Herbs and their uses are some of the most ancient recorded plants cultivated and wild-gathered it also makes sense to wonder about the origin of the name of the herbs or their etymology.
So what is in a name anyway? We begin with an herb well known for it’s properties in the making of absinthe, a tincture-like drink that supposedly made people mad. In France, the drink was called la Fée Verte, or the green fairy and it was a much-loved indulgence of artists and writers. This herb was sometimes called cronewort, mugwort, or wormwood. It is known today most commonly as Artemisia.
Artemisia is one of my favorite herbs to discuss herbal etymology about because it has so many names, the origins of the names give us insight into how herbal medicine was practiced historically, and how modern herbalist are trained today.
We shall now break down the herb and its uses. First, consider cronewort. If you have yet to make the connection, herbs are often related to legends about witches or crones. Artemisia was called cronewort- crone now a bit more obvious because it was an herb regularly used for all sorts of ailments from relief of menstrual cramps to grief. Midwives or ‘crones’ used it to ease pain in pregnancy. Wort in the old English use of the word meant herb, or root. So effectively, Artemisia vulgaris could be translated to be called witch root.
The same type of Artemisia vulgaris is also called mugwort. Perhaps this is why the study of herbs is so interesting to explore because it opens windows into words and ideas we use everyday without knowing why we use them – in this case, the word wort has a second meaning, an infusion of malt that ferments into beer or mash, thus mugwort or a fermented herb used for beer- and how do we drink beer? Why yes, in a mug!
Finally, wormwood. Artemisia vulgaris was made into a tonic that was used for-you guessed it- worms, especially worms in goats!
There are at least thirteen or fourteen species of Artemisia that are used by herbalist and herb gardeners. Each Artemisia has a distinct property. For instance, tarragon is Artemisia drancuncula and I am sure there are a number of chefs out there who would love to have their own fresh tarragon for soups, chicken, and fish recipes. I bet some of their recipes may even be – magical? Ok, enough kidding about the first witches, I mean doctors.
What about the relationship of women and herbs? The herb Artemisia gives us some insight into ancient use of herbal medicine and how women who practiced the art of herbal healing were considered. It is true; women were revered and respected, we even had our own goddess.
Review the herbal etymology for this plant, think about the actual name of the herb Artemisia. Incidentally, women who practiced herbal arts usually had a picture of Artemisia painted on their door or growing in the ground near their cottage. Have you guessed yet the name of the venerable goddess of herbalists? Those of you who stopped for a moment and said, “Artemis it must be Artemis!” may now go straight to the head of the etymology class.
So who was this Artemis, anyway? I realize this may be difficult to digest at first, but historically women were powerful not because they could wield a sword or a gun or war on another nation, but because they could heal. How fitting that Artemis is called the Amazonian moon goddess, Goddess of the hunt, Goddess of the wild things, Goddess of the midwife, Goddess of the herbalist, Mother of all Creatures, Ever Virgin, owned by no man. Artemisia the herb named after Artemis the goddess of women healers is an herb for every garden.
For more information about specific varieties of Artemisia please email the editor of herbs or visit http://www.girlfarm.org to purchase plants.