The Wormwoods are members of the great family of Compositae and belong to the genus Artemisia, a group consisting of 180 species, of which we have four growing wild in England, the Common Wormwood, Mugwort, Sea Wormwood and Field Wormwood.
In addition, as garden plants, though not native, Tarragon (A. dracunculus) claims a place in every herb-garden, and Southernwood (A. abrotanum), an old-fashioned favourite, is found in many borders, whilst others, such as A. sericea, A. cana and A. alpina, form pretty rockwork shrubs.
The whole family is remarkable for the extreme bitterness of all parts of the plant: 'as bitter as Wormwood' is a very Ancient proverb.
The genus is named Artemisia from Artemis, the Greek name for Diana. In an early translation of the Herbarium of Apuleius we find:
'Of these worts that we name Artemisia, it is said that Diana did find them and delivered their powers and leechdom to Chiron the Centaur, who first from these Worts set forth a leechdom, and he named these worts from the name of Diana, Artemis, that is Artemisias.'
The Common Wormwood (Artemisia absinthium) held a high reputation in medicine among the Ancients. Tusser (1577), in July's Husbandry, says:
'While Wormwood hath seed get a handful or twaine
To save against March, to make flea to refraine:
Where chamber is sweeped and Wormwood is strowne,
What saver is better (if physick be true)
For places infected than Wormwood and Rue?
It is a comfort for hart and the braine
And therefore to have it it is not in vaine.'
Besides being strewn in chambers as Tusser recommended, it used to be laid amongstuffs and furs to keep away moths and insects.
According to the Ancients, Wormwood counteracted the effects of poisoning by hemlock, toadstools and the biting of the seadragon. The plant was of some importance among the Mexicans, who celebrated their great festival of the Goddess of Salt by a ceremonial dance of women, who wore on their heads garlands of Wormwood.
With the exception of Rue, Wormwood is the bitterest herb known, but it is very wholesome and used to be in much request by brewers for use instead of hops. The leaves resist putrefaction, and have been on that account a principal ingredient in antiseptic fomentations.
Wormwood is an herb of love and a visionary herb ruled by Mars and Pluto. Wormwood is said to enhance prophecy and divination. Wormwood is a good herb to use to remove anger or inhibit enemies. Wormwood was once burned in all incenses designed to raise spirits, and now is used as incense in exorcisim and protection blends. It is associated with the Lovers card in the Tarot, and also serves as a patron plant of herbalists.
Wormwood contains "thujone" which causes mind-altering changes and can lead to psychosis. It depresses the central nervous system. Some use Wormwood to treat anxiety, for it acts as a mild sedative. It is also used to stimulate the appetite. Wormwood has been used as a flavoring agent in alcoholic beverages, such as Vermouth, bitters, and liqueurs. The essential oil was in great demand for the manufacture of the French liqueur "Absinthe" until it was found to be addictive.
In olden days it was traditionally used as an anthelmintic, antiseptic, antispasmodic, carminative, sedative, stimulant, stomachic, tonic, to improve blood circulation, as a cardiac stimulant, as a pain reliever for women during labor, as an agent against tumors and cancers, for colds, rheumatism, fevers, jaundice, diabetes, and arthritis.