Wormwood: A plant that stinks in a good way

Sometimes plants deserve better than the names we give them.

A case in point is wormwood, a complicated and bitter herb that grabs your attention because of its name, then draws you in due to its beneficial uses and distinctive smell.

What is wormwood?

So far, it hasn’t fallen from the sky and made the waters of the Earth bitter. However, it is likely that my ancestors used it to purge worms, clean their houses, and make beer or wine.

Wormwood isn’t a single species. Rather, it refers to multiple species in the Artemisia genus that are bitter and aromatic.

Oil produced from wormwood leaves and stems is used in ointments and liqueurs. Dried and fresh leaves are infused for tonics or made into extracts. Many wormwood species are used to flavor alcoholic beverages, from beer to absinthe. Like many other plants, it’s important to use wormwood safely and in moderation.

I became curious about wormwood last spring, while experimenting with homemade bitters.

Locally, I couldn’t find a few ingredients for my bitters experiments. I began to imagine a new garden planted with bitter herbs suitable for Alaska conditions, including wormwood, and in particular, the best-known European species, Artemisia absinthium.

Little did I know at the time that wormwood was so interesting and had many important Alaska connections.

But, as is often the case, stray thoughts and bits of information began to converge.

Last April, while chatting online about a different plant, I asked Michelle Sparck, a small-business owner who grew up in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta region, to tell me about her favorite useful plant.

Michelle mentioned the wormwood of western Alaska—Caiggluk (JAI-thlook) in Yup’ik/Cup’ik, and called stinkweed throughout Alaska. It is one of the main ingredients in skincare products that Michelle and her sisters sell through their company, ArXotica.

At the time, I was curious about the differences between ornamental Artemisias, like the Silver Brocade in my garden, and others grown for human consumption. I was excited that Michelle was willing to share her insights about Caiggluk as well. 

Artemisia stelleriana, Silver Brocade

A few weeks after that conversation, I joined an Alaska Native Plant Society hike at Windy Corner in nearby Chugach State Park where, by coincidence, Caiggluk—scientific name, Artemisia tilesii—was just starting to poke out of the ground.

Artemisia tilesii poking out of the ground in Chugach State Park

Other foragers have since informed me that A. tilesii is not nearly as common in the Anchorage area as it is in western Alaska, where Michelle grew up. However, it can be spotted routinely on local hikes. Other Artemisia species, including A. frigida, known as prairie sagewort, can be found on dry, alpine slopes in nearby public parklands.

Moreover, an Alaska Grown cultivar of A. tilesii, officially named “Caiggluk,” can be found in some unexpected places, such as local road easements, because it is used in road and mining reclamation projects around Alaska.

I mainly wanted to find out how some of these species compared in terms of taste, aroma, and potency, and I wanted to acknowledge and pay respect to traditional Alaska Native uses.

I knew that I’ll need to grow at least one of the plants to make any comparisons, so I set this project aside for the next growing season.

So here we are. It’s over a year later. What did I learn so far?

During the Christmas holiday, I thumbed through and took notes from a Lower 48 relative’s copy of The Drunken Botanist, which provides significant detail on various wormwoods used in alcoholic beverages. Later during that holiday trip, I purchased a packet of A. absinthium, simply labeled “Wormwood,” at the Baker Creek Seed Store in Mansfield, Missouri.

Better yet, in early spring, I reconnected with Michelle and did a proper interview. Here are many of the interesting things she shared for this blog:

Caiggluk means “nothing bad about it” and it’s almost a perfect plant. It’s functional, aromatic, and multi-purpose in its medicinal benefits.

Growing up in Chevak and Bethel, Michelle learned to use Caiggluk as a steam bath switch for joint pain or a sipping tonic for sore throats.

When Michelle was around 8 or 10, she remembers her aunt giving her a cup of cold, brewed Caiggluk to sip on when her throat and chest hurt. As the tonic went down her throat, she felt her lungs clear up immediately.

As adults, Michelle and her sisters experimented to find a way to use Caiggluk in ArXotica retail products. They continue to harvest it and other tundra plants in western Alaska—such as fireweed and crowberry—to use in their skincare products.

Michelle raves about the size and abundance of Caiggluk growing near Bethel. “These plants tower over us. They form their own little forest and are very fragrant. It’s so nice to have the scent on your fingers while you are harvesting.”

Some Alaska harvesters prefer using wormwood after the stalks have already died and turned brown, but the Sparck sisters harvest it green for ArXotica products.

For those who want to ingest wormwood, Sparck does not recommend drinking it down like a cup of tea. It should be sipped as a tonic over a number of hours, she said.

“A lot of people think plants are unassuming and harmless, but drugs come from plants, and they can be powerful. It does require care to use them.”

Recently I came across a Haines company using locally grown A. absinthium (as well as lemon balm and anise hyssop) to make its award-winning absinthe.

Also, very recently, I met a local botanist with a strong appreciation for Artemisia species. She has previously written about the biogeography and traditional uses of various species.

