Cultivation of Wormwood and Other herbs

A one year-old wormwood field in the village of La Rivière Drugeon, about half an hour’s drive from Pontarlier. It’s believed that this particular field was devoted to absinthe cultivation in the pre-ban era as well – it’s immediately adjacent to a disused railway track, which, a century ago, ran directly to a siding at the Pernod Fils factory.

While green anise is grown largely in Spain and in the south of France, and Florence fennel comes from Italy, the other 4 major herbs in a typical Pontarlier absinthe blend are all grown in the region: grand wormwood (Artemisia absinthium), petite wormwood (Artemisia pontica, aka Roman wormwood), melissa (aka lemon balm), and hyssop. Grand wormwood (also, rather confusingly, known as Common wormwood) is the distinctive ingredient that gives absinthe its unique character and can be found growing wild on roadsides in the Doubs region and in the foothills of the surrounding mountains. With the recent renaissance and re-legalisation of absinthe, and increased local demand from the Pontarlier-based François Guy and Emile Pernot distilleries, it’s once again being planted on a commercial scale, and several new fields are now coming into production. Alongside these, smaller commercial plantings the three herbs typically used in the colouring step – petite absinthe, melissa and hyssop – have also begun.

In modern Spanish absinthes star anise (badiane) is sometimes substituted wholly or partly for green anise, but this tends to give a very one-dimensional liquorice-like taste. Badiane was used only very sparingly if at all in traditional Swiss or French manufacture. Czech or German so called “absinths” sometimes omit the anise entirely, but these are not true absinthes and are best avoided. Home absinthe-making kits widely advertised on the internet, and based on adding dried herbs or essences to vodka or Everclear, do not produce even a rough approximation of the real drink – and the results, apart from being very unpleasant tasting, may be actively harmful.

It seems appropriate to quote here an extract from Ernest Tisserand’s 1922 Éloge de la très précieuse liqueur d’Absinthe, an elegiac memoir of the absinthe era:

There are no sweeter names than those borne by the plants from which the mild liquor is distilled. And I don’t know in all the world of plants more vivid and more proud. They are the very flower of the spirited hyssop, the fennel that scents the mullet grilled for kings, the melissa that restores colour to swooning women, the anise that makes food resound, the angelica embedded like sticks of joy in children’s gingerbread, the star anise nurtured by mandarins like the Dutch tend their tulips, the coriander that bleaches the saliva, the mint that drives love, the oregano that makes the eyes of maidens shine, and it is the wormwood finally, the grande wormwood and the petite, chaste ornament of the mountains and seashores, daughter of the pure high winds, wheat of virgin spaces, emblem of untamed freedom.

The absinthe distillation process was summarised by J. de Brevans in his 1908 La Fabrication des Liqueurs as follows:

Absinthe is made in accordance with a great number of recipes which are all based upon the following plants: grand wormwood, petite a wormwood, anise, fennel, and hyssop. In general these different plants are mixed together for distillation; but a few manufacturers prefer to treat wormwood, anise and fennel separately, to later mix the scented spirits in the desired proportions. The raw ingredients are placed into a steam-heated still, …with the desired quantity of alcohol and half the volume of water needed for distillation; the plants are allowed to macerate 12 to 24 hours or even longer; the rest of the water is added and distillation is started….This operation is stopped as soon as the first spurt of distillate marks 60% (alcohol): rectification is thereby avoided. The first part of the tails is collected separately and used to make absinthes ordinaire; only the heart is used to prepare fine absinthes. The milky liquid which distills at the end is added to subsequent macerations.

The word absinthe is derived from the Greek word “apsinthion” meaning “bitter”, because of the bitterness of the wormwood leaf. Contrary to widely-held belief, the Russian word for wormwood is not “Chernobyl”. In Ukranian, “chornobyl”, translating roughly as “black stalks”, refers to mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris), not to wormwood (Artemesia absinthium). The belief that Chernobyl = wormwood originates from a 1986 New York Times article that quoted an unnamed “prominent Russian writer” as claiming that the Ukrainian word for wormwood was chernobyl. This erroneous attribution took root in the popular imagination, because it enabled associations with the famous verse in the Apocalypse of St. John:

“Then the third angel sounded: And a great star fell from heaven, burning like a torch, and it fell on a third of the rivers and on the springs of water. The name of the star is wormwood. A third of the waters became wormwood, and many men died from the water, because it was made bitter.”

