Artemisia tilesii Wormwood Artemisia alaskana


Artemisia species

The genus Artemisia includes the wormwoods, absinth, sagebrush, mugwort, and tarragon--all pungently aromatic and bitter herbs and shrubs. They are perennials with small but numerous heads of the composite type, borne in clusters more or less branched, in a spike, raceme, or panicle.

Artemisia alaskana flowers are yellow and the leaves along the stem (see illustration below) are blunt-tipped and twice ternate. The flowering stem rises from prostrate branches grown the previous year. Hairs cover the white-silvery stems and leaves.

Artemisia tilesii stems are more erect, rising directly from the woody base of the plant to a height of 2 to 3 feet (.7 to 1 meter). The leaves are not silvery white; they're green and hair-covered only on the lower surface. The leaves of A. tilesii usually divide into narrow lobes having slender, sharp tips. The flowers are yellowish brown. Both A. alaskana and A. tilesii have basal leaves that tend to be the largest of the plant's leaves. In A. alaskana the basal leaves can form rosettes.

Artemisia alaskana leaf
Artemisia alaskana leaf

Artemisia alaskana occurs mostly in the mountains in Alaska and adjacent Canada. Artemisia tilesii grows in sandy places in mountains and lowlands throughout most of Alaska and into Canada and Siberia.

The common wormwood or absinth, A. absinthium, contains a dark green or blue volatile oil with a strong odor and bitter taste. The oil contains absinthol or tenacetone, thujyl alcohol, cadinene, phellandrene, and pinene. The herb also contains the bitter glucoside absinthin, absinthic acid, together with tannin, resin starch, nitrate of potash and other salts. (Grieve)

Werner Herz of Florida State University has reported the isolation of three sesquiterpene lactones from A. tilesii. The plant also contains artilesin, which is bactericidal.

Medicinal uses:
The volatile oil of common wormwood or absinth, A. absinthium, is a central nervous system depressant causing trembling then stupor, followed by convulsions. (Spoerke) It has been abused and is habit-forming. However, Christopher considers it a valuable tonic that stimulates appetite and promotes digestion. There seems to be widespread agreement that the leaves possess antiseptic properties and are very resistant to putrefaction. The name may be a reflection of the idea that wormwood leaves and flowers expel worms.

Alaskans use native wormwoods both externally and internally. Both Oswalt and Lantis report the use of A. alaskana on the rocks in steam baths. I do this myself and enjoy the aromatherapy both for sinuses and skin. Priscilla Kari says the Tanainas still use A. tilesii in the steam bath. I have tried it and find I prefer the stronger aroma of A. alaskana, but both species are pleasant to use.

The Tanainas soak A. tilesii leaves in water and rub them on the bodies of pregnant women or put them on the stomach as a poultice. They also make medicine switches to help arthritis and other aches. Boiled or soaked in hot water, A. tilesii is made into a tea used as a wash for skin rash, cuts, blood poisoning, sore eyes, or any kind of infection. Use boiled or soaked leaves wrapped in cloth as a hot pack for toothache, earache, and snow-blindness. For athlete's foot, the Outer Cook Inlet people wear fresh leaves inside their socks. (Kari)

Artemisia tilesii is one of the medicinal herbs used by Della Keats (a respected healer) in Kotzebue, and by the people of the northwestern region of Alaska. It is highly regarded as a tonic tea if you don't drink too much at a time. Dried leaves are powdered to use externally in a salve for burns or infections. A rtemisia tilesii was used by western Eskimos as an antitumor agent in Unalakleet and as a fever and infection inhibitor in Aniak, according to Smith.

Hall's Traditional Medical Practices of the Interior people includes the following uses for wormwood: "Use moistened, dried leaves as poultice on infected sores or cuts. Use just enough to cover sore. Put it on sore and wrap with bandage. Use as directed for arthritis also. Brew just a pinch of leaves and drink 1/2 cup once a day. Use for diaper rash also."

Brøndegaard surveys the use of Artemisia throughout the world in gynecological folk medicine. It is one of the medical plants used in Scandinavia, Germany, France, Switzerland, England, Bosnia, Russia, China, Tibet, India, Bali, Bolivia, Argentina, and the United States. It has been widely used to help women regulate menstruation and recover from childbirth.

The numerous uses of Artemisia for women may be related to the fact the plant is named for Artemis, the goddess who represents the variable energies of women. (Monaghan)

Back to index

Copyright © 1987 by Eleanor G. Viereck