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.