Wormwood (Artemisia absinthium) is an herbaceous perennial originally native to Eurasia and northern Africa. It has since become naturalized in much of Canada and the United States, and these feathery, silvery plants with their spiraling leaves have become a common sight in waste areas.
Widely known as a magical herb, it also has a history of use in medicine and the making of liquor — especially absinthe.
Magical Properties of Wormwood
This plant is known as a visionary herb. Some sources hold that it was an ingredient in the infamous flying ointment of historical witches, and some magic practitioners still use it to induce visions.
Interestingly, this bitter plant is used both as a baneful herb and a protective one. Carrying a sachet is said to prevent accidents, but it’s also included in herbal mixtures to divert negative energy or harmful magic back to the sender. When carried, it also acts as a charm against the evil eye.
Its use in spiritwork is similarly contradictory. It’s often added to herbal incense mixtures for calling up helpful spirits, but can also be burned to banish them.
Wormwood is ruled by the planet Mars and the elements of air or fire.
Benefits & Uses of Wormwood
Wormwood gets its name from its use as a vermifuge — a medication that kills internal parasites, especially intestinal worms.
It has also been used to treat intestinal disorders, stomach pains, and problems with the liver and gall bladder. It is very bitter, which can help stimulate the secretion of bile.
It’s sometimes used topically for insect bites or joint pain.
Historically, it is one of the herbs used for flavoring absinthe and vermouth. Traditional absinthe is illegal in many countries, and the modern equivalent is restricted to less than 35 mg/kg.
Wormwood is a helpful companion plant, as it inhibits the growth of some pest insects and repels others. It may also stunt the growth of other plants around it, so plan your garden accordingly.
Possible Risks & Side Effects of Wormwood
Some people are allergic to wormwood and other members of the same family. These can show up anything from mild rashes, all the way to anaphylaxis. If you are allergic to wormwood, mugwort, or other Artemisias, please substitute a different herb.
While wormwood has been used medicinally in the past, it’s far from the safest herb in a healer’s toolkit. The line between “medicinal” and “deadly” is very thin. For this reason, the medical benefits outlined above are best treated purely as a historical resource.
Wormwood contains thujone. Thujone can cause seizures, muscle breakdown, kidney damage, irregular heartbeat, paralysis, and death.
It’s possible to absorb wormwood’s psychoactive compounds through your skin, especially if you’re working with the fresh herb. Wear gloves when handling wormwood.
Wormwood is generally safe in the amounts used to flavor food or beverages, as long as those products don’t contain thujone. It’s best to avoid consuming these products regularly, and take a break after two weeks of use.
Wormwood essential oil is very concentrated. It should never be taken internally, and should only be used externally with caution and sufficient dilution using a neutral carrier oil.
Wormwood History & Folklore
The name Artemisia may come from the name of the Goddess Artemis. However, since this has historically been considered an herb ruled by Mars, it’s more likely that it takes its name from Queen Artemisia, wife and sister of Mausolus of Caria.
Wormwood was known as a helpful plant for repelling pests. In 1577, English poet and farmer Thomas Tusser wrote about gathering wormwood seeds “[t]o save against March, to make flea to refraine[.]”
William Shakespeare mentions wormwood in Romeo and Juliet. In it, Juliet’s wet nurse mentions weaning the child by placing wormwood on her nipple, to make it bitter.
According to Christian folklore, wormwood sprang up in the trail of the serpent when he left the Garden of Eden. In the Book of Revelation, a star named Wormwood is said to plunge to Earth, turning one third of the seas bitter.
In Slavic folklore, carrying a sprig of wormwood repels rusalki, malicious water spirits. According to one source, rusalki originate from young women who experienced violent, watery deaths — either by suicide, or being drowned. They would seduce men to the waterways they haunted, and entangle them in their long hair until they drowned.
Getting Started With Wormwood
Wormwood is fairly easy to grow — it’s already wild in temperate regions all around the world. If you’d like to keep it in your garden, you can grow it from cuttings or seed.
Plant it in autumn in a spot with full to partial sun, and it’ll sprout for you in spring. As a companion plant, it’s best grown at least two feet from other plants. Grow it around the perimeter of your yard, and you’ll drastically reduce the numbers of pests bothering your other plants.
When wormwood flowers, between July and October, cut off the flowering tops and hang them to dry. Once they’re dry, either save them as-is or grind to a powder.
Since wormwood isn’t the safest herb to work with, novice witches should do so with care. Avoid burning it indoors, as the smoke can be toxic. The best way to get started with it is to use it in an herbal sachet or protection jar.
For a simple travel protection spell, fill a cloth pouch with dried wormwood and a single peach pit. As you add each ingredient, ask it to protect your vehicle and everyone in it from accidents, and thank it for its help. Tie the pouch shut and hold it in both hands. Visualize the pouch filling with a warm, protective light.
Place the pouch in your vehicle. In a car, the glove box is a good spot. On a motorcycle, place it in a saddlebag. Otherwise, keep it in your purse to protect you on public transit. When the pouch is in place, picture the protective light expanding to encompass the entire vehicle like a shield.
Wormwood is a powerful herb with a reputation as strong as its flavor. Its bitterness and insect-repelling compounds don’t just help keep pests at bay — they can chase away evil, malevolent magic, and unwanted spirits.
Treat this herb with the respect it deserves, and it will show you its magical secrets.
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