Artemisia Afra – Wormwood

Artemisia is named after the Greek goddess Artemis. This soft aromatic shrub is a popular medicinal plant in South Africa. Another interesting link to the name is Artemisia, the wife of the Greek/Persian King Mausolus, who ruled after his death in 353 BC. In his honour she built a magnificent tomb called the Mausoleum, known as one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

Artemisia afra is a common species in South Africa with a wide distribution from the Cederberg Mountains in the Cape, northwards to tropical East Africa and stretching as far north as Ethiopia. Artemisia afra is the only indigenous species in this genus. The species name afra means from Africa.

Artemisia vulgaris is naturalized in the Eastern Cape. It is indigenous to Europe, Iran, Siberia and North Africa and is described by Huxley et al. (1992) as a condiment with supposed magical properties'. World-wide there are about 400 species of Artemisia, mainly from the northern hemisphere.

Recorded medicinal history:
Artemisia was used by the ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans both medicinally and in religious rites and was thought to be a love charm centuries ago. The Indian tribes of North America prepared parts of this plant to treat sore throats and bronchitis.

Artemisia afra is one of the oldest and best known medicinal plants, and is still widely used today in South Africa by people of all cultures. The list of uses covers a wide range of ailments from coughs, colds, fever, loss of appetite, colic, headache, earache, intestinal worms to malaria. Artemisia afra (roots, stems and leaves) is used in many different ways and taken as enemas, poultices, infusions, body washes, lotions, smoked, snuffed or drunk as a tea. A not so common use is to place leaves in socks for sweaty feet (Watt & Breyer-Brandwijk 1962). Artemisia afra has a very bitter taste and is usually sweetened with sugar or honey when drunk.

Artemisia afra is known as Wilde-als by the Afrikaans community. Wilde-als brandy is a popular folk medicine still made and sold today. Margaret Roberts (1990) lists many other interesting uses in her book, Indigenous Healing Plants that includes the use of Artemisia afra in natural insecticide sprays and as a moth repellent. She also mentions the painkilling and relaxing properties of Artemisia afra.

Many of the Artemisia species are aromatic perennials and are used medicinally. Lesley Bremness (1988) in The complete book of herbs, mentions that wormwood is included for its internal worm-expelling properties in the ancient Greek text of Dioscorides. Indians from New Mexico use similar varieties to treat bronchitis and colds; and the Chinese use Artemisia for a number of ailments.

The oil of Artemisia acts as a local anaesthetic for rheumatism, neuralgia and arthritis. Artemisia afra is the main active ingredient of the spirit liqueur Absinthe that attained notoriety from its excessive use and abuse. Absinthe was the drug of inspiration for painters like Vincent Van Gogh, Edouard Manet, Pablo Picasso, and Paul Gauguin, and the authors Ernest Hemingway, Jack London and Oscar Wilde amongst others.

PubMed Literature:
Artemisia afra, indigenous to Zimbabwe, is used in folk medicine. Volatile oils from the plant resulted in significant activity against Aspergillus ochraceus, A. niger, A. parasiticus, Candida albicans, Alternaria alternata, Geotrichum candidum, and Penicillium citrium. Gundidza 1993

Three essential oils (including Artemisia afra, Artemisia abyssinica) showed positive results in the diphenylpicrylhydrazyl assay. The oils of Artemisia afra and J. procera were also effective hydroxyl radical scavenging agents when assessed in the deoxyribose degradation assay. Burits 2001

The antimicrobial activities of the essential oils of Artemisia afra, Pteronia incana and Rosmarinus officinalis were tested against 41 microbial strains. Artemisia afra and Rosmarinus officinalis showed similar and higher antimicrobial activity than P. incana. Mangena 1999

Extracts from traditional South African medicinal plants used for ailments of an infectious or septic nature, were screened for in vitro antibacterial activity. The highest activity was found in the methanol extracts from Bidens pilosa, Psidium guajava, Artemisia afra and Warburgia salutaris. Rabe 1997

A hybrid form of Artemisia annua was successfully cultivated in Central Africa. The plant aerial parts, which contained 0.63-0.70% artemisinin (dw), was extracted in a tea form. Five malaria patients who were treated with tea showed a rapid disappearance of parasitaemia within 2-4 days. Mueller 2000

The cytotoxic activity of nine terpenoids and flavonoids isolated from Artemisia annua was tested in vitro on several human tumor cell lines. Artemisinin and a quercetagetin-tetramethyl ether showed significant cytotoxicity against various tumor cells. Zheng 1994

Sixteen essential oils were screened in vitro for their fungitoxicity against the two dermatophytes Trichophyton rubrum and Microsporum gypseum. Five essential oils as ointments were able to cure ringworm in guinea pigs. Artemisia oil was found to be the most effective essential oil. Kishore 1993

Ultrasonic examination shows that Artemisia decoction (AD) intravenous infusion has remarkable effects on the contractility of gallbladder. The clinical use of AD is conducive to bile flow, stone expelling, inhibiting the deposition of bile solids and reducing the possibility of stone formation. Yu 1993

Chromatographic separation of Artemisia stolonifera isolated a triterpene, a sesquiterpene, two aromatic compounds and a benzoquinone (which showed in vitro cytotoxicity against non small cell lung adenocarcinoma, ovarian, skin melanoma, CNS and colon). Kwon 2001

A flavonoid and four coumarins from the aerial part of Artemisia capillaris, together with 70 known compounds have been isolated showing antiplatelet aggregation activity and significant activity against HIV replication in H9 lymphocytic cells. Wu 2001

Pharmaceutical Biology:
1999, Vol.37, No.5, pp. 351-356
Cardiovascular Effect of Artemisia Afra and its Constituents
A.N. Guantai and I. Addae-Mensah
University of Nairobi, Faculty of Pharmacy, Kenya
University of Ghana, Chemistry Department, Legon, Ghana

The cardiovascular effects of a mixture of long chain fatty esters (C44H88O2) and scopoletin isolated from Atemisia afra and an aqueous extract of the plant were investigated in rabbits. The long chain fatty esters induced hypotensive effects at doses of 0.5, 1.0, 1.5 and 3 mg/kg. The diastolic pressure was affected more than the systolic. Aqueous Atemisia afra extract (10-45 mg/kg) had a hypotensive effect in vivo and a dose-dependent biphasic effect on the heart in vitro. Lower doses induced an initial cardiostimulation followed by cardiodepression, whereas higher doses were mainly cardiodepressant. Scopoletin, a coumarin derivative, at a dose of 1.0-2.5 mg, induced a dose-dependent decrease in inotropic activity plus an appreciable decrease in chronotropic effects, especially at higher dose levels. These results suggest that Atemisia afra and its constituents are potentially useful for the management of hypertensive conditions.