Saturday, August 23, 2008

Wormwood: A Little Dab'll Do Ya

1)My wormwood plant, 2007.

2)A glass of absinthe. Photo from the web site

of The Wormwood Society (Absinthe Assn.)

(From Full Circle by Pat Browning, Chapter 28.)

"Artemisia absinthium." Dr. Heff beamed. "Wonderful tonic. An old standby for digestive upset. Just here." He pointed with his clipper at several sturdy bushes, about three feet high, with pale yellow flowers and silver-green leaves that reminded me of Italian flat leaf parsley.

"Is there a downside?" I asked. "Is it safe?"

"Best left in the hands of experts," he said. "Oil of wormwood is extremely toxic, quite deadly. It's a traditional folk medicine but modern medicine replaces it with synthetics. It's still used for fragrance in soaps and cosmetics. And, of course, a minute amount for that bitter taste in vermouth."

No tape recorder. How could I be so stupid? "What happens if you get too much?"

"Convulsions, vomiting, hallucinations. Not a pleasant death." Sharing the information seemed to give him great pleasure.
By Pat Browning
How could I resist buying a wormwood plant when I used wormwood as a murder weapon in Full Circle? It's a summer bloomer so my plant looks a bit bedraggled in the photo I snapped. The morning I bought it the nurseryman had just turned the sprinkler on it, and it glistened like silver in the sunlight.

That was months ago, and our wild winter finally destroyed it, but at least I owned a legendary plant for a brief time. I was satisfied. I didn’t really want to keep it. There are kids and dogs everywhere in this apartment complex, and wormwood is not a friendly plant.
While I was researching wormwood for Full Circle, I came across some links for absinthe. Now there’s a name to conjure with. Wormwood is a basic ingredient in absinthe, and absinthe was illegal for years, except in Spain and one or two other countries. "The Green Fairy," it was called, and it took the rap, perhaps unjust, for destroying the minds of those who imbibed on a regular basis.

I thought back to my first visit to New Orleans years ago, and a famous bar, The Old Absinthe House, with its secret room where Andrew Jackson and Jean Lafitte plotted the Battle of New Orleans. New Orleans and its most famous dish, Oysters Rockefeller, made with absinthe—when absinthe was legal.

It didn’t take much imagination to introduce something called Oysters Merrily to my plot, with homemade absinthe concocted by a character whose herb garden contained wormwood.

Research also turned up a hereditary disease called porphyria. It has to do with metabolism disorders, and a form of it can lurk in the blood for years. An acute attack can be triggered by such everyday things as alcohol, dieting, infection, even herbal remedies.

All made to order for my book. My use of porphyria led to a surprising response after the book was published, but that's another story.

Meanwhile, absinthe has been declared legal again. It’s not something you just gulp down like a shot of Jack Daniels. For absinthe, you need a fancy glass, a fancy spoon, a sugar cube, ice water, patience, and a certain flair for the dramatic.

If you want an other-wordly experience, click on You Tube for a video of the preparation of absinthe. The background music is Chopin, Nocturne in D-flat Major, and it’s positively hypnotic. For Absinthe Ritual-Jade PF1901, click on:


Jaden Terrell said...

Pat, have you ever tried absinthe? I admit to a certain curiosity about it, but I've heard it tastes just awful.

Fascinating information, by the way, but I could never grow poisonous plants; my thumb is so brown I can--and have--killed a cactus.

Unknown said...


Great post. Good stuff. I've never tried absinthe, but like Beth have been curious. But I had no idea about its origin. We have poisonous plants all over our yard, but then the desert is a very harsh place. It's always amazed me how many people have castor bean plants, and don't know the beans are ricin. The bad stuff is well sealed inside the bean, but a scraped bean or one ground up would ruin one's whole day. :<)