Artemisia absinthium L. is a member of the family Compositae (Asteraceae) and is known by the common names wormwood (UK), absinthe (France) and wermut (Germany). The name Artemisia is derived from the Goddess Artemis, the Greek name for Diana, who is said to have discovered the plant’s virtues, while absinthium comes from the Greek word apinthion meaning “undrinkable”, reflecting the very bitter nature of the plant. The plant is also known by a number of synonyms which include: Absinthium, Wermutkraut, Absinthii Herba, Assenzio, Losna, Pelin, Armoise, Ajenjo and Alsem. The herb is native to warm Mediterranean countries, usually found growing in dry waste places such as roadsides, preferring a nitrogen-rich stoney and hence loose soil. It is also native to the British Isles and is fairly widespread. Wormwood has been naturalised in northeastern North America, North and West Asia and Africa.
Brief Botanical Description
The stem of this shrubby perennial herb is multibranched and firm, almost woody at the base, and grows up to 130 cm in height. The root stock produces many shoots which are covered in fine silky hairs, as are the leaves. The leaves themselves are silvery grey, 8 cm long by 3 cm broad, abundantly pinnate with linear, blunt segments. Flowers, produced from July to October, are small and globular, arranged as loose clusters of small yellow umbels on erect panicles. The fruit produced is a cylindrical, slightly flattened acheme, with no pappus.
Wormwood can be propagated from cuttings, by root division in autumn or by seeds sown in autumn and grows well in even relatively poor, dry soils. Plantations of wormwood last from seven to ten years, peaking in production during the second or third year. The plant can be harvested twice a year, during the late spring and during full bloom.
The ancient Egyptians were acquainted with wormwood and used it as a medicinal plant, as well as in their religious ceremonies. It is a very old herbal remedy, and is frequently grown in herb gardens. The dried leaves, flowering tops and essential oil of wormwood have traditionally been used as an anthelmintic, antiseptic, antispasmodic, carminative, sedative, stimulant, stomachic and tonic. It was once used for many disorders, but nowadays is usually used on its own, or in tea mixtures, for various digestive disorders. The very bitter essential oil has also found use as a vermifuge. Folk remedies have also mentioned wormwood extracts as being useful against colds, rheumatism, fevers, jaundice, diabetes and arthritis. Artemisia absinthium was used to flavour beer before the common use of hops.
Wormwood is sometimes grown as an ornamental and when dried, also used in flower arrangements. Culinary uses are limited because of the very bitter flavour of the plant. Tender foliage and non-woody top parts are used either fresh or dried as seasoning usually with boiled or roasted fatty meats, improving flavour as well as making them more digestible. The essential oil extracted from wormwood has very limited uses in the field of fragrance and cosmetics and in some external analgesics. Extracts are nowadays taken rarely for medicinal purposes, and then only for digestive complaints. More recently, interest has focused on potential medicinal benefits from individual and groups of compounds, rather than crude extracts from the plant. Wormwood is still used in small quantitites as a flavouring agent in alcoholic beverages, such as absinthe, bitters, tonics, liqueurs and vermouth, the latter being a blend of wines containing traces of Artemisia absinthium and other flavours.
Absinthe is an interesting example. This liquorice-tasting liqueur was invented in Switzerland but became the French national drink in the 1890s. The essential ingredient of absinthe is wormwood, which is mixed with hyssop, fennel, anise, badiane, angelica and other herbs, producing a poisonous combination. In heavy drinkers, it induced stupor, interrupted spasmodically by epileptic fits, and often proved fatal. It was also highly addictive, eventually assuming cult status in France, where it is said to have inspired an entire culture. There is good evidence that the post-impressionist artist Vincent van Gogh was addicted to absinthe and there are flamelike images of thuja trees in some of his Auvers paintings. Van Gogh was also believed to have suffered intermittent porphyria through malnutrition and absinthe abuse. It is thought that his psychotic depressions were exacerbated by his intake of thujone and that his fits with hallucinations contributed to his suicide in 1890.
Like many “drugs”, absinthe came to be viewed as a major social problem. By 1910, 20 million litres were being consumed annually, while in Switzerland, absinthe-related crime resulted in its ban in 1907. In the USA, it was banned in 1912, and was finally outlawed in France due to pressure exerted by army generals who were desperate to place blame elsewhere for their lack of success in the First World War. In addition to the problems that can be caused by alcoholic beverages containing wormwood extracts as a flavouring agent, toxic effects can also be seen if wormwood is used for certain medical purposes. If used over a long period, or in large doses, it can become habit forming, causing restlessness, vomiting, convulsions and even brain damage, all classic signs of narcotic poisoning.
Extracts of Artemisia absinthium have been shown to possess a range of biological activities, including insecticidal action of an alcoholic extract against the stored crop pest Sitophilus granarius () and nematocidal action against Meloidogyne incognata () and Helicotylenchus dihystera (). The antimalarial activity, against Plasmodium falciparum, of two diastereomeric homoditerpene peroxides from the aerial parts of Artemisia absinthium was demonstrated while Zafar et al. () screened aqueous and alcoholic extracts against a strain of Plasmodium berghei in mice, demonstrating their pronounced schizontocidal properties. Other interesting properties attributable to wormwood extracts include the hepatoprotective effects of an aqueous/methanolic preparation wherein the mode of action was suggested to involve partly the inhibition of microsomal drug metabolising serum transaminase enzymes. In the field of oncology, extracts from the aerial parts of wormwood failed to show direct antitumour activities against sarcoma 180, Erlichs carcinoma, melanoma B-16, Louis’ lung carcinoma and Pliss’ lymphosarcoma, but showed a definite antimetastatic effect which could be exploited as a corrective against homeostasis disturbance.
Artemisia Absinthium: Conclusions
Natural products from plants will continue to be regarded as important sources of biologically active compounds, flavourings, colourings and agrichemicals. Many of the relevant plants have yet to be fully exploited and it is reasonable to expect that even more novel and valuable compounds await discovery. With this in mind, many governments are now undertaking a more detailed evaluation of their endemic species. Advances being made in analytical techniques, sophisticated bioassays and biotechnological exploitation should provide the means by which these important plants continue to play a key role to the benefit of Man and his environment.
Stanley G. Deans and Alan I. Kennedy
Selections from the book: “Artemisia”. Edited by Colin W. Wright. Series: “Medicinal and Aromatic Plants — Industrial Profiles”. 2002.