by Angeliki Barouti
“Thy secret pleasure turns to open shame, Thy private feasting to a public fast,Thy smoothing titles to a ragged name, Thy sugared tongue to bitter wormwood taste”
Artemisia absinthium has always been a highly popular plant and is mentioned in many herbal, religious and art books for its medicinal properties, bitter taste and the legendary drink absinthe.
A. absinthium L. belongs to the Asteraceae, known for its impressive flowering plants, daisies and asters, with over than 32,000 species. Within this diverse family many traditional medicines, herbal preparations and poisons exist .
The origin of the name is probably from the Greek Goddess Artemis who said to have discovered the plant’s properties, and the Greek word apsinthion, meaning “undrinkable” . The plant is commonly known by the name wormwood, green ginger, but there are also other folk names across the countries .
It is an aromatic, hardy, perennial sub-shrub plant with erect, woody, medium size stems bear alternate, and silvery leaves with silky soft hairs that produce the essential oil of the plant. Small yellowish flowers bloom in late summer, usually from July to October . A. absinthium is native to Europe, parts of Asia, N. Africa and it was introduced to North America in 1841 . Now it is widely cultivated and sold excessively in herb markets in Venezuela, Panama and Costa Rica .
The therapeutic use of wormwood chronicles back to ancient times. Wormwood was documented in the Ebers Papyrus, an Egyptian medical papyrus of herbal knowledge dating from about 1550 B.C.E.. In Greece the mathematician and philosopher, Pythagoras (569–475 B.C.E.), recommended wine-soaked wormwood leaves to alleviate labor pains and Hippocrates (460–377 B.C.E.) used it for the treatment of menstrual pain and rheumatism. Pliny the Elder (23–79 C.E.), a Roman naturalist, scientist and philosopher, also mentioned extracts of wormwood in his “encyclopedia”, Historia Naturalis .
Wormwood is also mentioned several times in the Bible. In the Old Testament is referred as a punishment, “Behold, I will feed this people wormwood and give them poisoned water to drink”, “He has filled me with bitterness; He has intoxicated me with wormwood” (Jeremiah 9:15, Lamentations 3:15) and injustice, “You who turn justice into wormwood and cast righteousness to the ground”, (Amos 5:7). In the Revelations 8:11 wormwood is the name of a star that when the third angel sounds his trumpet will fall from the sky and turn the waters bitter.
In the middle ages, wormwood was very popular and it was used for stomach pains and sickness, as a purge, vermifuge, moth repellant and general pesticide. Also because of its bitter taste, women were applying it to their nipples to encourage the weaning of their babies. William Shakespeare inspired by this and referred to wormwood in Romeo and Juliet (Act 1, Scene 3) where Juliet’s childhood nurse said: “When it did taste the wormwood on the nipple of my dug and felt it bitter, pretty fool, to see it tetchy and fall out with the dug” [6, 7].
The active components are bitter substances, the sesquiterpene lactones, with absinthin and artabsin being the main compounds, flavonoids, essential oil and resins. The essential oil is a mixture of many volatile compounds with high therapeutic potential [3, 8]. However, its composition varies qualitatively and quantitative from a region to another, creating different chemotypes, for the same plant. For example α-thujone can be found usually in plants grown below 1,000m above the sea level, for example in Europe and Morocco where (z)-epoxyocimene above 1,000m, in Croatia, France and Iberian peninsula. Chamazulene is the main component in chemotypes from Turkey and Tunise, camphor from Turkey and Ethiopia, while trans-sabinylacetat and chrysanthenyl-acetate can be found in many different chemotypes. Other components re¬ported are β-thujone, myrcene, β-pinene, 1,8-cineole, camphor, and other hydrocarbon monoter¬penes [3, 9-14].
Civilizations for the past thousand years have used the aerial parts of wormwood, such flower, seeds, fruit, leaves, stems, in many formulations, teas, powder, tincture or its essential oil to treat all manner of illness and inflammation.
