Scientific Name(S): Artemisia absinthium L. Family: Compositae.
Common Name(S): Wormwood, absinthium, armoise, wermut, absinthe, absinthites, ajenjo.
The wormwood is an odorous perennial shrub native to Europe. Today the plant is naturalized in the United States where it grows widely throughout the Northeast and North Central regions. The leaves and stems are covered with fine silky hairs and the plant grows to a height of about 3 feet. The small flowers are green-yellow and the indented leaves have a silver-gray color.
Wormwood was traditionally used in the treatment of worm infections and as flavoring agents.
The FDA classified wormwood as an unsafe herb. Ingestion of wormwood may result in neurologic symptoms described as "absinthism." The syndrome is characterized by digestive disorders, thirst, restlessness, vertigo, trembling of the limbs, delirium, paralysis, and death.
The name wormwood is derived from the ancient use of the plant and its extracts as an intestinal anthelmintic. The leaves and flowering tops were used as a bitter aromatic tonic, sedative, and flavoring. A tea of the plant was used traditionally as a diaphoretic. Wormwood extract was the main ingredient in absinthe, a toxic liqueur that induces absinthism, characterized by intellectual enfeeblement, hallucinations, psychosis, and possible brain damage. The drink is now outlawed but had been popular until the early part of the 20th century. The emerald green color of absinthe liqueur came from chlorophyll; however, there had been reports of copper and antimony salts being added as colorants to inferior batches, with toxic consequences. Thujone-free wormwood extract is currently used as a flavoring, primarily in alcoholic beverages such as vermouth.
The bitter taste of wormwood is due to the glucosides absinthin and anabsinthin and several related compounds. The plant contains a pleasant-smelling volatile oil (about 1% to 2% by weight); up to 12% of the oil is a mixture of alpha- and beta-thujone with smaller amounts of phellandrene, pinene, azulene and more than a half-dozen other minor components. Flowers may contain oil composed of up to 35% thujones. Cis- and trans-epoxyocimenes account for up to 57% of the volatile oil derived from Italian absinthium.
Wormwood and its extracts have been used traditionally in the treatment of worm infections and as flavoring agents. Wormwood extract was the most important component of the liqueur absinthe, a toxic drink that was banned early in the 20th century. Wormwood toxicity is caused by thujone, which may exert its central effect by interacting with receptors for tetrahydrocannabinol.
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