The bitter medicine: wormwood beyond absinthe

The bitter medicine: wormwood beyond absinthe


Wormwood may be notorious as the main ingredient in the fabled spirit absinthe, but there’s so much more to this versatile herb

Long banned or restricted in Australia and around the world, absinthe — variously called the “green curse of France” or la fée verte (“the green fairy”) — is a highly alcoholic spirit distilled from the leaves and flowers of wormwood (Artemisia absinthium) and flavoured with green anise, fennel and other herbs.

The favoured tipple of artists and writers from van Gogh and Picasso to Proust and Hemingway, absinthe has been variously (and sometimes unfairly) blamed for convulsions, hallucinations and worse, including kidney failure when taken in excess. Unless you have wild ideas of making your own absinthe, you’re probably only likely to grow wormwood if you have chooks. A. absinthium and A. pontica (Roman wormwood) are known to repel lice and expel intestinal worms upon ingestion. Scatter the leaves through the chook house and the chickens will do the rest.

One of the bitterest herbs, wormwood is native to Eurasia and North Africa but is now naturalised throughout southern Europe and North America. Its botanical name comes from Artemis, the Greek goddess of the hunt. The herb’s long history stretches back to the Old Testament and a much-cited passage from the Book of Revelation. The wormwood referred to in the Bible by the Greek word apsinthos is thought to be the cultivar white wormwood (A. herba-alba, or “white herb”). Shakespeare namechecked wormwood in Romeo and Juliet, and Nicholas Culpeper, in his 1651 book The English Physician, called it “the key to understanding”. Aside from absinthe, wormwood has been used to flavour wines, vermouth, bitters and even beer, while in Morocco it’s consumed as a tea.

Health benefits

Even if you’re only growing it for the chooks, it’s interesting to know the traditional medicinal uses of artemisia. Like many bitter plants, it can help with digestion and stimulate the appetite as well as reduce fevers. Most especially it has been a popular insect repellent and vermifuge (to expel worms). It also has topical uses in soothing insect bites and promoting healing.

Researchers at the University of Washington, Seattle, used an extract of wormwood, artemisinin, on breast cancer cells. They reported that almost all the cancer cells died within 16 hours after exposure to the extract, showing enough promise to warrant further study. Perhaps a more surprising finding was from a German double-blind study that examined the effectiveness of a herbal blend containing wormwood versus a placebo in 40 patients suffering from Crohn’s disease. Without going into the detail, the results were very significant: 65 per cent of those taking the wormwood were able to taper off steroid medications completely without a return of symptoms.

Using wormwood

The entire plant can be used in various preparations. The British pharmacopoeia lists it in the form of extract, infusion and tincture. If you are going to try it as an infusion, apparently you can have too much due to its tendency to swiftly empty the bowel. Too much thujone, one of the active ingredients, can lead to many other ill-effects as well.

The recommended dose is 3–5g daily as an infusion or 2–3g daily as the herb. If you are pregnant or breastfeeding, consult your doctor before taking wormwood. If you suffer from stomach or intestinal ulcers, don’t take it at all.


With its feathery foliage and small yellow flowers, wormwood is not an unattractive plant. It likes dry soil with a high nitrogen content and neutral to mildly acidic pH.
Wormwood also prefers some shade, so in or near the chookhouse is probably a good spot. It’s easy to grow and self-seeds generously. The plant is best harvested on a dry day and after any moisture on the plant has evaporated in the sun. Remove the upper green portion, leaving behind the lower stem and any discoloured or insect-damaged leaves.

Written by Chris Stafford
Originally from Good Organic Gardening Volume 7 Issue 6