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Absinth (Artemisia absinthium L.)

Absinth is a perennial with a strong pungent sage odour. It has a shrub-like appearance. Plant height ranges from 0.7 - 1.2 meters (two - four ft.). Plants re-grow every spring from existing crowns.

Leaves: The leaves are:

  • 5 - 10 cm (two - four in.) long;
  • Divided many times into ovate to oblong segments;
  • Grey to olive green in colour; and
  • Covered with fine hairs when mature.

Leaf arrangement is alternate. Lower leaves have long petioles; upper leaves have short petioles. Upper leaf blades are less lobed.

Flowers: The numerous flowers have either yellow or purple florets, are very small, one to two mm (1/8 in.) long and are borne on spike-like panicles. They are grouped into heads on the upper leaf node. The base of the flowers is hairy and borne on stalks. The plant flowers from late July to September.

Seeds: Seeds are very fine, narrower at the base, hairless and brownish in colour.


From numerous seeds. Short rhizomes will expand the crown but the plant only reproduces vegetatively if crowns are split by field operations and moved.

Historical use

Absinth was commonly used in the 16th century for medicines, ritualistic ceremonies, folk remedies and charms. It was believed to have mystical powers, so was widely used by magicians, witches and others who practiced the occult.

Distillates of absinth caused hallucinations and stimulation of the body, making it a much desired drug by both sophisticates and artists. The famous artist Van Gogh was reported to be severely addicted to the drug. The Swiss used absinth to make home brew. This practice ceased in 1908 as the brew was very intoxicating and the side effects very unpleasant. Some sources suggest that at least some of these side effects can be attributed to the high wood alcohol (methanol) content or the copper sulphate used for enhanced colouring.

In 1543, absinth was considered a medicine to be used in steam baths to break up gallstones, enhance fertility, restore memory, induce abortions and shake off travel fatigue. In general, absinth was consumed as a health conditioner and a digestive organ stimulant. In the Middle Ages, people carried it while they travelled to keep dangerous animals away. In the early 1900s, Americans who collected absinth were paid four cents per pound of dried leaves.

Young flowers yield aromatic oil which is used to prepare vermouth and absinth.

In Europe, it is still considered a valuable herb for the medicine world.

The leaves are used as a sage-like herb.


Absinth is found in dry soils, overgrazed pastures and rangelands, waste places, ditches, ravines, borrow pits, gravel piles and fence lines. It is most noticeable on fence lines and roadsides. Absinth is found throughout Canada, but it is most abundant on the Prairies.


Absinth taints dairy products if present in either pastures or hay eaten by dairy cattle. Cattle will not graze it by choice. In hay, absinth would be consumed inadvertently. It spreads rapidly in overgrazed pastures. Once established, it is very difficult to eradicate. Stored grain can become tainted by absinth seed or leaves which in turn taint flour and other grain products.

Since absinthe is also associated with reproductive problems, breeding stock should avoid it.

Because its pollen is wind borne, absinth, like the other Artemisia species, can cause hay fever. Its odour can cause great discomfort to sensitized persons, especially those working close to absinth-infested areas.


Absinth does not tolerate frequent disturbance, and is therefore rarely a problem in annual crops.

Mowing prior to the plant setting seed helps control its spread. Seed production is only reduced as the plant then sends out horizontal stems that will also set seed.

Hand weeding, though labour intensive, works effectively to control smaller areas. It is especially important to dig out all the roots if possible. By not overgrazing, forages and pastures remain healthy and less subject to invasion. It is harder for invaders to take over a healthy range.

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