Traditionally, wormwood has a unique position in Unani, a Perso-Arabic medicine as it was used for diverse diseases like jaundice, fever, hepatitis, cirrhosis, epilepsy, gout, rheumatism, dyspepsia, diarrhoea, inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), colitis, anorexia, ascites, haemorrhoids, weak memory, helminthic infestation, eye diseases, otorrhoea , menstrual disorders, scorpion bites, insect repellent and for even more [15, 16].
Its use expands to all continents. In Puerto Rico and Jamaica, it is taken with empty stomach for its anthelmintic properties and fresh and dry branches are used to repel mosquitoes and moths 5. In central Italy the poultice of aerial parts are applied on tendon inflammations . In Pakistan where 7.1 million people suffer from diabetes mellitus the public health care system is unsufficient, patients are using various wormwood as an alternative antidiabetic plants . Additionally, Traditional Chinese medicine practitioners use the plant for treating acute bacillary dysentery, cancers and neurodegenerative diseases 19. Other traditional uses are as astringents, cardiac stimulant, diuretic, emmanagogue, antiseptic, antidepressive and antispasmodic [20, 38], most of them can be explained while looking through of some wormwood’s biological properties.
Wormwood has a strongly bitter flavor that can affect the feed intake and assists, rather than stimulating, the digestion through gastric juice secration (eupeptic). In addition, it was found out that wormwood belongs to a specific group of eupeptics that has cardiovascular therapeutic uses outside of their digestive ones because it enhances vascular tonus and thus reduces the load on the heart .
Some of its natural components such as sesquiterpenes and flavonoids are well known to possess anti-inflammatory and analgesic activity through a mechanism associated with synthesis or release of inflammatory mediators such as the histamine, serotonin, bradykinins and prostaglandins . In addition wormwood found to be beneficial in Crohn’s disease (CD), by improving not only the symptoms but also the mood and quality of life of all patients [23, 24].
A. absinthium is a source of many secondary metabolites that can diminish or prevent oxidation and thus, restrain the damage of radicals in tissue.
Wormwood was used widely in China as neuroprotective, for the improvement of memory. Its extracts were found to potentiate the nerve growth factor and protect from brain ischemia and oxidative stress. As a result, it could be useful as a complementary treatment of stroke, the most universal cause of disability [25, 26]. However, the evidence for this is far too preliminary and there clearly is no evidence that this could be a main or acute.
A.absinthium, among many other plants, has been highly studied the past years due to the increasing resistance in synthetic antibiotics. Wormwood has a broad spectrum of antimicrobial inhibition against a variety of bacteria, especially the gram positive ones and fungi [27-30, 9 ,10].
Plant extract consist complex mixtures, and it must be under consideration that components can act synergesticly or antagonictly. However it is suggested that several effects can be attributed to some major components like (Z)-epoxyocimene, chamazulene, β –thujone, camphor or caryiophyllene .
As its common name indicates, wormwood was and still is an effective anthelmintic agent used to destroy intestinal worms. Besides this activity, wormwood has antiprotozoal uses. It inhibits Trypanosoma brucei, T. cruzi and T. congolese, possibly due to the components trans-caryophyllene and dihydrochamazulene . These parasites are responsible for two severe diseases, the Chagas disease in Latin America and the African trypanosomiasis that have infected hundreds of millions of people. Antileishmanial activity against Leishmania infantum, L. aethiopica and L. donovani has been also reported [33, 32] and growth inhibitory effects against the brain damaging amoeba Naegleria fowleri . In addition wormwood has antimalarian activity, like its famous relative species A. annua, against Plasmodium falciparum and P. bergei . Furthermore, the essential oil inhibits Trichominas vaginalis, due to trans-caryophyllene and (-)-cis-chrysanthenol . Trichomoniasis is among the world’s most common sexually transmitted diseases with more than 276 million cases per year .
A.absinthium is also a promising plant for the treatment of cancer. Ethanolic extracts from roots, leaves, seeds and herba are reported to be cytotoxic, promoting apoptosis to various types of cancer cells. The cytotoxic effects are possibibly due to the presence of trans-caryophyllene, chamazulene and germanene D .
