Knowledge of wormwood and its psychoactive properties can be traced back to ancient times. The plant’s scientific name, Artesmia absinthium, stems from its association with the virgin Greek goddess Artemis, who held it and other species of artesmia sacred.
The Greek word artesmia means “inactness,” an apparent reference to the chaste condition of the virgin goddess, who, as the mistress of wild animals, functioned as Amazon, witch and shamaness. In ancient Greece, Artemis (who was the 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.
Throughout the Italian Renaissance, Artemis morphed into the witch goddess Diana, who spawned ecstatic and orgiastic Artemis 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 mugwart.
It has been noted that in Laconia, rowdy Artemis celebrations were held that highlighted lascivious activities in the guise 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 the women strapping on phalluses.
In the sixteenth century, Spanish Jesuits introduced the Old World plant, then known as herbia santa, or “sacred herb,” to the world; in particular to Central and South America. Subsequently, in Europe, the essential oil of Artemis absinthium was extracted from the plant and combined with alcohol to make the popular drink known as absinthe, or “the green fairy,” which became a very fashionable drug, 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 it being banned throughout the world in many countries, including the United States, until as recently as mid-2007.
Much speculation surrounds its 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.
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.
Wormwood is an easy perennial to grow, requiring little to no maintenance. I’ve kept a Wormwood garden for years in my backyard, as the plant will survive winter after winter, growing back even more vigorously and aromatic the next year.
Seeds should be pressed into the ground and shielded from the rain when first trying to sow them. The plants start off extremely small and delicate. This is true when watering them as well; 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, rather than dumping water directly onto them. Wormwood thrives in drier soil, as well as in rocky subsoil, so misting is often the best option.
Once they take root, simply prune as much as you wish by harvesting leaves. There are plenty in a single season, and if you’re 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 with 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 plant’s growth next season.
An upright, branchy, shrub-like herb, wormwood grows to a height of two to four feet tall. Its 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 last from July to September, and its psychoactive constituents are highest when it is harvested during the flowering season.
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. Because of the presence of thujone, an extremely potent psychoactive substance, absinthe liquor is much stronger than other types of liquors, therefore producing very different effects. There are frequent reports that while on absinthe, one experiences a profound sense of euphoria, aphrodisiac sensations, hallucinations and a feeling of floating.
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 of where the plant originated. In addition to the essential oil, the herbage is also psychoactive, containing sequiterpene, lactones, glycosides of camphor oil, tanning agents 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 can still be used, especially if trying to get a full spectrum extract from all parts of the plant.
Dried wormwood herbage can 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 can 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.
In ancient Egypt, wormwood was commonly used as a curative preparation, as an aromatic essence and as an additive to wine and beer. In European folk medicine, wormwood is one of the most important gynecological agents for abortion and is 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.
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 produced profound psychoactive effects.
Find Wormwood (Artemisia absinthium) at Shaman's Garden