Wormwood: External Use

It is remarkable how many instances are found through the tradition of external application of herbs, through a variety of inventive means, for more internal conditions; a mode of treating that is far less practised today; and wormwood has been no exception. For the more usual topical applications for skin and joints, for example, wormwood is not normally encountered among the more frequent recommendations. Bartram records an infusion of 1 oz to a pint applied to muscles in rheumatic pain, and Menzies-Trull refers to a number of external applications, but otherwise mention is rare. Given, however, wormwood’s strong gastrointestinal reputation, it is interesting to note Wood’s appraisal of the herb as having survived in modern American herbalism largely as a medicine for the muscular and skeletal system. He cites Cook’s enthusiastic recommendation of it as ‘a good fomentation in sprains, rheumatic and other sub-acute difficulties about the joints; and in bruises and local contusions/congestions’. Cullen records the reputation of bitters, especially aromatic bitters, in general as cleansing and healing foul ulcers, including checking of the progress of gangrene, and in fomentations for discussing tumours.

The further external applications that Dioscorides and Pliny record are repeated through many texts and other uses join them. For example, Dioscorides’ recommendation of wormwood with honey and soda as an unguent for sore throats, reappearing through the Renaissance authors in various guises, is echoed in Miller ‘a cataplasm of the green leaves beat up with hog’s lard was commended to Mr Ray by Dr Hulfe as a good external remedy against swelling of the tonsils and quinzy”. This is cited presumably from practical experience, although no other specific external application appears either in Miller or Quincy from that time. A use with honey for ‘black eye’ in Dioscorides appears similarly in Pliny as applied with honey for bruises and in Mesue, cited by Bauhin, it reads ‘parts inflamed by rubbing or bruised are wonderfully helped by the herb heated with honey or wine and a little cumin and applied’. The Old English Herbarium refers to absinthium for ‘removing bruises and other sores from the body” using cloths soaked in infusion of wormwood, and if the flesh is tender simmer the herb in honey and then apply. For the pontic wormwood, the juice mixed with oil and rubbed on will stop trembling in the tendons and quiet the tremors (and hung over the door it will keep the house from harm). Regarding Dioscorides’ treatment for ears, the honey mix helps purulent ears and the vapour of the decoction is good for earaches; Pliny has the smoke of burnt wormwood or the powdered herb mixed with honey and applied. Mesue, cited by Bauhin, expands with the ears fumigated by wine or water in which wormwood is cooked are freed from pain, tinnitus and deafness. Infected ears do buzz and hearing is then often temporarily reduced, so this is not necessarily as inflated a claim as it at first might sound.

Use for the eyes is more contended. Dioscorides says wormwood boiled down with grape syrup can be used as a poultice for very painful eyes. Macer citing Pliny says applied with honey it clears the eyes. Dodoens fills out the recommendation ‘the wormewood mingled with honey is goode to be layd to the dimness of the sight and to the eyes that are blood shotten or have blacke spots [Dioscorides’ earlier ‘black eye?] And with the same boiled in Bastard [wine] or any other sweet wine, they use to rub and strake painefull bleered eyes’. Quincy, much later, however, maintains because the herb is hot and dry it will hurt the sight by drying up or dissipating the animal juices too much ‘whereby optic nerves have sometimes also wanted their due supplies’, and Cullen likewise says ‘wormwood (and other bitters may be) down from the time of the ancients, like sage, affects the eyes with uneasy dryness, weakness, contraction and inflammation attended with headache. Ibn Sina, however, is more positive: wormwood is useful with long standing inflammation of the eyes; especially that of Jordan, applied on a bandage on the eye area helps burning; together with Armenian clay on a bandage it comforts pulsation in the eyes and redness and swelling.

Yet more useful applications from Dioscorides follow, with the facility of wormwood, put in drawers and chests, to preserve clothing from moths; documents written with ink made using an infusion of wormwood instead of just water will not be eaten by mice; Ibn Sina adds too that it helps the ink color to last, I presume not just because it is not eaten; it will prevent mosquitoes (gnats, flies and more in other versions) from biting, if the body is rubbed with the oil. This latter may have a modern link. Tick-borne diseases such as Lyme disease are significant worldwide, and a study was carried out to identify plant materials which repel the nymph of the main European tick Ixodes ricinus L.. Oil of Rhododendron tomentosum (formerly Ledum palustre) 10% in acetone was highly effective (95%) and extract of Artemisia absinthium leaves in ethyl acetate was effective (75%). The extract was thujone-free and the main compound was myrtenol acetate (78%).

Ibn Sina adds further uses: it brightens the skin of the face and helps baldness; dough with wormwood helps heal urticaria; for haemorrhoids and anal fissures, although whether internal or external use is not clear. Hildegard recommends wormwood for toothache ‘either from rotten blood or from purging of the brain’, cook equal amounts of wormwood and vervain in a new pot of good wine, strain, drink with a little sugar and tie warm herb around jaw on going to bed. She also recommends an infused oil for chest pain with cough, and a salve of wormwood, deer tallow and deer marrow, applied in front of a fire, for gout. Pliny says seasickness can be avoided if one gets used to drinking wormwood.

Finally, three more suggestions from Pliny: kibbed heels can be cured by bathing them in a decoction of wormwood; placed under the pillow it procures sleep, but only if the potential sleeper is unaware of its presence; the ash of wormwood mixed with oil of roses colors hair black.