Wormwood

(Artemisia absinthium) Wormwood was cultivated quite extensively in the 18th century around London, for use as an aromatic tonic and vermifuge (Salisbury. 1964). The drink known as absinthe was actually taken as a "tonic drink"; it became very popular by the end of the 19th century. Made from oils of wormwood, combined with anise, coriander and hyssop, absinthe is a narcotic alcoholic drink, banned now that it is realised that it causes permanent neural damage (Emboden. 1979). At one time, wormwood was used in the preparation of all sorts of medicated wines and ale. One of them was called purl, "which hard drinkers are in the habit of taking in the morning to go through their hard day's labours" - this was wormwood mixed with ale (Thornton). Nowadays, extract of aniseed has replaced wormwood in aromatic liqueurs - in Pernod, for example, though small amounts of wormwood are still added to vermouth, which is a fortified white wine (Le Strange).

As with southernwood, wormwood's aroma can be put to use as an insect-repellent. The dried leaves are put among clothes to keep the moth away (Rohde), and it is also used to keep rooms free from fleas. As Tusser said:

While wormwood hath seed, get a handful or twain,

To save against March, to make flea to refrain.

Where chamber is sweeped and wormwood is strowne.

No flea for his life dare abide to be knowne.

"Whoever would destroy fleas, let him steep wormwood in the sea for an hour, and afterwards dry it in the sun. When sufficiently dry fleas coming in contact therewith will die" (Physicians of Myddfai). It "keepeth and saveth books and clothes from fretting of mice and of worms, if it be laid therewith in chests or coffers" (Bartholomew Anglicus). Perhaps similar reasoning accounts for the Monmouthshire practice of putting wormwood, together with rue and hyssop, in a coffin (Wherry).

The very strong smell must account for its use in some parts of Europe as a protection against evil spirits. Bunches of it would be hung on doors and windows, or at the belt (Beza). Arnaldo de Vilanova was writing in the early 14th century, and he said that wormwood placed at the door will act as a preventive of sorcery (Lea). So, too, in Somerset, where it was used against the evil eye. The same idea must have been present in France at one time, for it is a St John's herb there (Beza). Another aspect of its preventive role can be seen in manuscripts of Apuleius, where carrying a sprig of wormwood was recommended as a specific against the weariness and danger of travel in wild and mountainous country (Blunt & Raphael), a belief that carried into the 20th century: "as recently as 1925, it was recorded that a driver of the "Auto-Post", on a precipitous road with hairpin bends leading to Maloja, was observed to have a branch of this plant hanging from his windscreen" (Arber). To dream of wormwood is a good sign, they say, and this must be from the general esteem in which it was held.

Thomas Dekker, in Wonderful Yeare, 1603, spoke of persons apprehensive of catching the plague, when "they went most bitterly miching and muffled up and downe, with rue and wormwood stuft into their eares and nosthrils, looking like so many bore's heads stuck with branches of rosemary, to be served in for brawne at Christmas". Wormwood steeped in vinegar and kept "in a close-stopped pewter piece" was commonly carried in plague years, to be sniffed in dangerous places (Painter). It used to be said in Alabama that wormwood tea was good for cholera (R B Browne). This of course is a case of the strong smell drowning infection;

southernwood was used for the same purpose in Orkney. But so famous was wormwood as a medicine that it was actually used as a symbol of health (Painter), and it has been used over the centuries for an enormously long list of ills, from a simple cold (a hot water decoction of the leaves) and tonic, to more complicated ailments like jaundice - "the decoction cureth the yellow jaundice, or the infusion. If it be drunke thrice a day some ten or twelve spoonfuls at a time" (Gerard).

The leaf decoction is also used to expel worms, a folk remedy recorded in Orkney (Leask) and in America (Sanford), and in fact well known all over the place. It has been suggested that this use against worms arose from a reading of the name wormwood, and the alteration of the spelling from wermod to the modern name, for it is not worm+wood. The original word is Germanic, and it became weremod in OE, Wermut in German, and vermouth in French (Potter & Sargent). But it is still being used for worms, and is a genuine anthelmintic, even if dangerous because of the large amounts needed (Fluck). An overdose can cause heart damage (Mabey). Quite possibly the name wormwood came into being because of the remedy rather than the other way round. Certainly, some of the recipes are old - Cockayne has, from Apuleius, "In case that round worms are troublesome about the navel, take the wort, and horehound, and electre [lupin], alike much of each, seethe in sweetened water or wine, lay it twice or thrice to the navel". A Yorkshire leechdom was more complicated: "take wormwood, rue, bull's gall, and hog's grease; fry all together; apply to the child's navel, and anoint the stomach with the same" (Nicholson). While on the subject, note Wesley's "Ear-ach from Worms ... Juice of Wormwood, which kills them", but that is quite another matter.

Wormwood tea is good for indigestion, though the dose should not be continued for more than a day or two (Brownlow). On the island of Chios, wormwood is still the great standby for stomach upsets; there is a saying there that translates "bitter on the lips, sweet to the heart" (Argenti & Rose). In Morocco, we find it being used for heartburn and stomach-ache. Mixed with tea, it is also supposed to promote proper digestion after a meal; but if people have such tea on two or three consecutive days, they will quarrel and separate (Westermarck), surely a recognition of the deleterious effect of the continued dosage.

It is just possible that the bitterness of wormwood may have some genuine effect in an Irish remedy for the falling sickness, in which it was claimed that the juice of wormwood, fennel or sage put into the patient's mouth while he was in the fit, would have an immediate effect (Wilde. 1890), but it sounds just as much from the world of fantasy as Aubrey's story of Sir John Hoskin's wife, "when she lay in of her eldest son, had a swelling on one side of her belly, the third day, when the milk came, and obstructions: she dreamt that syrup of elderberries and distilled water of wormwood would do her good, and it did so ..." (Aubrey. 1686). What are "vanities of the head"? Dizziness, perhaps? Anyway there is a recipe for this in the Gentleman's Magazine for a "good oyntment" - "take the juice of wormewood and salte, honye, waxe and incens, and boyle them together over the fire, and therewith anoynte the sick heade and temples". The same source has a receipt for "a man or woman that hath loste their speeche - take wormewood and stampe it, and temper it with water, and strayne it, and with a spoone doe of it into their mouthes". Surely, the most outrageous is the recipe for an elixir, taken from an Irish manuscript of 1770: 1oz cochineal, 1 oz gentian root, 2 drachms each of saffron, snakeroot, salt of wormwood, and the rind of 10 oranges. The whole to be steeped in a quart of brandy, and kept for use" (Wilde. 1890).

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