Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Wormwood - Poison, or Healing Herb?

The Green Fairy 
The absinthe craze of the previous centuries has given Wormwood a rather large, and fearsome, reputation. Poets would claim it gave them visions, authorities would claim it poisoned drinkers. Some folks still claim it has properties, both magical and psychoactive. But this silvery leaf, "bitterest of herbs" is more mundane than we realize (I do not mean that as an insult!)

I discovered, some time ago, that the fragrant, soft-leaved plant growing next to my shrine is a member of the Artemisia family, most likely A. absinthium - wormwood. It makes a robust tea that causes the lips to tingle. But, isn't it dangerous? In the 19th c. there was great concern about the dangerous wormwood, supposedly laced with toxic wormwood in great quantities and causing madness in those who consumed it. 

However, it is far more likely that unscrupulous makers were attempting to get that prized "fairy green" color, and using toxic additives for color, including mercury compounds. And of course, Absinthe is a strong drink, perhaps in attempting to obtain an exciting high from the Thujone, people were simply becoming drunk!
A "dangerous" plant, looking rather innocent.
Modern testing to determine the usefulness of wormwood as a drug have shown that the Thujone content can vary wildly, growing conditions and strains can impact the concentrations in a variety of ways. But even the strongest plants had very small amounts, hardly enough to "get high". Similarly, the alcohols made from Wormwood (Which include Pernod, vermouth, and chartreuse) very in thujone concentrations, but are never very strong. (Let's be clear, they are strong in booz-ocity!)

But, as an herb it has many uses besides summoning hallucinations! It's soothing on the stomach, improves circulation, brings on the menses, and as the name suggest, it helps to expel parasites.  In fact, some people suggest its use around the house to repel insects! It can, however, if taken in vast quantities damage the kidneys. Then again, so can black tea.

Dried bundles for smudging.
Magically, it is connected with the graveyard. It is often used around Samhain for rites and cleansing, and to summon the spirits of the dead. I suppose that's a bit like having visions, but not quite how the romantic poets described it...

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