Wormwood is one of the bitterest herbs known and provides the bitter flavor in vermouth. Its essential oil contains thujone as a major constituent; thujone is harmful in large amounts. Wormwood is used in closet and drawer sachets, as a bitter aromatic and as an ingredient in liniments.
Artemisia absinthium L.
Botanical Family: Asteraceae
Common name: wormwood
Synonyms: absinthe, green ginger, sumidad de ajenjo (Spanish)
The Plant: Wormwood is a perennial, shrubby herb, growing up to four feet high and three feet wide. It has small yellow flowers that bloom in the summer on long spikes. The silvery-grey leaves are slightly hairy and divided, giving the whole plant a graceful appearance. It can grow in a wide variety of soils, as long as they are well drained. Once established, the plant is very drought tolerant.
A native of Europe, this attractive shrub has long brought color and texture to the herb garden, and several cultivars have been developed to enhance the herb's appearance. Be careful what you plant close to wormwood, however, as it secretes a substance that inhibits the growth of many plants.
Wormwood is harvested just before or when in flower, starting in the second year of growth. The plant should be cut to include the herbaceous (soft, green) stem, but above the woody stem.
Constituents of Note: Wormwood contains up to 1.5% essential oil of which thujone is present as a major component. (Thujone is a toxic substance that can cause convulsions and even death when consumed at high levels.) Other important constituents include bitter principles (sesquiterpene lactones), flavonoids, lignins and phenolic acids.
Quality: Wormwood herb consists of silver-green leaves with sphere-shaped yellow flowers and silver-gray stem pieces. Large woody stem pieces should be few or absent.
The flavor is extremely bitter and aromatic.
Regulatory Status: GRAS (Title 21 172.510) as a flavoring agent in foods with finished food thujone-free
Did you know? Wormwood is used as a bitter flavoring in vermouth, beer and some wines. But it's best known as a flavoring in absinthe, a popular aperitif in the 1800s and early 1900s, favored by the Bohemian culture of the time, including many artists such as writer Oscar Wilde, poet Charles Baudelaire, and painter Pablo Picasso.
Absinthe was a green liquor that was flavored with extracts of wormwood, anise and fennel in a high-alcohol base. Addiction to absinthe and its habitual use was believed to lead to a disorder called absinthism and to be partly responsible for Vincent van Gogh’s seizures and hallucinations, which contributed to his eventual suicide. It was banned in the U.S. and France in 1923 and in much of Europe soon thereafter.
Absinthe is being produced again today, as it's believed that the reported harmful effects were exaggerated (or at least not more dangerous than the harmful effects that result from drinking any other beverage with the same alcohol content) and were somewhat the result of other ingredients -- such as copper sulfate, which was added to give absinthe its green color.
Directions: For tea, pour one cup of boiling water over one scant teaspoon of wormwood herb, cover and let steep for five minutes. Wormwood makes a very bitter tea and is often mixed with other tummy herbs such as peppermint or chamomile to tone down the bitterness.
Suggested Uses: Wormwood herb is used as a bitter aromatic to promote appetite and as a general digestive tonic. It's also an ingredient in muscle salves and liniments.
The whole leaves are sometimes used in herb crafting for their scent and color. The leaves can be placed in drawers to protect clothing or sewn into drawer or closet sachets. At one time, wormwood was used as a strewing herb in areas where animals reside.
Caution/Safety: The Botanical Safety Handbook* classifies wormwood as:
Class: 2b Herbs not to be used during pregnancy
Class: 2c Herbs not to be used while nursing
Class: 2d Not for long-term use; do not exceed recommended dose
Per the German Commission E Monograph** for wormwood, there are no known contraindications, side effects or drug interactions.
*Michael McGuffin, ed., American Herbal Products Association's Botanical Safety Handbook, (New York: CRC Press, 1997)
**Mark Blumenthal, ed., The Complete German Commission E Monographs, (Austin TX: Integrative Medicine Communications, 1998)
Origins: Wormwood is cultivated primarily in Europe and North America. Our organic wormwood comes from either Germany or the United States, and our non-organic is from Poland.