Artemisia absinthium

2011

Artemisia absinthium, wormwood

Family: Asteraceae

Part used: leaves, flowering tops

Artemisia absinthium L. is a hardy perennial sub-shrub, native to temperate Eurasia and North Africa and cultivated in gardens. The Flora of Turkey gives 22 Artemisia species, including Artemisia absinthium, Artemisia vulgaris, Artemisia santonicum and Artemisia abrotanum.

Erect, woody stems (over 1 m) bear alternate, much divided, silvery leaves with silky soft hairs on each side. Tiny, rayless yellowy-green flowers occur in late summer in loose panicles which arise from the woody stems. It has a distinctive fragrance, thrives in sunny positions in poor soils and can become very woody.

A similar species, native to Britain, is sea wormwood Artemisia maritima L. (syn. Seriphidium maritima (L.) Poljakov), which is widespread on coasts in Britain and northern Europe. It is smaller (to 60 cm) with strongly scented woolly divided leaves with blunt, narrow segments. Oval yellow-orange florets occur in August to October.

Other species used

Mugwort Artemisia vulgaris L, Roman wormwood Artemisia pontica L, tarragon Artemisia dracunculus L, southernwood Artemisia abrotanum L.. Southernwood Artemisia abrotanum has many woody stems with finely divided leaves and rarely flowers. It is widely grown in gardens and is found as a garden escape.

Quality

Although plant material has been found to be more bitter in September, the herb should be collected by July as the leaves deteriorate in quality during flowering. It would be possible to harvest from some plants in July and then harvest the flowering stems later in the year.

Members of the genus contain similar volatile oils. A study in Italy of 14 wild Artemisia species found similar volatile oils but wide variation in concentration, and found that Artemisia abrotanum was the only species to contain the monoterpene ascaridole, which is anthelmintic. Tarragon Artemisia dracunculus is milder and used as a culinary herb and contains oxygenated monoterpenes.

A Powerful Herb

Wormwood is an intriguing herb, strong, powerful and much valued in the past; a sister herb of Artemisia vulgaris ‘the mother of herbs’, and named after the great goddess Artemis herself. Grieve tells us how Diana/Artemis instructed the centaur Chiron in its use. The victor of the chariot races of the festival of Latinae was given a decoction of wormwood to drink, Pliny records, since he was a person worth keeping alive. Hildegard named it the ‘principal remedy for all ailments’. Yet this is no sweet-smelling rose, but a herb of pungency and bitterness, yet with a quality of warmth. ‘It is very warm and has much strength’ says Hildegard. Fuchs suggests the name ‘apsinthion’ derives from the Greek meaning ‘undrinkable’. With the exception of rue, wormwood is the bitterest herb known ‘but it is very wholesome’, is Grieve’s appraisal. Cook described it bitter and strong to the highest degree, and Pelikan notes that from ‘the harshness of its scent’ we can appreciate right away that it is a herb with ‘forces composing a unique pattern of actions’. Culpeper uses this herb to deliver, in coded terms, and indeed as diatribe in places, his astrological herbal lore arcana: ‘he that reads this, and understands what he reads, hath a jewel of more worth than a diamond; he that understands it not, is as little fit to give physick. There lies a key in these words which will unlock (if it be turned by a wise hand) the cabinet of physick; I have delivered it as plain as I durst; it is not only upon wormwood as I wrote, but upon all plants, trees and herbs; he that understands it not, is unfit (in my opinion) to give physic’.

Galen maintains that in every wormwood there is a double power. Some authors speak of a two-fold nature. Mesue, cited by Bauhin, refers to wormwood as ‘of dual substance’, one hot, bitter, salty, purging, clearing obstructions; the other, earthy, styptic, invigorating by toning the parts. The bitter action comes first, then the tonic. Ibn Sina writes similarly of an earth element and a volatile. The Salernitan herbal mentions two opposing virtues: it is laxative because of its heat and bitterness, and it is astringent because of its bulk, its substance and its pungency. It is hot in the first degree, dry in the third, according to Galen and many authors after him, although the Salernitan herbal says hot and dry in the second degree. Culpeper judges it hot and dry in the first degree ‘viz. just as hot as your blood, and no hotter’. Gerard has it hot in the second degree, dry in the third and Mesue hot in the first degree and dry in the second.

