Wormwood is an herbaceous perennial with silvery green foliage and a bushy appearance, native to USDA hardiness zones 6 to 9. It blooms small yellow flowers infrequently from August to October in ideal conditions and is drought and frost tolerant. Wormwood does not require rich soil to thrive (Plant Finder 2021). The leaves have an aroma and flavor a bit like anise, making all species deer and pest-repellant. In fact, wormwood has historically been used in warding off pests since it was first written about. It can be found all over the world. In general, wormwood species thrive in many different climates with divergent annual sunlight and precipitation (Militello, et al, 2011). It’s believed that the Knights Templar spread the plant in their crusades, which could explain why it is so widespread. All wormwood falls under the genus Artemisia, a reference the Greek Moon goddess Artemis. The genus was mundanely named after a Turkish botanist, Queen Artemisia of Caria, hailing from Helicarnassus in the 3rd century AD. Helicarnassus was once a Greek city in what is now known as Turkey (Watson and Kennel 2014).
History of Wormwood Use
Uses of the plant extend all the way back to Bible days, and many indigenous peoples have valued the plant medicinally and ceremonially. Magical uses of the plant include summoning and communicating with spirits or with the dead. It has also been used by cunning folk for spiritual protection and to increase powers of insight into otherworldly matters (Isabella 2021). Nicholas Culpepper attributed wormwood to the planet Mars due to its fiery properties. It has also been attributed to Saturn, which leads one to believe it could be a malefic herb, but wormwood has also been useful in love charms in combinations with other herbs (Pendell 1995: 111). Wormwood has been called the Green Fairie by absinthe drinkers and has even been cited in the book of Revelation in reference to the apocalypse. But further inspection into this manifold perennial leads one to wonder why wormwood has such a bad rap.
In medieval and Renaissance Europe, wormwood sprigs were placed in drawers to keep moths and fleas out. In similar fashion, sprigs were used as spiritual wards, and put in pillowcases to prevent insomnia. Wormwood has been used by folk healers and herbalists as a digestive tonic and nervine and is today still hailed as a fever reducer and treatment for parasites (Grieve 2021). Long before hops, wormwood was the premiere herb brewed in medieval times. Currently, wormwood is the main ingredient used in absinthe in combination with other herbs.
In Old English times, wormwood was often administered in combination with mandrake root, camphor, and other herbs that balanced out its fiery effects (Spearing 28, 58: 2018). But what of purported dangers involved in using wormwood as an herbal remedy? Experts disagree on this topic. Some have posited that the stimulatory benefits of wormwood far exceed their intended use, and can produce diarrhea, seizures, and even death. However, ethnobotanist Dale Pendell suggests these accusations against wormwood are reactionary at best. It seems the herb was blamed for violence perpetrated by absinthe drinkers who drank too long and too hard. On this topic, he cites two studies conducted on rats that occurred in 1889 and 1980, in which the amounts of wormwood given were “far higher than it would be possible to drink, even with a whole bottle of absinthe.” Pendell reasons the amount of wormwood in absinthe does not meet levels that are inherently dangerous to humans, and more likely the culprit for ailments and psychosis related to absinthe drinking is alcohol (Pendell, 1995: 107). Still, if you plan to sip wormwood tea or brew your own wormwood-based beer, consult a resident herbalist, or at least get to know your body’s constitution and whether it would do well interacting with wormwood. Like other wormwood species, hot water infusions of the plant will glow in the dark – a fun, safe trick to try at home!
Promising Scientific Footing with Powis Castle
In contemporary research literature, scientists have found that an alcohol extract of one wormwood species, Powis Castle, is useful in the prevention of codling moth infestations on apple trees. They discovered that using wormwood extract was more effective than using BT (or bacillus thuringiensis) because it did not require as much application and re-application to maintain its effectiveness (Creed, et al 2014).
Once codling moths infest a tree, they often remain there for multiple generations, making the task of pest control even more difficult. They build up resistance to other pesticides over time. Scientists working on this project found among other wormwood species, only the Powis Castle species had compounds that provided deterrence for good. However, they also found that due to the need for intense application, Powis Castle oils may not be practical for a large-scale apple growing operation. However, the use of Powis Castle in spray form would have positive and noticeable effect on a smaller scale (in an organic garden, for instance). Furthermore, researchers identified multiple compounds in Powis Castle known to prevent larval infestation of fruiting trees. One of those compounds is α-thujone, a menthol-like substance known to deter insects that was isolated in other pesticides and species of wormwood. It is related molecularly to menthol, a minty smelling and tasting compound useful in treatment of cold symptoms, an additive in cigarettes, and a topical analgesic (Creed, et al 2014).
Other scientific studies have shown that Powis Castle also contains antiviral properties effective in treating Herpes simplex 1 and 2 consistently over time if administered intravenously. Many of the established treatments for HSVs (herpes simplex viruses) work initially, but the virus resists treatment over time as the virus replicates. Not so with Powis Castle. Essential oil of Powis Castle showed virucidal effects and prevented the attachment of viral matter to host cells thus halting replication (Saddi, et al 2007).