The Port Chilkoot Distillery in Haines sources its wormwood from a local resident, says Rebecca Kameika, the company’s business operations and supply chain manager.

While I’m not interested in making anything nearly as potent as absinthe, I would like to try using wormwood as a tonic, for culinary purposes such as DIY vermouth (I prefer vermouth to white wine in cooking) and to continue my experiments with homemade bitters.

To this date, my botanical knowledge of native Artemisia plants in Alaska remains thin. For now, at least, I’m aware of their significant diversity.

The Flora of Alaska provisional checklist includes 30 distinct Artemisia species. The late Eric Hultén described many of them as local races and pegged a couple species for forming “hybrid swarms.” (This has caused me to speculate that my cultivated wormwoods will hybridize with each other, and with Caiggluk, if I added it to my herb garden.)

For the moment, building a bitter herb garden remains a figment of my imagination, and my wormwoods are still babies.

Silver Brocade is still coming back to life in my garden after a cold winter without a proper blanket of mulch. The A. absinthium I grew from seed this year is taking off in two different parts of the yard. (From the moment they sprouted their first true leaves, the seedlings emanated a distinct and powerful aroma that wasn’t unpleasant at all.)

Caiggluk is also flourishing where I’ve seen it this summer—in the Turnagain Arm area and at the Alaska Botanical Garden. This past weekend, I saw it growing side by side with native Angelica in the Williwaw Lakes area.

From a utility standpoint, I won’t be able to compare these wormwood species for some time, but for now, I’m having fun watching them grow and taking a good whiff, now and then.

Note: If you live in Anchorage and you’ve read to the end of this post, it so happens that I have a few, tiny A. absinthium sprouting in my greenhouse right now (second week of June 2020). Send me a message or leave a comment if you’d like to give it a try.

Purple curly kale

Alaska Gardening 101: Dead plants tell no tales

If my garden had a theme this year, it might be something like “Lab Girl Walking on the Wild Side” … or something else implying a series of looming misadventures.

Experiment #1: I’m trying to grow bitter melon, despite never having eaten it.

Experiment #2: Despite zero evidence that other Alaska gardeners have been successful, I’m experimenting with loaf-shaped varieties of radicchio and chicory. The chicory seedlings already look delicious … but they have the growing season of a giant pumpkin!

Yesterday I interplanted the succulent green chicory and purple radicchio in one raised bed, where I’m hoping they’ll grow up to resemble exotic, multi-colored plant pillars. I also interplanted dark purple curly kale and green curly kale in a similar pattern in another raised bed.

Radicchio plant
Fiero radicchio seedling protected by a cutworm collar (top half of a 4-inch pot).

Experiment #3: This one has already gone awry. I tried germinating Snake Gourd/Guinea Bean seed purchased earlier this year at Monticello. These oddly-shaped seeds didn’t sprout on my tight schedule so I’ll try again next year.

Thanks to some unique challenges …. and procrastination … in determining a final layout for my raised bed plantings this year, I ended up with one more experiment.

Experiment #4: Yesterday morning, for the first time, I built an Excel spreadsheet for my raised beds, using 1-foot square grids and appropriately-sized circles or rectangles reflecting the space needed for individual plants or the total space available to a group of seedlings.

My husband is much more tech savvy that I am, so I was flattered when he called my spreadsheet “fancy,” even though I didn’t do a very good job of drawing my polygon-shaped bed. Last year, I used the same exact method to negotiate space with multiple organizations sharing a tiny booth at a large convention. It worked then, so why not in our garden?

The garden spreadsheet proved helpful yesterday while I planted the garden. I grow a lot of space-hogging brassicas (cabbage, collards, etc.) and plant them intensively in three raised beds. Despite pencil and paper garden plans drawn up in previous years, I usually “lose” some shorter plants – like beets and radishes – in the shade of potato or broccoli leaves. The spreadsheet helped keep me on point.

Over the last few days, I’ve been planting our garden and peddling extra cabbage, pepper, tomato, and runner bean seedlings to my gardening friends.

Given this year’s cabbage glut – mine didn’t germinate and I reacted by going on a buying and bartering spree – it’s unlikely that beets or carrots will be planted in our backyard this year. The good news: Mat-Su farmers up the highway grow beets and carrots that are larger and tastier than the ones that come out of our raised beds. Perhaps these root vegetables prefer the glacial silt of Mat-Su farmland. I’ll happily buy them at the farmers market and focus on growing tasty brassicas.

Circling back to the experiments, I’m not pinning my hopes on any of them this year. They are just for fun.

Bitter melons like hot and humid conditions. Even if they set fruit in our passively-heated greenhouse, they will probably be a bit unhappy with the cool monsoon season arriving in late summer.

The chicory and radicchio might bolt on me, or more likely, they will not develop into the exotic vegetative pillars of my imagination.

If you have some fun experiments underway in your garden this summer, please feel free to share them in the comment section!

Garden Angelica

Angelica – don’t wing it!

(First in a series)

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been learning about angelica, a cold-hardy perennial plant used for centuries, if not thousands of years, for food and medicine.

