Most people probably know it as a weed, but there is much more to wormwood sage than being just another weed.  Wormwood sage or Artemisia absinthium is native to the Mediterranean that was brought into the United States in the 1840’s, probably as an ornamental.  It has spread to become naturalized over much of North America.  It has a weedy habit and has no forage or wildlife value, and is even listed as a noxious weed in both North and South Dakota.

Wormwood sage is a common weed of waste places and disturbed areas such as old dumps, rock piles, and gravel pits, as well as road ditches, overgrazed pastures, and the like.  The species is also used occasionally as an ornamental, particularly in rock gardens or on poor soils, although I have not observed that in our region.

The younger growth or “rosette” of grayish-green leaves is commonly observed earlier in the growing season.  As growth continues this herbaceous perennial member of the aster family will grow to 2-5 feet in height and produce small inconspicuous flowers from around August through September.  The grayish-green leaves make the plant quite conspicuous, and are deeply incised with a greenish-gray upper surface and a silvery-white lower surface.   Like many other sages, there is also a noticeable smell of camphor.

Although I am not aware of any use of the plant in modern medicine, wormwood was used medicinally since before the time of Christ.  As the name implies, it was used to treat worms (anthelminthic), and has also been used in a wide range of other applications ranging from aphrodisiac to treating stomach problems, epilepsy, gout, and leprosy.

Most people would probably be surprised to learn that wormwood is a major ingredient in vermouth.  It is also the major ingredient in absinthe, a strong distilled spirit that in the 1800’s was reported to cause hallucinations due to a substance called thujone.  Absinthe was a popular drink in France during the 1800’s and was a favored drink of Vincent Van Gogh.  Rightly or wrongly the drink has been associated with Van Gogh’s painting style, and the sad episode of him cutting off his ear in a severe bout of depression.  The reported hallucinogenic properties of absinthe, however, have now been disproven, and the United States lifted the long standing ban on the substance in 2007.

Chuck Lura

Natural North Dakota is supported by NDSU Central Grasslands Research Extension Center and Minot State University-Bottineau, and by the members of Prairie Public. Thanks to Sunny 101.9 in Bottineau for their recording services.

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