A fierce protector with invigorating properties.
Text by Christine Maxa
If the common names of a plant give a clue about its nature, then Artemisia (Artemisia sp.) has a real identity problem. Its common names range from the sanctified St. John’s Plant to the inebriant mugwort. So what is it? Darth Vader or Luke Skywalker? Neither, actually. If Artemisia had a name, and a nature to match, it would be mythology's Diana (a.k.a. Artemis).
Artemis, as the story goes, held great power, yet had a seemingly capricious side that, now and again, caused illness. In typical Artemis fashion, the whole Artemisia family — A. ludoviciana in our neck of the woods — has a conflicted reputation. The Artemisias have taken unnecessary flak for a charismatic cousin A. absinthium, also called Wormwood and a main ingredient in absinthe liqueur. Absinthe became the "It" spirit around the turn of the 20th century. At the peak of its popularity, 5 p.m. in France became known as The Green Hour. Cafés would pour so much of the green-colored liqueur that its balsamic smell wafted down the streets. Since it was de rigueur to drink absinthe, breweries took a beating and wine sales went wan.
What did this wonder-booze have going for it? Rating high in alcohol content (around 55- to 72-percent), it certainly made imbibers feel good. And it did, much to its artistic aficionados’ delight, live up to its reputation as a dream enhancer. Artemisia contains sequiterpenes, which can cross the blood-brain barrier (for instance, they occur in alcohol) and invigorate the REM world.
Spinmeisters know well the power of a well-placed word to promote or spoil a reputation. Poor absinthe fell victim to slanderous PR backed by prohibitionists, wineries, and breweries that wanted to sweep its competition off the shelf. They created a shadowy caricature of A. absinthium, saying it caused absinthism—insanity, convulsions, and death by thujone, a constituent that poisoned the liver.
In reality, Wormwood, like its cousin Artemisia ludoviciana, has remarkable digestive properties along with antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties. Truth won out, and in the early 2000s Wormwood was redeemed back into the mixologist fold. Scientific research not only proved it did not cause absinthism, it claimed absinthism didn’t even exist.
But old rumors die hard. Mention our Artemisia is a cousin of Wormwood’s and the skeletons start rattling. But they shouldn't. Besides adding a balsamic flavor to foods (and at the same time quelling dyspeptic tendencies and taming microbes), this most common Artemisia in Arizona is a trusted healer. The moral of the story calls for a bit of Ben Franklin’s advice: Believe none of what you hear and half of what you see.
For Weary Travelers
Artemisia has, you might say, been around the block a few times. The ancient Roman armies that traveled to and from the Jura on the Roman Road gathered it to soothe their walk-weary feet. Oft-quoted herbalist Maude Grieve poetically wrote, The leaves used to be steeped in baths to communicate an invigorating property to the water.
With that in mind, Artemisia made into an oil or liniment feels outright miraculous when used on sore muscles, tense tendons, and sprains. It’s a main ingredient for a trustworthy anti-inflammatory ointment I make. And I do like it as a liniment for injured or inflamed joints. I have found Artemisia can also nip nerve pain in the bud. There is strong tradition surrounding Artemisia and its affinity for neurological issues.
If the Doctrine of Signatures holds any weight for you like it does me, then we can conclude that Artemisia makes a good candidate for heat-induced situations (inflammation). Artemisia ludoviciana loves, loves, loves to grow in dry, rocky spots in Pinyon-Oak biomes, the type of hot and dry ground in which only the hardiest of plants dare grow.
Artemisia’s soothing power on the outward is an object lesson of what it can do internally. Like any bitter worth its salt, Artemisia triggers bile secretion from the liver and gallbladder. Following the vagus nerve further down the path (I do favor Artemisia’s use for nerve issues), it nudges the pancreas — no wonder Mexicans have a tradition of using it for diabetes. Once these organs are happy, life becomes arguably good.
A few drops of tincture can help invigorate body systems shut down by stress. Artemisia works in a downward release of congestion, by the way, which is ever so helpful for migraine or neck-pain sufferers.
The scientific community has confirmed Artemisia's potential as a protector. For instance, the International Journal of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences (1) documented A. vulgaris as toxic to cancer cells. Specifically — talk about poetic justice — hepatocellular carcinoma. The same Artemisia family member has been documented as a hepatoprotective in a National Institutes of Health paper.(2)
A scholarly paper for Molecular and Cellular Pharmacology (3) stated A. vulgaris caused a significant decrease in colony growth of cancer cells and showed signs of causing apoptosis in these cells. This same article described A. vulgaris as having “antibacterial, anthelmintic [kills parasites], anti-inflammatory, antiseptic, antispasmodic, carminative, digestive, diuretic, nervine, and purgative properties.”
But we’re talking about A. ludoviciana here, so let’s get back on track.
A research from the National Institutes of Health found A. ludoviciana was “characterized by a high content of oxygenated sequiterpenes . . . of which davanone (11.5%) was the main component identified.”(4)
A Fierce Protector
A. ludoviciana does not contain artimisinin, which gives other members of the family antimalarial and anticancer properties, but it contains davanone, which does, too.(5) And davanone shows no toxicity.(Ibid) Physician’s Weekly ran an article about recent research that stated “davanone is a potential anticancer agent against human ovarian cancer,”(6) which would make it a formidable partner with chickweed tincture, known to dissolve tumors. And the white paper, “Isolation of a compound from Artemisia douglasiana that is cytotoxic toward breast cancer cells,” gives hope to more anticancer propensities of the family, this one a California member of the Artemisia clan.
Of note, these particular research papers are related to females, of which the mythological Artemis was a fierce defender. The iracible and high-strung Artemis (there's that neurological indication again) had little patience for disrespect and let anyone who offended her know it; good thing to keep in mind when it comes to using Artemisia. A few timely drops go a long way. That anger has such a strong connection with the liver is another thing to keep in mind.
Quoting the NIH research paper further, “Artemisia oils had inhibitory effects on the growth” on several different kinds of bacteria and yeasts. The conclusion of the study was that A. ludoviciana’s principal properties are antimicrobial and antioxidant. Artemisia does slay viruses. Peter Seeberger from Germany’s Max Planck Institute has been studying what happens when he combines artemisinin derivatives of A. annua plants cultivated in Kentucky with the coronavirus. The leaves showed antiviral activity, most particularly with coffee.(7) Might Artemisia ludoviciana’s davanone work in the same fashion? Seeberger shares an even more interesting insight:
“Since I work with combinations of Artemisia plants, I am very familiar with the interesting activities of plants that can work against different diseases, including a whole series of viruses.”(Ibid)
Did you get that? A whole series of viruses. Interesting.
Have a question or comment? Send me an email!
(1) ISSN-0975-1491, Vol5, Suppl 3, 2013
(3) DOI: 10:4255/mcpharmacol.11.04
(4) Screening of chemical composition, antimicrobial and antioxidant activities of Artemisia essential oils, Daíse Lopes-Lutz et al.
(7) Duetche Wella, Germany: Scientists test artemisia plat against coronavirus