Fragrant Plants in Legend, Lore and Myth-Wormwood-Caroline Catharine Wilkinson

Wormwood-Caroline Catharine Wilkinson



Welsh, Chwerwlys (A.marttima), Cherwlys ar fdr, Sythflodenog
(A. absinthium), C. llwyd. Irish, Bofullan. Gaelic, Liath
lus. French, Absynthe, Armoise, Herbe St. Jean, Garde-
robe. German, Wernmth. Italian, Assenzio. Spanish,
Axenjo. Illyric, Pellin, Akscenoz. Arabic, Bytheran (A.
Judaicd), Sheeh (A. inculta), Shaybeh, "grey hairs" or
"old man" (A. arborescens), Andther (A. monosperma).


Syngenesia. Composites.

Polygamia superflua. Corymbiferce.

(Sub-tribe) Tubiftorce.

IN the days of King Edward III., when men met
in strife to clear their honour through "trial by
battle/' they pledged their knightly word that they
had "nothing to do with witchcraft, nor magic, nor
carried any herb or other kind of charm." And so
universal, even at a far later date, was the belief in
the efficacy of some " herb of power " as a charm,
that it is amusing to find the simple and credulous
old Gerarde turning philosopher, and sneering at
Pliny for saying "that the wayfaring man that hath
the herbe (wormwood) tied about him feeleth no
wearisomenesse at all, and that he who hath it
about him can be hurt by no poysonsome medi-
cines, nor by any wild beast, neither yet by the
sun himself/' when he himself complacently avows
that he thrust sticks into the ground, with other
sticks " fastened also crossewais over them/' " about
the place where cyclamen " grew in his garden, in
order to prevent "the danger and inconvenience"
to those who came "neere unto it," or had to "stride
over it/' giving, at the same time, numberless other
proofs of concurrence in the easy belief of his age.
This is, moreover, by no means the only occasion on
which he expresses his virtuous indignation against
"old wives fables, fit only for writers who fill up
their pages with lies and frivolous toies ! " So much
for consistency !

Gerarde, however, highly esteems the herb for
more legitimate uses, strongly recommending it for
weak stomachs and eyes, loss of appetite, fainting
fits, worms, and jaundice. For these complaints,
he tells us, it is to be taken internally, ten or
twelve spoonsful of the tea, three times a day, as
" withstanding putrefactions ; " while it is much
commended as a poultice or fomentation, as well
as for driving away gnats for which purpose it
is much used by Asiatics, being burned in torches.
He says it is also of use for "helping them that
are strangled with eating of mushroomes or toad-
stools/' for the "biting of a shrew, or of a sea-
dragon," and as an antidote to the "poison of
Ixia;"* while the "sea cypress" (A. marrtima)
"cureth such as are splenetic;" and "cattle-going
near the sea, and eating it, get fat and lusty." In the
East the artemisia is used as a charm against witch-
craft ; and after certain ceremonies have been duly
performed in gathering it, such as plucking it on
the fifth day of the fifth moon, it is hung up in
doorways for the purpose.

The wormwoods are successfully employed by the
peasantry in cases of pulmonary weakness, and even
of consumption ; and any old woman on the Scot-
tish coast can tell how it happened that the herb
was first tried for these complaints. The univer-
sally-believed story is, that, in the good old days,
a young and lovely girl lay dying of consumption,
when her lover, wandering out disconsolately on the
silent shore, was attracted by the sound of a gently
murmured song, to which, for some time, he paid no
attention: until, on turning round the point of a
rock, he observed a mermaid sporting in the ebbing
waves. Arousing himself from his all-absorbing
grief, he soon discovered the burden of her song
to be the following words :

" For why should maidens die,
When the nettle grows in March,
And mug-wort in July ?"

and naturally obeying the oracular advice, he has-
tened home to administer an infusion of mug-wort
to her in whom his every hope was centred. This
done, she fell into a quiet and natural sleep, and, by
a continued use of the prescribed remedy, she was
ultimately restored to health ; from which time, as
may be supposed, the injunctions of the benevolent
mermaid were implicitly followed in similar cases.
As, in common with all the corymblferce, the
wormwoods have a bitter and essential oil, which
is a valuable aromatic, and stimulant, tonic ; yield-
ing a simple and useful remedy for a great variety of
common complaints, without leaving any injurious
after effects. The flowers of the Artemisia Juddica
are often placed about the beds in an Eastern house
to drive away bugs, or are burnt to keep off mus-
quitos ; and Burton recommends pillows of worm-
wood in order to procure sleep. Dr. Home, too,
gives an instance of a woman who was cured of
hysteric fits of many years standing, after assafcetida
and other more powerful drugs had entirely failed.
The tribe is, however, quite rejected by the London
College, though happily retaining its place in rustic