Art and Absinthe
A. absinthium is the main ingredient of the famous alcoholic drink named absinthe. The origin of the famous bitter drink is Couvet in Switzerland by Dr. Pierre Ordinaire but its popularity started in 1805 when it was transferred in a distillery in France . Initially absinthe was expensive but due to wars in the 19th century its usage increased. In the war of Algeria absinthe was given to the soldiers, protectively for malaria and helminthiasis, as antiseptic and to raise the fighting spirit [40, 41].
By the 19th century the absinthe, or “green fairy”, had become the most favorable drink in France and it was consumed by all people, especially the Bohemian class. Absinthe was the symbol of la vie bohème, artists and intellectuals preferred it for its emerald colour and because they thought it was assisting in the flow of ideas and creativity. From the 1867, around 5 o’clock in the evening, people were gathering, sipping large amounts of absinthe and reaching levels of intoxication to celebrate l’heure verte (the green hour) [41, 42, 43].
For many artists, writers and poets absinthe was an element of their daily routine and this is depicted in many of their works. In the late 19th century Edouard Manet and Edgar Degas, founders of impressionism, painted the ritual of drinking absinthe. Furthermore, the impressionist painter Vincent van Gogh got addicted to absinthe and this slow poisoning deteriorate his health [39,42]. Herni Toulouse-Lautrec, Paul Gaugin, friends of Van Gogh, and Pablo Picasso had also the green fairy as an inspiration for their works. Additionally, in the literature field Oscar Wilde, Paul Verlaine, Arthur Rimbaud, Charles Baudelaire, Edgar Alan Poe, Oscar Wilde and Ernest Hemingway were devotees of absinthe [39, 44-46].
“After the first glass you see things as you wish they were. After the second, you see things as they are not. Finally you see things as they really are, and that is the most horrible thing in the world”
A. absinthium L. is a significant medicinal plant with therapeutic uses dating back to ancient times. Experimental studies have shown that it demonstrates numerous different biological activities that encourage a potential on modern therapeutic use. Its special characteristics are its bitterness and aroma which have been an inspiration to many folk stories and to the artistic and literary set of belle époque. Undoubtedly there is mysticism surrounding wormwood and this mystery makes it one of the most interesting plants existing.
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Image 1 Artemisia absinthium: By AfroBrazilian [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons, available from: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Artemisia_absinthium_01.JPG
Image 2 Names of wormwood across the world: By the author
Image 3 Artemisia absinthium L., drawing of plant, flowers, seeds and fruits, by W. Muller 1885: Public domain, available from: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Artemisia_absinthium_-_K%C3%B6hler%E2%80%93s_Medizinal-Pflanzen-164.jpg
Image 4 The third trumpet and the wormwood, Bataille Nicolas, tapestry, 14th Century: Public domain, available from: https://www.pbslearningmedia.org/resource/xir161725fre/the-third-trumpet-and-the-wormwood-star-xir161725-fre/
Image 5 Artemisia absinthium L. by Jan Christiaan Sepp 1844: Public domain, available from: https://theflowerlanguage.wordpress.com/tag/vintage-image-of-a-wormwood-in-public-domain/
Image 6 Wormwood herba: By MichielSt [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons, available from: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Artemisia_absinthium_L._(absintalsem).jpg
Image 7 Antibacterial and antifungal activity reported: By the author
Image 8 Glass with absinthe served with a cube of sugar: Eric Litton [CC BY-SA 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons, available from: https://el.wikipedia.org/wiki/%CE%91%CF%81%CF%87%CE%B5%CE%AF%CE%BF:Absinthe-glass.jpg
Image 9 Vincent van Gogh, “Café table with absinthe”, 1887: Public domain, https://arthive.com/pablopicasso/works/31216~The_absinthe_drinker
Image 10 Pablo Picasso, “The absinthe drinker: Public domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Table_de_caf%C3%A9_avec_absinthe.jpg