Researchers have also found that liver toxicity can be reduced through the administration of Powis Castle essential oils. This is because its properties prevent the proliferation of free radicals in the body and reduce the production of “aggressive oxidants” or those that cause cellular damage. So, Powis Castle has antioxidant properties (Dhibi, et al 2015). Again, it is worth noting that this research was done in a lab under expert supervision. Readers of this post should not attempt to self-administer Powis Castle essential oils internally without expert guidance. Drinking wormwood tea or absinthe involves ingesting a much lower concentration of wormwood essential oils and is much safer.
Knowing Wormwood: Create Your Own Wormwood-Ginger Home Remedy
Since I learned that wormwood is not as toxic as it has been historically called, I decided to craft a recipe and include some leaflets from the Powis Castle plant in my front yard. Since distilling anything in this state is illegal, I knew this was the next best thing to making some absinthe. I used ginger to boost the effects of the plant, and included a pretty good tablespoon of honey to cut the bitterness. Wormwood tea (as it turns out) is so lovely I want to drink it every day. But I know that all artemisia species contain compounds that can build up in the body over time. So I am resolved to drink this fragrant delicious tea no more than a few times a month.
Here’s what you will need to make tea from wormwood and ginger. This recipe makes two cups. You can either make one cup at a time, pouring boiling water each time, or make one for yourself and a friend.
- 2 cups (475 ml) water plus a tad extra for boiling ginger
- 1-2 inch (2.5 to 5 ml) nib of ginger, peeled and sliced thinly
- 8 leaflets of wormwood (Powis Castle is the least bitter species, and Artmesia absinthium is the most bitter, so adjust sweeten accordingly)
- 1-2 Tbs (15-30 ml) honey
- Measuring cups and spoons
- Small pot
- Stove or similar heating device
- Cup or mug for drinking
- Begin by placing ginger slices in water in a small pot and boil at medium heat for at least 15 minutes. It takes a little while for ginger to break down, so 15 minutes is the minimum amount of time to boil the ginger. 30 minutes will give your tea base a much more gingery flavor.
- Once the ginger tea base has been made, add 4 wormwood leaflets to each cup, pour boiling ginger tea over the wormwood leaflets, and cover to steep wormwood leaves for at least 5 minutes. A longer steeping time will give the tea a stronger wormwood flavor, but could make it more bitter. Do not steep for more than 15 minutes as the plant compounds will break down beyond that point.
- Once the tea is steeped, remove all leaves and ginger slices from the cup and add honey. Stir it in.
Meet Wormwood in the Wild: Grow Your Own, Explore Wormwood in the Garden
Aside from tea, there are other ways to get to know wormwood outside of a lab. One way is to grow a species of the plant native to your hardiness zone. If outdoor growing isn’t an option replicate wormwood’s favorite climate indoors or in a greenhouse. Sit with her. Study her appearance, and waft in her aromas. I love to be near large bushels of Powis Castle that seem to have been floating around the small town I live in. They all originate from one plant, from a friend who might as well be a wizard – or he would be if we lived in times where wizards were consulted in some forested dwelling. If you head to his wizard hovel, you would be greeted by Powis Castle bordering his front yard. And if you got to know him, he would probably gift you a divided portion of one of these bushes.
Another great way to get to know varying wormwood species is to spend time learning how to propagate them. I’ve found that in temperate times when Powis Castle, mugwort, and absinthium are happiest, clipping a branch and planting it in the ground works well. Similarly, roots can be grown in water, and then the clipping can be transferred to soil. Beyond the propagation phase, wormwood plants are resilient. Once they are established all you have to do is watch them grow. Give them plenty of space because they are taking over!
If you cannot grow the plant in or near your home, find a place where she is growing. Observe her over time if possible. Find out what wormwood appreciates in her living situation. If there really isn’t any wormwood nearby, we always have the written word. Read books about herbs that focus on wormwood. One of the sources for this article was Old English Medical Remedies, by Sinead Spearing. Much of the information in this post about early English uses of the plant came from Spearing. Another great source for herbs of this kind is Dale Pendell’s Pharmako Poeia. In fact, I’d recommend this and Pendell’s other two books for anyone interested in herbs and herbalcraft.
Local herbalists and folk healers can also help you get to know wormwood. Try adding some wormwood to your smoking blends. Yes, she is called the Green Fairy, but you probably won’t see any green fairies from smaller doses of wormwood. Teas and smoking blends can bring calm to your life, help promote healthy digestion, or help you stave off a fever. Don’t let the hype about wormwood scare you, though her intensely bitter taste might. There is plenty you can do to interact with her that won’t involve risking your life. Most of all, enjoy your time with her. She has plenty to offer on several different planes.
- Artemisia ‘Powis Castle’ – Plant Finder
- Chemical composition and antibacterial potential of Artemisia arborescens L. essential oil
- Herb Society of America Essential Facts: ARTEMISIA/Artemisia spp.
- From the Wortcunner’s Cabinet: Wormwood
- Artemisia arborescens “Powis Castle” extracts and α-thujone prevent fruit infestation by codling mothneonates
- Antiherpevirus activity of Artemisia arborescens essential oil and inhibition of lateral diffusion in Vero cells
- Protective effects of Artemisia arborescens essential oil on oestroprogestative treatment induced hepatotoxicity
- Sinéad Spearing, Old English Medical Remedies: Mandrake, Wormwood and Raven’s Eye, South Yorkshire: PEN AND SWORD HISTORY, 2018.
- Dale Pendell, Pharmako Poeia, San Fransisco: Mercury House, 1995.