Among the superstitious it still retains its credit ;
and an old belief continues to be connected with
the circumstance of the dead roots of wormwood
being black, and somewhat hard, and remaining
for a long period undecayed beneath the living
plant. They are then called " wormwood coal "
and if placed under a lover's pillow they are be-
lieved to produce a dream of the person he loves.

Pellets made of its down are used, as well as
cotton, for the Moxa of Eastern Asia, which, being
lighted and placed on any part requiring external,
or counter, irritation, is suffered slowly to smoulder
down until the pellet is consumed.

In Wales and Ireland the wormwoods are, as of
old, largely employed, instead of hops, for flavour-
ing beer; and the "purl" for which Dublin and
other Irish cities are so celebrated, is also prepared
from it ; though the fellows of All Souls' College,
Oxford, pride themselves in the belief that this
drink is unknown except at that particular abode
of learning. They even give to their silver cups
the peculiar title of " ox-eyes/' and speak distinct-
ively of their favourite beverage as "an ox-eye of
wormwood." This drink, with a slice of lemon,
and herb of grace, "taken fasting/' is put forth
as a preventive of plague in a broadsheet of the
seventeenth century, which is most profanely en-
titled, " Lord have mercy upon us." The Germans
also prepare a similar beverage, called Wermuth-
bier; and the French liqueur, eau d'absynthe, is
well known throughout Europe.

We possess four, or perhaps five, wormwoods : one
of which, the lavender-leaved (A . ccerulescens), is re-
corded as occurring on the coast near Boston, and
also in the Isle of Wight; though, as Sir W. Hooker
observes, it is no longer found in either place ;
another, the common wormwood (A. absinthium),
which, from its plentiful growth and the spots it
selects for its habitat, is that most usually employed
in medicine, abounds in dry waste places about houses
and villages ; and marks out so definitely the dwell-
ings of man, that in the Pyrenees and other places
the spots where shepherds' huts formerly stood are
indicated by the occurrence of the plant, though no
other trace of them remains. The common mug-
wort (A. vulgaris), also frequents similar places, but
may be distinguished by its ranker growth, as it
usually attains a height of from three to four feet,
or about double that of the A. absinthium, as well
as by its naked receptacle, that of the A. absinthium
being distinctly hairy.

The sea-wormwood (A. maritima vel Gallica)
(Willde) or "garden cypress"' is the holy- worm-
wood,, or semen sanctum of old herbalists (of which
Gerarde observes that it is " sold evrie where by the
apothecaries"), and flourishes abundantly on our
sandy shores or salt marshes, where & so-called
variety with drooping racemes, may frequently be
observed growing on the same root as the original

The southernwood, "boy's love/' "old man/" or "old
man's beard" the "grey hairs/' or shaybeh, of the
Arabs (A.arborescens, or campestris) occurs, though
sparingly, on the dry sandy heaths of Norfolk and
Suffolk, especially in the neighbourhood of Thet-
ford and Bury. I cannot, however, believe it to be
a really indigenous plant ; though it may be heresy
even to hint that either the agency of man, or of the
waves, first brought it to our shores. It may, most
probably, be ascribed to the former. This pleasant
old-fashioned plant is known to everybody, gladden-
ing, as it does, the cottage garden, and forming a pro-
minent feature in the village nosegay. This is the
plant of which the " Stockholm MS." says ;

" More of whych, Goddys grace,
Think I to seyn on oyer place ; [in another place]
At ye hed will I be gyne
For sicknesse fallyth ofty yer ine [oft-times therein]
Zif man or woman, more or lesse
In his hed haue gret sicknesse
Or gmiance [grievance] or ony werking,
Awoyne he take wt. owte lettyng, [without delay]
Zt is callyd sowthernwode also,
And hony eteys et spurge, [Euphorbia] stamp yer to,
And late hy yis drink, fastind drynky
[And let him this drink, fasting drink it]
And his hed werk away schall synkyn [sink].