Wormwood (Artemesia absinthium) is a plant containing several harmful substances, including thujone which is considered a convulsant. Whilst a useful medicinal herb for external purposes, its notoriety comes from the lethal liquor absinthe, invented in Switzerland towards the end of the 18th century and based on wormwood and anise (Pimpinella anisum).
Sold first as a cure for stomach upsets, it was first produced in France in 1805 by Henri-Louis Pernod and enjoyed an unsullied reputation for many years. Absinthe was used by French soldiers serving in Algeria to purify water and as a protection against dysentery. Later it became the fashionable drink of La Belle Epoque in France, where it was seen as a source of inspiration by writers and artists, having been dubbed euphorically by the poet Paul Verlaine la fÃ©e verte (the green fairy). However, the working class saw the drink as a way of inducing temporary oblivion from a grim reality of sweated labour and sub-standard housing. By 1876, when Edgar Degas exhibited his painting L'absinthe depicting the vacuous stare of a regular absinthe drinker in a Paris cafe, attitudes to absinthe had altered radically among the reformists of the day and the drink was no longer smart. It was now known as le pÃ©ril vert (the green peril) and was shown on a popular poster being handed out to an unthinking populace by the 'grim reaper'. With the outbreak of war in 1914, restrictions were imposed followed by a total ban in 1915. Absinthe survives (sans wormwood) as pastis, a family of popular French anise-based drinks related to Greek ouzo, Spanish anesone, Italian sambucca and Levantine arak and raki (although in general these are sweeter and less alcoholic).