Wormwood: Identity

Wormwood: A Digestive Herb

Wormwood: Broad Consensus

Later Fluctuations

The reputation of wormwood in the 18th century is not so easy to assess. Quincy groups it as Detergent, class 4 of the Balsamics. He describes it as stomachic on account of its bitterness: it is a great detergent, he says, and therefore prescribed in the jaundice and even in dropsies, but then he adds that this use is now laid aside and it is little regarded as stomachic. Miller, on the other hand, indicates no fall from grace. He says it is accounted good and helpful in all disorders of the stomach, as weakness, loss of appetite, vomiting and surfeits, following previous uses quite closely. They strengthen the viscera and are of service in dropsies, jaundice and in tertian and quartan agues, and kill worms (see below), given infused in water, ale or wine. The number of preparations enumerated as available in the shops indicates lively use: a simple water, a greater and lesser compound water, a simple and a compound syrup, an oil by infusion and decoction, an oil by distillation, an extract and a fixed salt. Hill too indicates current use, and still the inevitable debate on species, in his day ‘all kinds of wormwood are stomachic, good against obstruction of the viscera. The common kind is the strongest, but insufferably nauseous. The sea wormwood is the kind most used but the Roman is vastly preferable to them all. The sea wormwood is sold in the markets under the name of Roman wormwood, and is almost universally used as such by the apothecaries; but the error is very great; and the other is so common in gardens and lives and increases so freely in them, that a supply is easy”.

Use in America seems to have fluctuated. Ellingwood has no reference to Artemisia absinthium, only to Artemisia pauciflora, Levant wormseed, santonica (see below). Cook echoes Quincy. He refers to use of the leaves and flowers of wormwood as stimulating and relaxing tonics, bitter and strong to the highest degree and acting upon the stomach and gall-ducts. He relates how it improves appetite and digestion and slightly influences the bowels, for which effect, he says, ‘it has been a favourite addition to tonic preparations for low and bilious conditions, intermittent jaundice, hypochondria and similar maladies’. While a small amount is useful in these cases, especially when ‘there is present decided languor and sluggishness of action,’ he nevertheless indicates infrequent application: ‘though its intense bitterness has pretty much driven it from use’.

Wormwood: Bitters

Wormwood: Worms And Safety

Emmenagogue? Hormones?

Wormwood: Mental Health

Wormwood: External Use

Wormwood: Current Use

Recommendations

• Achlorhydria and lack of tone in the digestive organs, particularly in the elderly.

• Atonic dyspepsia and some cases of stomach acidity.

Anorexia and difficulties with food.

• Bad breath.

Nausea and vomiting.

• Overindulgence in food and/or alcohol.

• Sluggish liver and bowel activity and associated range of conditions – skin, joints, etc.

Depression associated with atonic liver/liver congestion.

• Gall bladder problems.

Colic, flatulence and bloating.

• Tonic after illness to regain strength, and in constitutional arterial hypotension.

• Tonic in nervous exhaustion.

• External application for aching muscles and joints.

• Topical wash with honey for ulcers and other skin erosions.

Dosage: the British Herbal Pharmacopoeia recommends 1-2 mL three times a day of dried leaves and flowering tops. It also recommends 1-2 mL of a 1:1 liquid extract three times a day, but I prefer 5 mL per week of tincture.

