flowerheads tend to droop down so the flowers are not so readily seen. Its flowers are cross pollinated by the wind. It is covered in fine white silky hairs that give it its gray-green color and protect the plant from extreme drought and prolonged heat. The undersides of the leaves appear pale to white, though the entire plant may be less hairy and more green in moister soil.
Wormwood has a very strong, pungent, acrid odor that can be described as ‘Sage-like”. The scent is said to attract dogs. Its aromatic leaves are one to three inches long and deeply lobed with the major lobes often further divided. The lobes are narrow and rounded at the tip. Multiple stems rise from the somewhat woody base, are branched, grooved, and also covered in fine hairs. Wormwood’s root system consists of a taproot up to ½” across.
It reproduces itself by reseeding and by spreading rhizomes. Wormwood tends to be long-lived compared to other Artemisia species, with each plant living from three to five years. Plants die down in Winter. Wormwood is relatively disease and pest free due to its scent and bitterness. It is deer resistant and keeps away flies, mice, ants, moths and other vermin in the garden. Cattle and other domesticated livestock will feed on the foliage if little else is available. Wormwood is prone to root rot if overly watered.
The name, Artemisia, is derived from Artemis, the Greek goddess of wild creatures and the hunt. Legend states that Artemis delivered Wormwood to Chiron, the father of medicine. Another legend about Wormwood states that it grew in the wake of the serpent as it wriggled its way from Eden. As the common name suggests, the plant was historically used in expelling intestinal worms and repel insects. Its use is made reference to in Egypt in 1550 BCE and in ancient Greece by Galen, Hippocrates and other physicians. It was also used during the Dark and Middle Ages in Europe and the British Isles. Wormwood supposedly countered the effects of hemlock and toadstool poisonings as well as sea serpent bites. In addition to its use for parasitic diseases, it was used for digestive issues and fevers. Wormwood found its way into many love potions and chants in the Middle Ages. It was also commonly hung inside houses and strewn in panties and drawers for both its aromatics and to keep unwanted visitors away. It was introduced into North America from Europe as an ornamental and medicinal plant and became common in the northern plains of the United States and south-central Canada.
Perhaps what Wormwood is most known for is the history of soaking Wormwood in various liquors and for being the notable ingredient in Absinthe. Consumption of a large amount of foliage of the plant is potentially harmful as it contains the neurotoxin, thujone, and can cause ‘nervous disorders’, convulsions, and insomnia. In small quantities it acts as a brain stimulant. The beverage, Absinthe, after gaining huge popularity, was banned in most counties since prolonged consumption of it can lead to such disorders. Some believe Absinthe’s bad reputation was more attributable to its extremely high alcohol content, as much as 79% ABV which is about twice as much as average liquor. Some believe the hysteria surrounding the banning of Absinthe was largely prompted by the French wine industry who had seen it’s consumer base decline as former customers found they prefered Absinthe instead.
Wormwood seeds are very small and need to be surface-sown. It can be slow to germinate and slow to grow to a decent size. Seeds can be sown outside from Spring to early Fall, but weeds can become an issue. Seeds are best started indoors or in a greenhouse. Allow two to nine weeks for germination. Wormwood can propagated by seeds, cuttings, layering, and division. Plants will self-sow as well.
When transplanting Wormwood, allow 12-24 inches of space between each plant.
Wormwood likes to grow in a sunny location with well-draining, quick-drying soil, such as that containing loam, clay-loam, or some gravel. It will also grow in partial sun. It is a very hardy plant and is famously adaptable to poor growing conditions, including dry-mesic habitat, as long as there is a ‘warm aspect’ to the area. In fact, plants are longer lived, more hardy, and more aromatic (and medicinally potent) when grown in poor, dry, soil. The growing Wormwood plant is said to inhibit the growth of Fennel, Sage, Caraway, Anise, and most young plants, especially in wet years. Carrots are a good companion plant however as the Wormwood will help protect them from root fly.
Wormwood should be watered regularly during its first summer, allowing soil to dry completely between waterings. Once well-established, they only require watering every two to three weeks during summer. Deadheading Wormwood during the Summer will help prevent self-seeding and will keep the plants looking their best. The entire plant can be cut back by half during Summer if it starts looking leggy or droops. Use a sharp pair of shears and snip the top half of the stems just above a pair of leaves. Pruning the plants in Autumn will encourage a more compact, bushier plant. The entire plant can be cut down to a height of two inches. If you notice drooping stems or discolored foliage, hold off on watering for a week and ensure proper drainage.
Wormwood foliage can be harvested as the plant is coming into flowering and then dried for later use. This is when phytochemicals (namely absinthin) are at their highest. Some recommend harvesting from young plants in their first year of vegetation. Others advise waiting until the plants are at least two years old as the potency will increase as the plants mature.
Seedheads can be gathered as they become thoroughly dry. Simply cut the tops off into a paper bag or container. Rub Seeds heads back and forth in your fingers to release the seeds. Winnow the seeds to remove the chaff. Store seeds in a cool dry place
- Pest deterrent
- Food and spirits
- A plant for borders, ground cover, xeriscaping, or apothecary gardens
- Suitable for dried flowers
Wormwood has been used for flavoring many products such as pastries and cakes. It is utilized for its bitterness and flavor, as well as for the green hue it imbues liqueurs and aperitifs with, including Vermouth.
Wormwood can be infused in herbal tea blends, used in tincturing, and incorporated into other botanical formulations including “Dream Pillows”. Its use dates back well beyond ancient Greece where it was utilized for intestinal parasites and as a general wellness tonic. It has been used in traditional European herbalism to support the digestive system. It has tonic effects on the liver, gallbladder, and the entire digestive system and can be beneficial for those with weak or under-active digestion. Its bitter aspects increase stomach acid and bile production, improving digestion and the absorption of nutrients. It is said to aid the body in returning to full vitality after a prolonged illness. It has a slightly stronger effect on the digestive system than its close relative, Mugwort. It can also be used externally on bruises and bites or as a warm compress to ease sprains and strained muscles. Leaves and flowering shoots are what is most commonly utilized. It has also been utilized extensively for its vermicidal activity and can be made into “bug sprays” for both humans and plants.
Wormwood should be used with caution. It’s not for use during pregnancy or lactation and should not be used for longer than two to three weeks at a time.
Wormwood is native to the temperate climates of Europe, Asia, and northern Africa. It has since been naturalized around the world.