Though wormwood can refer to many different plants, we will be talking specifically about Artemisia absinthium.
For centuries – millenia, really – this herb has been used as a tonic for everything from parasites to pain to liver complaints to baldness. There is a volatile oil in the plant, a narcotic-analgesic related to codeine, that depresses the central medullary part of the brain, dulling anxiety and pain and bringing on a comfortably dreamy state of mind. A chemical found in wormwood called thujone is a powerful nerve and brain stimulator that can trigger libido, but in large amounts may be fatal.
While the name may appear to an English speaker to come from the herb’s ability to purge a body of intestinal worms, it is in fact from the German “Wermut”, meaning “man courage.” Remember that courage as a concept often included sexual valor as well in earlier times. Hippocrates, Pliny, and others recommended its use for aphrodisia.
A drink made from wormwood, absinthe, was very popular during the 19th century, especially amongst European artists. Dr. Pierre Ordinaire created it in 1790 from wormwood, anise, mint, fennel, hyssop, nutmeg, coriander and probably other herbs and spices by steeping them in 136 proof alcohol. Oddly enough, it’s sometimes referred to as a fortified wine, but I’m not sure why.
The hazy vision caused by continual indulgence in absinthe may in fact be the cause of the Impressionist movement. However, the nervous system can’t handle the effects of absinthe overindulgence. Insanity, convulsions, blindness and paralysis are among the most serious side effects, and the French government outlawed the drink in 1915. It was illegal worldwide for some time, though wormwood itself wasn’t, and was still used medicinally by herbalists. The mystique of absinthe grew during that time, and now that it’s (more) legal again, it has become quite popular. You may have noticed that thujone’s ability to boost cognitive function is at odds with some of its other effects. A strange substance, indeed!
Several drinks used to include wormwood but, because of the legal issues mentioned, now don’t, and likely will continue not to, instead using other ingredients to provide the bitter flavor. Most notable in the list are Pernod, Vermouth (whose name derives from Wermut and wormwood) and Chartreuse – which has the same color as absinthe and gave its name to that color.
So does absinthe make the heart grow fonder? The combination of (physical and mental) relaxation from the alcohol and heightening of (all the) senses from the thujone, I believe it may well be a notable boost to both willingness and ability to enjoy another’s attentions.