Constituents

Volatile oils

A review of 19 commercial samples from 1 5 European countries found significant variation:

total 0.1-1.1% (107 components), monoterpenes: myrcene 0.1-39%; ketones: alpha-thujone 1-11% (mean 4%), beta-thujone 0.1-65% (mean 9%); oxygenated monoterpenes: 1,8-cineole 0.1-18% and their acetates: transepoxy-ocimene 0.1-59.7%, trans-sabinyl acetate 0-70.5%; oxygenated sesquiterpenes: chamazulene 0-6.6%.

Chemotypes have been identified with thujone and/or cis-epoxycimene as the main components but others contain no thujone. In the following examples, the concentrations of ketones and oxygenated monoterpenes, including acetates, are picked out and the list is given in descending order of ketone concentration, ketones: thujone 0-36.3%; oxygenated monoterpenes: trans-sabinyl acetate 9-36% (dried, 10 samples, 6 sites, Lithuania).

ketones: beta-thujone 59.9%, alpha-thujone 2.34%; oxygenated monoterpenes: sabinyl acetate 18.1 % (wild, Argentina).

ketones: beta-thujone 14-45%; oxygenated monoterpenes: cis-epoxyocimene 11-37% (dried leaf and flowering heads, Croatia).

ketones: beta-thujone 1.3%, camphor 17.1%; oxygenated monoterpenes: cis-epoxy-ocimene 24.8%, trans-chrysanthenyl acetate 21.6% (dried flowering heads with leaves, wild, Italian Alps).

ketones: beta-thujone 10.1%, monoterpenes: myrcene 10.8%; oxygenated monoterpenes: trans-sabinyl acetate 26.4%.

ketones: thujone 0.7%, camphor 1.4%; oxygenated monoterpenes: borneol, 1,8-cineole, terpinen-4-ol, traces only of acetates; sesquiterpenes: chamazulene 17.8%, nuciferol butanoate 8.2%, caryophyllene oxide (aerial parts, wild, Turkey).

Total 0.31% (68 components), oxygenated monoterpenes: p-cymene 16.8%; ketones: no thujone; sesquiterpenes; oxygenated sesquiterpenes: caryophyllene oxide 25.3% (dried, flowering heads, Greece).

oxygenated monoterpenes: cis-epoxy-ocimene 27-39%, chrysanthenyl acetate 29-43% (leaves after flowering period, four extraction methods, Spain).

65 components: oxygenated monoterpenes: cis-epoxyocimene 23-50%, chrysanthenyl acetate 11-37% (dried leaf and flowering head, France).

The monoterpene ketone thujone is a significant compound. A review of 29 studies found that total thujone varied 0-70.6% (mean 18%), alpha-thujone varied 0-60% and beta-thujone varied 0-70%. In nine samples where total thujone was 0-36% (mean 21 %), the ratio of isomers also varied significantly so that alpha-thujone was 12-99% (mean 42%) and beta-thujone was 1-88% (mean 58%) of total thujone.

The concentration of each individual volatile oil varies significantly depending on time of year and location. In plants of the same chemotype grown in five locations at different altitude in Italy, concentration of alpha-thujone was 0.3-1.4% and of beta-thujone was 8.7-37.7%. A study of dried material found that after 1 year, total concentration fell from 0.29 to 0.08% and the relative concentration of some oils changed but that of thujone remained level. Artemisia pontica, total 0.2-0.9%, ketones: alpha-thujone 0-30%, beta-thujone 0-4.2.

Sesquiterpene lactones

Guanolide dimers: absinthin (and isomer anabsinthin), anabsin, artabsin, absintholide.

Absinthin 0.2-0.28%, artabsin 0.04-0.16%, which are bitter.

Germacrene type: artabin (Uzbechistan, wild).

beta-santonin, ketopepenolid-A (cultivated, Cuba).

Phenypropanoids

Phenolic acids

Total 2.6%, chlorogenic, syringic, coumaric, salicylic and vanillic acids.

Flavonoids

Total 1.3%, quercetin and glycosides.

Wormwood: Recommendations On Safety