Tuesday, June 27, 2006
What savor is best, if physic be true,
For places infected than wormwood and rue?
It is as a comfort, for heart and the brain,
And therefore to have it, it is not in vain.
The plant of the day in the French Republican Calendar is Absinthe or Wormwood. One of my favorite herbs--it has such a pungent scent and such a sinister reputation. And it fits with my theme, as it is bitter indeed to get used to living without Chester the Dog.
Wormwood is a member of the Compositae family (same as the Daisy and Aster), and a member of the genus, Artemisia, which includes Mugwort, Tarragon and Southernwood. The name comes from Artemis, the goddess of the hunt and the wood, who is said to have discovered them and recommended their use to the centaur, Chiron. Jeanne Rose says one of its common names is Old Woman.
According to Rodale’s, the first mention of wormwood comes from an Egyptian papyrus from 1600 BCE when it was recommended to rid the body of worms, which may be how it got its name. The 17th century herbalist Culpeper says that women give the seeds to their children to get rid of worms. He also makes it an herb of Mars, and says it is often found near forges and iron works. The taste of the plant is very bitter.
Adlema Grenier Simmons, one of the great American herbalists, loved artemisias and featured them as the plant of Autumn in her book, Herb Gardening in Five Seasons. The plant has grey foliage and grows to about 2 to 4 feet tall. It is harvested in July and August when it is in flower—take the tops and the flowers on a dry day when the sun has dried off the dew.
Simmons says it is is the key ingredient in Absorbine Junior. Rubbed on the skin in a salve, it was used to dispel headaches and bring down fevers. Wormwood was strewn on floors to repel insects like fleas, put into bedding for pets and tucked away among clothes to scare away moths.
Culpeper goes on an interesting astrological rant in his description of wormwood, in which he says that wormwood is a remedy for the bites of rodents, for mushroom poisoning, for bruises caused by beatings, for diseases of the throats, for sore eyes, for bites of stinging insects like bees and hornets, for colic, for overindulgence in alcohol, etc. Mrs. Grieve recommends wormwood tea for settling the stomach, but the active ingredient of thujone can be toxic in large quantities.
These for frenzy be
A speedy and a sovereign remedy
The bitter wormwood, sage and marigold.
Jeanne Rose says that mixed with rum it allays feverish excitement, helps heal bruises and sprains, and is said to cure flat feet, fallen arches and bad ankles if rubbed on them. An ounce of the flowers put in a pint of brandy and steeped for 6 weeks cures gout if taken one tablespoon before meals and bed. Poultices of wormwood simmered in wine relieved swelling of the joints.
This article has some interesting references to the way wormwood has been used by Native American peoples:
Wikipedia has a great and what seems like a thorough article on absinthe, the drink made from wormwood (usually combined with fennel and anise) and its history, at:
Simmons quotes Dr John Hill who says the Germans drank a wine made with Roman wormwood, that helped them eat for hours without sickness or indigestion. The English used wormwood in place of hops in making ale and also used it to flavor wine. This website (comments on Pepy’s Diary) has some enthusiastic and amateur comments on wormwood and its use:
The use of wormwood in alcohol is similar to the use of vermouth. Simmons knew an elderly man who said he drank three wineglasses a day of wormwood (one assumes wine flavored with wormwood) and attributed his old age and good health to this practice. Simmons tried it herself but found she was unable to eat and gave it up. She comments that wormwood in small doses revives the appetite but in large doses has the same effect as absinthe on the addict, of making food seem unpalatable.
Culpeper’s Complete Herbal, Wordsworth 1995
Rodales’ Illustrated Encyclopedia of Herbs, edited by Claire Kowalchik and William H. Hylton, Rodale 1987
Rose, Jeanne, Herbs & Things, Grosset and Dunlap 1978
Simmons, Adelma Grenier, Herb Gardening in Five Seasons, Plume/Penguin 1990
Illustration from Mrs. Grieve’s herbal:
The Absinthe Drinkers by Edgar Degas from