Wormwood

A dried sample of Artemisia Absinthium collected in April 1891.

Absinthe is an alcoholic apéritif made from alcohol and distilled herbs or herbal extracts, chief amongst them grand wormwood (Artemisia absinthium) and green anise, but also almost always including 3 other herbs: petite wormwood (Artemisia pontica, aka Roman wormwood), fennel, and hyssop. Some regionally authentic recipes also call for additional herbs like star anise (badiane), sweet flag (aka calamus), melissa (aka lemon balm or citronnelle), angelica (both root and seed), dittany (a type of oregano grown in Crete), coriander, veronica (aka speedwell), marjoram or peppermint.

Grand wormwood, or Artemisia absinthium, is a herb related to the aster family. From ancient times it has been prized as a valuable medicinal herb. An Egyptian papyrus from 1600BC recommends wormwood as a stimulant and tonic, an antiseptic, and a remedy for fever and menstrual pain. Pythagoras thought that wormwood leaves in wine would ease childbirth, and Hippocrates also recommended it for menstrual pain, as well as anaemia and rheumatism. Today, wormwood oil, the oil obtained from Artemisia absinthium, is used as a counter-irritant in many common over-the-counter pharmacy products.

A circa 1850 label for medicinal wormwood extract produced by the New York Shaker community based in New Lebanon, where they had developed a successful herb and medicinal supplies industry.

Artemisia Absinthium from Köhler’s Medizinal-Pflanzen in naturgetreuen Abbildungen published in 1887.


Chromo-lithographed card issued by chocolate manufacturer Félix Potin as part of a series on herbs with medicinal properties.


An important early French pharmacy pot for extract of absinthium, dating from the late eighteenth century.


An absinthe harvest festival in the Doubs.


Early photos showing the harvesting of wormwood and the drying of the stalks on racks.

Herb Cultivation

Wormwood (Artemisia Absinthium) is a herbal plant that gives absinthe its distinct taste and unique character. It can be found growing wild on arid ground, rocky slopes, and at the edge of footpaths and fields, and on commercial plantations. Especially through the renaissance and re-legalisation of absinthe, and increased local demand from the Pontarlier-based Francois Guy and Emile Pernot distilleries, it’s once again being planted on a commercial scale not only in France, but wherever absinthe is made nowadays. Alongside these, smaller commercial plantings the three herbs typically used in the colouring step -petite absinthe, melissa and hyssop – have also begun. Grand wormwood from the Pontarlier region in France is especially popular, because the altitude and the environmental surroundings of the Jura mountains favour its cultivation.

Harvest Festival Pontarlier

In another revival of an old tradition, an annual harvest festival is now held in July each year in Pontarlier – amidst much festivity, a wagon load of newly dried absinthe is paraded through the streets, and stalks are handed out to the assembled populace.

Planty Field

Another newly planted field, on the outskirts of the industrial area of Pontarlier. To conserve moisture and prevent weed growth, the young plants are grown through black plastic sheeting.

The beautiful and delicate petite absinthe plant, smaller in every respect than its more famous cousin, and harder to grow, as the plant is less vigorous. Much less bitter than grand absinthe, it’s used primarily in the colouring step.

The beautiful and delicate petite absinthe plant, smaller in every respect than its more famous cousin, and harder to grow, as the plant is less vigorous. Much less bitter than grand absinthe, it’s used primarily in the colouring step.

Wormwood

At La Rivière Drugeon, outside Pontarlier, wormwood grows wild on the edges of gardens and along the roads. These are mature plants with flowering tips, in commercial terms ready for harvesting.

Young melissa or lemon balm plants – part of the mint family.

Another essential herb for colouring absinthe – hyssop. As the plants mature they produce small blue flowers – a sign that the stalks are ready for harvesting.