Wormwood, or Artemisia absinthium, is a member of the Asteraceae family that is perhaps most recognized as the most important ingredient in the liquor known as Absinthe. As the name suggests, the extremely bitter plant has been used for removing parasites and worms. Due to the plant’s extreme bitterness, it has also been used to aid digestion.
With its silvery leaves, Artemisia was named after the goddess Artemis, goddess of the hunt and the moon. She is also a goddess associated with childbirth, and Artemisia’s have been used in feminine disorders and childbirth in the past. It is however important to note that these plants may have an abortifacient action.
Wormwood is mentioned in the Bible several times as well, usually as a metaphor for bitterness due to how bitter the plant itself is.
And the third angel sounded, and there fell a great star from heaven, burning as it were a lamp, and it fell upon the third part of the rivers, and upon the fountains of waters;
And the name of the star is called Wormwood: and the third part of the waters became wormwood; and many men died of the waters, because they were made bitter. – Revelations 8:10-11 (KJV)
The extremely small seeds of Wormwood should simply be scattered across the surface of the soil and gently tamped in, as they require light to germinate and grow. Upon germination, it may be easiest to water the tiny, delicate seedlings using a gentle mister bottle as to avoid knocking them over or destroying them with larger drops of water. Alternatively, the seed can be scattered in a prepared bed and allowed to germinate on their own. Be sure that the plant is where you want it to be, as once the roots take hold in the ground and the plant becomes large enough, they will become quite tough to remove.
Wormwood plants should be given plenty of room to grow for two reasons. First, the plant will get extremely large if allowed. I myself underestimated the final size of the plant and the amount of spacing needed. With my own plants at six to seven feet wide, it is a good idea to give them up to four feet of room on each side to grow. If you are only growing for your own medicine shelf or spiritual practice, it is highly unlikely that you will need more than one plant. After reducing from four plants to one, I still have enough for myself and others.
The second reason for giving Wormwood its room to grow, is that the plant produces chemicals which inhibit the germination and growth of other plants. The ability to restrict the growth of neighboring plants is known as “allelopathy”. The actual potency of this effect of course depends upon how susceptible the neighboring species are and how closely they are planted.
When Wormwood begins to flower, consider harvesting (or removing the flowering tips before they go to seed) if you do not want the plant to spread. They will come up in the immediate surrounding area at the very least, and my own has spread to every side of the house and corner of our large yard/field.
In the early spring or late fall, cut the plants stems back to about a one foot ball. It will return to size in no time, and this somewhat helps to control the excessive size and unruliness of the plant.
Harvesting and Preparations
Wormwood’s essential oils and potency are at their max just as the plant begins to flower, before the flowers have fully opened and turned to seed. If you can not wait for the Wormwood to flower, the plant is still beyond fragrant and potent earlier in the season. The plant should be dried as quickly as possible at a low temperature (I never go higher than 104°f). Finer leaves will dry quite fast in comparison to the the more juicy stems, so make sure that the material is dried thoroughly before storing it, to prevent mold. If harvested for the purpose of smoking blends, the flowers tend to have a somewhat smoother taste and more pleasant experience to them.
The freshly harvested material can also be added to a high-proof alcohol at a 1:2 ratio (1 gram per 2ml of menstruum) to create a potent tincture. As with most high ratio tinctures, the alcohol often does not fully cover the herb. Finely chopping the herb may aid this, but the simplest and perhaps most effective method is to simply put the alcohol and the herb material into a blender. Blending does take longer to filter, however, and may take additional time to allow finer material to settle to the bottom even after filtering. Store the herb and alcohol mixture in a dark place at room temperature for a few weeks or a month, shaking once or twice a day until it is ready to filter. Upon filtering, you will have an extremely dark and bitter medicinal liquid. The general dose for this tincture is about 20 drops in a bit of water, but it’s always a good idea to start at the minimum when working with a new plant, to check for allergies or reactions. Tea from dried herb is another simple option, at 1/2-1 teaspoon per cup being most commonly called for. Be prepared for what will probably be the most bitter thing you have ever tasted.
Wormwood increases bile and is said to help cleanse the liver. The release of gastric juices stimulated by the extreme bitterness helps to increase appetite and aid digestion if taken before a meal. Some find aid for conditions such as IBS or Crohns’s disease. As previously mentioned, the plant is also used in the treatment of internal parasites.
An alcoholic extract of Wormwood can be used externally as a liniment for aches and pains. Alternatively the dried herb may be infused into oil to create an oil or ointment for external use, if that is preferred over alcohol.
Avoid Wormwood if pregnant or breast feeding. Wormwood also should not be used in children, or those with liver disease, kidney disease, or stomach ulcers. Do not use Wormwood if prone to seizures. Excessive or prolonged use of wormwood may lead to neurotoxicity. Do not try to treat any medical condition without the help of a doctor, and always speak to a doctor before beginning to use any new herbs or medicines. (See more safety information at: http://www.herbalsafety.utep.edu/herbal-fact-sheets/wormwood/)
Wormwood is often used in fumigants and workings with connection to either cleansing and protection or necromancy and divination, to call spirits. With its connection to Artemis, one may consider putting a leaf in their shoe or on their person before venturing into the wild. It may also be used in certain martial magics.
I’m shocked to have not seen much information regarding Wormwood’s effects on dreaming, with most praise going to its sibling, Mugwort. Occasionally when smoking, but more often and intensely with tea or tincture, I’ve noticed incredibly vivid dreams which would leave me covered in sweat. It is perhaps a more intense and reliable aid than Mugwort, albeit less pleasant. In my own experience, these dreams tend to bring things up from the shadows, that you may deal with them. Meetings with the dead is not an uncommon encounter in Wormwood induced dreams either (again speaking only my own experience, I’d love to hear from others).
Peterson Field Guide to Medicinal Plants and Herbs of Eastern and Central North America by Steven Foster and James A. Duke
The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Plants by Christian Rätsch