Each spring, I like to visit a gardener friend of mine whose neatly tended beds are her pride and joy. She’s rather traditional and prefers a very structured, mannered approach while I tend to be more of a wild child, but anyone who loves green, growing things is a kindred spirit. We’ve spent many a pleasant afternoon together amid the flora.
As we wandered about her land enjoying the early blooms recently, she lamented over a rather ubiquitous weed that was peeking up at the edges of her footpaths and all around her greenhouse. Now, I have long believed that most “weeds” are simply misunderstood herbal allies so I asked her to point out the culprit. Sure enough, it was mugwort. I had to smile. “This,” I told her, “is not just a weed. This is the stuff that dreams are made of!”
Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris), or cronewort, is named after the lunar goddess Artemis and, like the moon, invites us to travel with her from the material world into the magical. Over the growing season, this unassuming, leafy beauty will transition from a plant that nurtures our bodies into one that feeds our souls. A feathery perennial, her deeply divided pinnate leaves are glazed on the underside with their signature, silvery sheen, evocative of the moon’s silver light. The leaves, when crushed, emit a pungent, distinctive aroma reminiscent of chrysanthemums and sage.
While mugwort’s leaves are similar to those of poison hemlock (Conium maculatum), it’s easy to distinguish mugwort from her more noxious counterpart by her moonlike glow and, during flowering, by hemlock’s umbrella-shaped flowering structure. Whenever using wild plants with deeply divided leaves (like parsley or carrot tops), it is critical to be positive of the identification. When in doubt, watch the plant through its entire growing season to observe the flowering structure or consult someone who knows.
The young mugwort sprouts are edible and tasty with a lovely aromatic quality. To toss in your fresh, green salads, gather the tender shoots in early spring until they reach a height of about 4 inches. Chopped mugwort also makes a delicious addition to deviled eggs. As the plant grows up to a foot high in April, it’s best not to consume mugwort directly, but it can be used in a fortifying herbal vinegar. Vinegar is an excellent menstruum, or medium, for drawing out the minerals that abound in mugwort, which is rich in calcium and the magnesium necessary for our bodies to absorb calcium.
I like to combine mugwort with nettle and chickweed for my “strong bones” vinegar. You can make your own delicious and nutritious strong bones vinegar from any one of those plants. Herbal vinegars are very easy to make. Tightly pack a jar full of plant material, and fill the jar to the top with raw, organic apple cider vinegar. Make sure to line the top with wax paper or plastic wrap to prevent rust if your jar has a metal lid.
The plants usually will absorb enough liquid overnight to end up uncovered so top off the liquid level as needed. Let it brew on your countertop, out of direct sunlight. After six weeks, strain out the plant material and enjoy!
Once mugwort’s stems exceed a foot, she begins her transition into the realm of the metaphysical. Mugwort is closely related to desert sage (Artemisia tridentate), often burned as smudge, a cleanser to prepare a sacred space for ritual, and to wormwood (Artemisia absinthium), which is distilled into the narcotic liqueur absinthe. Vincent van Gogh is said to have had quite a thirst for absinthe, and it has been suggested that its long-term use may have contributed not only to his magnificent creativity but also to his madness.
So it is wise to approach mugwort with respect for its magic and caution for its slightly toxic properties, which increase as the plant grows and flowers. Blooms appear around the end of summer and are displayed in a raceme, a cone of small, inconspicuous, daisylike blossoms. In its early flowering stage, the herb is at the peak of her mystical potency and can be harvested for smudge sticks and dream pillows. Local mugwort is an excellent alternative to the sage imported from the west and may be a better choice for centering, clearing and grounding because it incorporates the resident spirit of our home soil and speaks to our roots.
Some herbalists prefer to reap mugwort near the full moon, when the plant is photosynthesizing at night and during daylight hours, and the energies are concentrated in the above-ground portions. Mugwort grows well over 4 feet high, so choose only the most vibrant upper parts and leave the dry lower one to two feet. Create bundles of three stalks, and bind the ends with cotton string. If you’re fashioning smudge sticks, you may want to wrap the entire bunch crosswise on the diagonal while the plant is still flexible to avoid the crumbling that occurs after drying.
Hang your bundles away from direct sun, or dry them in the oven using only the pilot light until the thickest part of the stalk is easily snapped. Your vehicle also can be used as a solar dehydrator. Just make certain to shade the southern side so the bundles are not in direct sunlight.
Mugwort stimulates the brain’s creative centers and is the base of almost all dream pillows. Yours can be as simple as stuffing an old sock or as elaborate as a finely embroidered silk coverlet. Strip the leaves from the dried stalk, and fill to your liking. While mugwort alone is quite effective, you may choose to add lavender to aid in relaxation or some other favorite fragrant herb.
Cuddle up with your pillow to encourage more vivid and memorable dreams and to help you access the intuitive guidance that they contain. For several years, mugwort aided me in tapping into my subconscious and keeping dream journals (until I decided that my dreams had become vivid and memorable enough, thank you!). Of course, there is no guarantee as to the nature of your dreams. A friend of mine once told me that every time her boyfriend slept over, she would find her dream pillow tossed out of the bed when she arose in the morning!
Medicinally, acupuncturists burn dried mugwort as moxa on acupuncture points of the body as an alternative to needles. Moxa is known in Chinese medicine to strengthen the blood, stimulate the flow of qi (life energy) and maintain general health, making this extraordinary plant beloved of healers and seers alike.
As for my gardener friend, she isn’t a total convert. She has cleared the mugwort from around most of her prized flowerbeds but, happily, the stand near her greenhouse remains. She’s also been working on a lovely little needlepoint sachet.
In whatever form mugwort enters your life, may she bring you good health and sweet dreams.
[Corinna Wood, owner of Red Moon Herbs and director of the SE Women’s Herbal Conference, teaches on the faculty of the N.C. School of Holistic Herbalism, including the Wise Woman Ways of Herbalism program. She can be reached at www.redmoonherbs.com or 669-1310.]