Wormwood is one of the bitterest herbs known and provides the bitter flavor in vermouth. Its essential oil contains thujone as a major constituent; thujone is harmful in large amounts. Wormwood is used in closet and drawer sachets, as a bitter aromatic and as an ingredient in liniments.
A native of Europe, this attractive shrub has long brought color and texture to the herb garden, and several cultivars have been developed to enhance the herb's appearance. Be careful what you plant close to wormwood, however, as it secretes a substance that inhibits the growth of many plants.
Wormwood is harvested just before or when in flower, starting in the second year of growth. The plant should be cut to include the herbaceous (soft, green) stem, but above the woody stem.
Constituents of Note: Wormwood contains up to 1.5% essential oil of which thujone is present as a major component. (NOTE: Thujone is a toxic substance that can cause convulsions and even death when consumed at high levels.) Other important constituents include bitter principles (sesquiterpene lactones), flavonoids, lignins and phenolic acids. The flavor is extremely bitter and aromatic.
Did you know? Wormwood is used as a bitter flavoring in vermouth, beer and some wines. But it's best known as a flavoring in absinthe, a popular aperitif in the 1800s and early 1900s, favored by the Bohemian culture of the time, including many artists such as writer Oscar Wilde, poet Charles Baudelaire, and painter Pablo Picasso.
Absinthe was a green liquor that was flavored with extracts of wormwood, anise and fennel in a high-alcohol base. Addiction to absinthe and its habitual use was believed to lead to a disorder called absinthism and to be partly responsible for Vincent van Gogh’s seizures and hallucinations, which contributed to his eventual suicide. It was banned in the U.S. and France in 1923 and in much of Europe soon thereafter.
Absinthe is being produced again today, as it's believed that the reported harmful effects were exaggerated (or at least not more dangerous than the harmful effects that result from drinking any other beverage with the same alcohol content) and were somewhat the result of other ingredients -- such as copper sulfate, which was added to give absinthe its green color.