Wormwood: Identity

2011

There is as usual some debate about the identity of the wormwood of the Ancients and the delineation of its range of actions is not without some contention. Beck at least translates the apsinthion of Dioscorides as Artemisia absinthium. Dioscorides (III 23) names three wormwoods: the ‘familiar’ wormwood of which the best grows in the Pontic region and Cappadocia; Seriphon absinthion thalassion, which is sea wormwood, ‘wormseed’ according to Beck; and a third kind that grows in Galatia called santonicon, which does the same thing as seriphon. Galen commends Pontic wormwood, with lesser leaves and flowers, above others ‘which are excessively bitter and loathesome’. The Arabic writers refer to Roman wormwood. Whether Roman wormwood shared identity with Pontic and whether the common broadleaved wormwood equated to the Pontic wormwood of Dioscorides and Galen were questions which exercised considerable debate among the Renaissance authors. Turner, for example, concludes not; Mattioli thinks it is (although of course his wormwood must be Roman by default). Parkinson, having laid out the different opinions on this as usual, and having identified nine wormwoods of his own day (Dodoens has six, Dalechamps 12) then cites Pena and Lobel’s study on the matter which concludes that it is, that Dioscorides was merely specifying where the herb with the best properties grows, and that Galen preferred Pontic as a means of excluding the other two varieties. Both Cook and Grieve, and more recently Schulz et al (1998), refer to Pontic/Roman wormwood as a variety weaker than common absinthium. Culpeper simply uses the opportunity afforded by Roman wormwood to insult the church; ‘it may be called so because it is good for a stinking breath, which the Romans cannot be very free from, maintaining so many bad houses by authority of his Holiness’.

Parkinson’s discussion on wormwood’s identity contains in its detail two interesting considerations. Firstly that the properties of a herb will differ with location: ‘[Dioscorides and Galen] shew in what place the most vigorous of that kinde doth grow, which property it obtaineth, more by the goodnesse of the place, injoying the commodity of a free and cleare ayre … then by the nature of the hearbe itselfe. Then of the scent, that it is more aromaticall than others, yet hereby they intimate that others are sweet, although not so much, which is well knowne likewise to be the benefit of the place where it growth, for some hearbes are more or lesse sweet, or more or less stinking, which transplanted doe alter; as Agrimony and divers others are sweet in some place and nothing at all in others’. This rather supports the modern information on the lability of thujone content with location, season, drying conditions and other variations, and might account too for the earlier discrepancies of perceived degree of qualities. And secondly that the apothecaries were not necessarily to be trusted to dispense the appropriate herb, ‘but by this is said you see that the vertues of our common Wormewood are so excellent, that we need not seeke for another kinde to performe those that are commended on wormewood; and therefore I the more mervaile at our Apothecaries, that take the sea wormewood, in stead of the Romane or Ponticke, and use it rather than the common, onely because there is lesse bitternesse therein, than is the common and therefore more pleasing to the taste, when as the properties are no way answerable’. Miller, at a later date, makes the same mention, possibly citing Mattioli, implying that the apothecaries gave the less bitter sort in order to sell more and thus increase profit rather than dispensing the best medicinal variety. Culpeper adds his own refinement, that since the sea wormewood is the least bitter and the weakest ‘it is fittest for weak bodies, and further for those bodies that dwell near it, than those that dwell far from it; my reason is, the sea … casts not such a smell as the land doth. The tender mercies of God being over all his works, hath by his eternal Providence, planted Seriphon by the seaside, as a fit medicine for the bodies of those that live near it’. The use of sea wormwood and the confounding of names continued right up to relatively recent times. Grieve records that the drug ‘Absinthium’ (rarely employed) was directed in the British Pharmacopoeia to be extracted from Artemisia maritima ‘which possesses the same virtues in a less degree, and is often more used as a stomachic that the common wormwood. Commercially this often goes under the name of Roman wormwood, though that name really belongs to Artemisia Pontica.