Artemisia is a large, diverse genus of plants with between 200-400 species belonging to the daisy family Asteraceae. It comprises hardy herbs and shrubs known for their volatile oils. They grow in temperate climates of the Northern Hemisphere and Southern Hemisphere, usually in dry or semi-dry habitats. The fern-like leaves of many species are covered with white hairs. Some botanists split the genus into several genera, but DNA analysis (Watson et al. 2002) does not support the maintenance of the genera Crossostephium, Filifolium, Neopallasia, Seriphidium, and Sphaeromeria; three other segregate genera Stilnolepis, Elachanthemum, and Kaschgaria are maintained by this evidence.
Common names used for several species include wormwood, mugwort, sagebrush and sagewort, while a few species have unique names, notably Tarragon A. dracunculus and Southernwood A. abrotanum. Occasionally some of the species are called sages, causing confusion with the Salvia sages in the family Lamiaceae.
Artemisia species are used as food plants by the larvae of a number of Lepidoptera species. See List of Lepidoptera that feed on Artemisia.
The aromatic leaves of many species of Artemisia are medicinal, and some are used for flavouring. Most species have an extremely bitter taste. A. dracunculus (Tarragon) is widely used as a herb, particularly important in French cuisine.
Artemisia absinthium (Absinth Wormwood) was used to repel fleas and moths, and in brewing (wormwood beer, wormwood wine). The aperitif vermouth (derived from the German word Wermut, "wormwood") is a wine flavored with aromatic herbs, but originally with wormwood. The highly potent spirit absinthe, also contains wormwood. Wormwood has been used medicinally as a tonic, stomachic, febrifuge and anthelmintic.
Artemisia arborescens (Tree Wormwood, or Sheeba in Arabic) is a very bitter herb indigenous to the Middle East that is used in tea, usually with mint. It may have some hallucinogenic properties.
Within such religious practicies as Wicca, both Wormwood and Mugwort are believed to have multiple effects on the psychic abilities of the practitioner. Because of the power believed to be inherent in certain herbs of the genus Artemisia, many believers cultivate the plants in a "moon garden".
The beliefs surrounding this genus are founded upon the strong association between the herbs of the genus Artemisia and the moon goddess Artemis, who is believed to hold these powers. She is known also by Diana, Selene, and Phoebe. In Hellenistic culture, Artemis was a goddess of the hunt, and protector of the forest and children.
It is also said that the genus Artemisia (which includes over 400 plants) may be named after an ancient botanist. Artemisia was the wife and sister of the Greek/Persian King Mausolus from the name of whose tomb we get the word mausoleum. Artemisia, who ruled for three years after the king's death, was a botanist and medical researcher, and died in 350 B.C. .
The bitterness of the plant led to its use by wet-nurses for weaning infants from the breast, as in this speech by Shakespeare from Romeo and Juliet Act I, Scene 3:
And she [Juliet] was wean'd, – I never shall forget it, –
Of all the days of the year, upon that day:
For I had then laid wormwood to my dug,
A few species are grown as ornamental plants, the fine-textured ones used for clipped bordering. All grow best in free-draining sandy soil, unfertilized, and in full sun.
Shakespeare often refers to wormwood in Hamlet.
"As bitter as wormwood" is a common expression.
Wormwood (Apsinthos in the Greek text) is the "name of the star" in the Book of Revelation (8:11) (kai to onoma tou asteros legetai ho Apsinthos) that John the Evangelist envisions as cast by the angel and falling into the waters, making them undrinkably bitter. Outside the Book of Revelation, there are up to eight further references in the Bible showing that wormwood was a common herb of the area and its awful taste was known, as a drinkable preparation applied for specific reasons.
The word Chernobyl properly refers to Artemisia vulgaris (Mugwort). Some authors claim the Chernobyl Disaster relates to the above sense of "Apsinthos", which is probably A. absinthum (Absinth Wormwood; see Chernobyl: Name origin).
Wormwood is a junior devil in The Screwtape Letters, a novel by C. S. Lewis on human temptation. Miss Wormwood is the name of Calvin's teacher in Calvin and Hobbes, a former daily comic strip by Bill Watterson. This character is named after the Screwtape Letters character.
In Russian culture, the fact that Artemisia species are commonly used in medicine, and their bitter taste is associated with medicinal effects, has caused wormwood to be seen as a symbol for a "bitter truth" that must be accepted by a deluded (often self-deluded) person. This symbol has acquired a particular poignancy in modern Russian poetry, which often deals with the loss of illusory beliefs in various ideologies.
Artemisinin (from Chinese wormwood) is the active ingredient in the anti-malarial combination therapy 'Coartem', produced by Novartis and the WHO.
Watson, L. E. et al. (2002). Molecular phylogeny of subtribe Artemisiinae (Asteraceae), including Artemisia and its allied and segregate genera. BioMed Central Evolutionary Biology2 (17). Available online.
Germplasm Resources Information Network: Artemisia
Flora Europaea: Artemisia
Flora of China: Artemisia species list and Seriphidium species list
Flora of Pakistan: Artemisia and Seriphidium species list