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Artemisia absinthium, wormwood


Artemisia absinthium, wormwood

Artemisia absinthium, wormwood

Summary

Once simply one of a number of cures or, possibly, prophylactics for worms, Artemisia absinthium is best known today as the sometime active ingredient of the drink Absinthe, though its precise effects remain the subject of debate.

'Poisonous Plants 1-2-1' video

This short video summarising the story of wormwood is just one of a series.

Family

Asteraceae

Meaning of the Name

Artemesia
Named for Artemis, the Greek goddess of chastity and childbirth.  The plant was used to promote menstruation and the name may result from its ability to, therefore, demonstrate chastity. Pliny says that the name may also come from Artemisia, wife of Mausolus, but gives no reason for this other than that ambitious powerful people were keen to have plants named for them.
 
absinthium
is the name originally given to the plant. It is believed to come from the Greek word ‘absinthion’ meaning ‘undrinkable’ a reflection of its very bitter taste.

Common Names and Synonyms

wormwood, common wormwood, wermuth, wermud

How Poisonous, How Harmful?

Artemisia absinthium, wormwood

The main active ingredient is thujone, a neurotoxin, which, until recently, was thought to be similar to THC and thought to attach to the same receptors in the brain. Recent research indicates that this is not the case. This has called into question the belief that absinthe drinking produced hallucinations.

Side effects from consumption of wormwood include renal failure, convulsions, involuntary evacuations, abnormal respiration, and foaming at the mouth though it is argued that these effects are seen only as a result of consuming oil of wormwood.

In the 19th century, people were believed to become addicted to absinthe and some doctors described a condition which they called 'absinthe epilepsy'. Recently, the idea that absinthe was any more harmful than other alcohol products has been challenged. The debate is complex and continuing but an attempt to look at some of its components can be read on the 'Is absinthe harmful?' page.

Incidents

Artemisia absinthium, wormwood

It was reported in the 19th century that a ‘druggist’s clerk’ consumed oil made from the plant and suffered convulsions, foaming at the mouth and insensibility. When the convulsions ceased he remained unconscious with his jaws locked, pupils dilated and pulse weak. He recovered but could not remember the circumstances under which he drank the oil.

Following the success of the movie ‘Moulin Rouge’, there was renewed interest in absinthe. Young people soon realised, however, that the drink sold today is simply a strong alcohol. It has been reported that teenagers have bought Artemisia absinthium from garden centres and then tried to find ways, including drying the leaves and smoking them, of getting at the thujone in the plant.

The plant is not native to Northumberland but there are reports of the Bishop of St. Andrews having a pint of wormwood wine night and morning when staying in Alnwick on his way to London. The power of wormwood wine must, therefore, have been great enough for it to imported to the area at a time when trade between different regions was limited. This regular consumption leads to the view that it was thought to prevent the onset of worms not just cure them.

Folklore and Facts

Wormwood apparently sprang up in the trail of the devil as he left the Garden of Eden and continued to have a bad reputation given its mention in the Book of Revelations. Chapter 8, verse 11 says, ‘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’.

Artemisia absinthium, wormwood

Artemisia absinthium, wormwood

Pliny, says that Artemisia, the wife of Mausolus changed the name of the plant previously known as parthenis but it may also have come from Artemis Ilithyia. The name absinthe is said to be based on the Greek 'absinthion', meaning 'undrinkable'.

There are other species of Artemisia which have 'wormwood' as part of their common names but do not contain measurable amounts of thujone.

It is often said, by those who love bizarre theories, that the Russian word 'chernobyl' means 'absinthe' though others say it means 'wormwood'. Counter voices say that 'chernobyl' is Ukrainian not Russian ignoring the fact that the nuclear plant involved in this accident is in what is now Belarus. Though unlikely to have been the first use, a character in the Mike Leigh film 'Naked' refers to the alleged connection between wormwood and Chernobyl. The first part of 'Chernobyl' is often said to mean black and, of course, wormwood is a light silvery green. Those who cling to this nonsense, however, insist that 'black' is used to mean bad or harmful. Whatever the true derivation of the name, and it is impossible to know, the idea that the prophecy in Revelations began to come true at Chernobyl keeps some people fascinated.