Wormwood: A Digestive Herb

Wormwood seems to be a herb par excellence for the whole digestive tract. Most authorities prize its actions in this respect. Dioscorides says it has astringent and warming properties; it is diuretic; it can purge the bilious elements through the stomach and bowel; is a preventive for nausea; drunk with hartwort or Celtic nard it is good for flatulence and stomach pains; and a daily infusion or decoction of three cyathi (135 mL) remedies lack of appetite and jaundice. He advocates two external applications for gastrointestinal conditions: plasters made with Cyprian cerate help chronic conditions of hypochondria, liver and stomach, and those with unguent of roses are used for the stomach. For spleen disease or oedemata, it is mixed with figs, soda and darnel meal, although it is unclear whether this is for internal or external use. Dioscorides reports the custom around Propontis and Thrace of making a wine, absinthitis, from wormwood, used for the conditions mentioned, only if the patient has no fever. The same wine is drunk in spring as aperitif to bring good health. The juice, however, should not be taken internally, at least not neat, ‘since it is bad for the stomach and gives headaches’ he says. In relation to the juice Dioscorides adds ‘the juice is adulterated with the watery part that runs out when olives are pressed; it is boiled down and combined with the juice’. Whether this then renders it potable, he does not specify.

A further gastrointestinal use in Dioscorides is against poisons: wormwood as alexipharmic. It is drunk with vinegar to remedy choking from poisonous mushrooms, and with wine against pine thistle, hemlock, bites of the shrew and of the great weever. Inevitably the detail is ambiguous territory: Dodoens says with wine ‘it resisteth all venome but chiefly Hemlocke and the bitings and stingings of spiders, and other venomous beasts’; Parkinson reads ‘being taken in wine it is a remedy against the poison of Ixia (which as I said before, is the roote of the blacke chameleon, and with Pliny translated viscum, Mistletoe or Birdlime) of Hemlocke, the biting of that small beast or Mouse which we call a shrew, and the biting of that sea fish called Dracomarinus, which is called a Quaviver’.

Galen accounts for the properties of Artemisia pontica in that its astringency is greater than its sharpness or bitterness; it is also cleansing, he says, strengthening and drying and the juice is much hotter (Parkinson cites this as ‘better’, although others repeat ‘hotter’) than the herb, although he does not berate the juice for all that. As in Dioscorides, Galen says the plant propels biliary humours of the belly downwards. It also evacuates via urine, especially if heat is in the veins, although he cautions that because the astringency overcomes the bitterness, wormwood will not serve for phlegm which is in the stomach nor in the lungs.

Pliny writes in similar vein. It is good and wholesome, he says; it strengthens the stomach aloft (is this perhaps our later appreciation of increase in muscle tone of the lower oesophageal sphincter), evacuates choler downwards, is diuretic, keeps the body soluble and the belly in good temper; it is good for liver infirmities. He repeats Dioscorides’ warning about avoiding the juice, or rather syrup of wormwood made from the juice, since it is offensive to the stomach and head. With the ill humours of the stomach cleansed, it will bring appetite and help concoction, i.e. digestion. Pliny’s suggestion for helping the spleen is with vinegar or in figs or with gruel, although he is equally unclear on mode of application. His remedy for windiness of the stomach is with seseli, Celtic nard and vinegar; with rue Ruta graveolens, pepper and salt it cleanses the stomach of raw humours, occasioned by want of digestion. For jaundice it should be taken raw with parsley (or with raw parsley) or maidenhair; a decoction with cumin seed Cuminum cyminum taken warm eases pain of the belly and colic by wind.

The Old English Herbarium carries two entries for wormwood: in one Artemisia absinthium L., Wermod is described for external use for sores and worms (see below), while an earlier entry for ‘Wormwood (Artemisia pontica L.), artemisia leptefilos, Mucgwyrt’, which ‘has the smell of elder’, covers external application of the herb simmered in almond oil as a poultice on the stomach for stomach ache, ‘within five days the person will be well’, and for the juice mixed with oil for trembling of the tendons.