Unfortunately, the most common native species of angelica in Alaska, seacoast angelica (Angelica lucida), looks a lot like poisonous northern water hemlock (Cicuta virosa) or western water hemlock (Cicuta douglasii), the deadliest plant in North America. Angelica and water hemlock both like wet areas – water hemlock likes it wetter – and some people say they have found them growing near each other in Alaska.

Pictured above, garden angelica (Angelica archangelica) is a subspecies cultivated for home gardens and commercial uses. Growing garden angelica for food and medicine in Alaska isn’t problematic. As a bonus, it’s very ornamental.

It’s been difficult for me to reconcile the warnings to avoid harvesting wild angelica with the significant amount of information about its traditional uses in Alaska and other northern regions – from chewing on dried root to placing a piece of boiled, mashed root on a wound or infected area.

Angelica root
Dried garden angelica root

Chew on a water hemlock root and you’ll likely be dead in a few hours. The stems are also poisonous.

A few herbalists I talked to in the Lower 48 told me there is no reliable method to tell our native species of angelica and water hemlock apart except by carefully studying and learning the different shapes of their seeds. While some sources advise that the root chambers and the leaf veining of angelica and water hemlock are different, that’s not always the case, I was told.

It’s even more complicated for A. lucida because unlike some other angelica species, A. lucida seeds do not have “wings” that would otherwise differentiate them from water hemlock seeds.

It makes me want to time travel back even just a century ago here in Alaska.

What knowledge was used to avoid collecting the wrong plant? Was it the size and shape of seeds? Patterns in the roots or leaves? Are there other traditional techniques that have been lost to time and memory?

Many books and websites that promote the traditional use of Alaska plants are very discouraging about the use of native angelica. Doing so safely seems to require a degree of knowledge and training that needs to be provided in person, in the field, and with repetition.

Note: The photo of garden angelica at the top of this page was taken at the Alaska Botanical Garden’s Herb Garden. Thank you to the Alaska Master Gardeners of Anchorage for allowing use of the photo.

Chinese Cabbage

Curse of the bolting cabbage

A few years ago I began converting a portion of my cabbage harvest into stinky but mouthwatering kimchi.

Cravings for kimchi led to last year’s troubled experiment with growing Napa cabbage – the traditional cabbage for making kimchi. Also known as Chinese cabbage (brassica rapa, Pekinensis Group), Napa is said to have more nutrients than other cabbage varieties.

I am a sucker for colorful, unusually-shaped vegetables so I bought seed for Scarlette Chinese Cabbage, a showy variety with bright magenta leaves, a pale yellow base, and contrasting white midribs. The catalog said these cabbages could bolt if exposed to temperature fluctuations as young seedlings but I didn’t expect that to affect my plants.

The Scarlette Chinese cabbage seedlings were relentless. They crowded out other cabbage varieties in my seed flats and grew incredibly fast once transplanted into raised beds. They were a beautiful addition to the garden but quickly bolted. I salvaged a few loose heads for meals but mostly harvested cabbage greens. These became dehydrated vegetable flakes for an upcoming Arctic camping trip.

Chinese cabbage greens

Why did they bolt? Why would any self-respecting cabbage bolt?

The typical culprit for bolting vegetables in a well-maintained Alaska garden is the short nights of our growing season. Night duration impacts many plants through a phenomenon called photoperiodism, by which plants use their photoreceptors to measure the amount of light they receive. “Long day” plants like barley, spinach, radishes, and cilantro start flowering when nights are shorter. Short day plants like sunflowers need longer nights to start flowering.

Nurseries often use photoperiodism to trick plants into blooming but it seems to be less common for home gardeners to trick plants into not blooming. It’s easier to avoid plants that bolt or look for bolt-resistant cultivars. Perhaps that’s why photoperiodism is barely discussed in any of my gardening books.

All this aside, cabbages are usually categorized as “day neutral” plants, meaning they disregard day/night length. If they are bolting early in the season, it probably has nothing to do with photoperiodism.

Another culprit for bolting that might be relevant to my Chinese cabbage is called vernalization.

Vernalization is a beautiful word that describes how a period of cold weather is necessary for the flowering of many plants. It is more likely my Chinese cabbages bolted due to a cold spell in spring when I took my seedlings outdoors.

Other factors for bolting that are important to consider if day neutral plants are bolting include the soil quality, moisture level, and any other factor that might cause plant stress.

Chinese cabbage is a cool-weather crop that clearly wants to do well in my garden and I haven’t given up on it yet. This year I’ll wait to put seedlings outdoors until later in the spring when we aren’t as likely to have cold snaps.

Maybe I’ll make some scarlet kimchi after all.

Additional resources: I found a few good online resources for gardeners on photoperiodism, including a blog post from High Mowing Organic Seeds and an article from the Oregon State University Extension Service. Interesting scientific tidbits about photoperiodism and vernalization are shared in the book What a Plant Knows: A Field Guide to the Senses by Daniel Chamovitz.