Mugwort is a bushy plant with gray-green, very bitter-tasting leaves. One of its more interesting uses is in sleep pillows, where its inclusion is said to encourage vivid dreaming. It's also used as a bitter tonic.
Artemisia vulgaris L.
Botanical Family: Asteraceae
Common name: mugwort
Synonyms: common wormwood, felon herb, sumidad de artemisia (Spanish)
The Plant: Mugwort is a member of a large genus of perennials grown for their decorative foliage (often white to silver-grey in color), their aromatic and insect repelling properties, their use as a food and beverage flavoring, and their benefits as traditional herbs.
The bitter-flavored wormwood (A. absinthium), the highly aromatic southernwood (A. abrotanum), the delicate-flavored French tarragon (A. dracunuculus), and sweet Annie (A. annua), the source of an anti-malarial drug, are among the dozens of well-known garden and herb species of Artemisia. An American native mugwort (A. Douglasiana) grows in the western United States and is similar in appearance and use to other mugworts.
Mugwort is a weedy-looking perennial herb that can aggressively grow up to six feet tall and wide. It spreads by runners and will form large clumps if left alone. The leaves are deeply toothed and are green on top and silver-gray underneath. The green stems are grooved and have a purple to reddish tinge to them. The whole plant is aromatic.
Mugwort is native to Asia but grows well across temperate regions of Europe and North America, where it has escaped cultivation and often grows wild in fencerows, stream-banks and slopes. It prefers full sun and rich soil, but it's a strong grower and handles of a variety of soils and some shade quite well.
Mugwort is best harvested as it starts to flower. Young, first-year plants can be cut to the ground. Older plants form large, woody stems, so it's best to harvest only the tops unless the stems will be removed from the dried herb.
Constituents of Note: A small amount of a volatile oil, containing over 100 different compounds, with the main constituents being 1,8-cineol, camphor, linalool and thujone. Also present are flavonoids, coumarins, triterpenes, carotenids, sterols and plant acids.
Quality: Mugwort leaves have a pleasant aroma and spicy, somewhat bitter flavor. The leaves are dark green and smooth, with a grayish-woolly underside.
The presence of some flowers and no seeds indicates the herb was harvested at the proper time. Stem fragments should be green to brownish-green and may have tinges of red or purple.
Mugwort stems should also be present at 30% or less of the total herb and should be smaller-sized stems rather than the larger woody stems of mature plants.
Regulatory Status: GRAS (Title 21 172.510) as a flavoring agent in foods with finished food thujone-free
Did you know? Once called the "Mother of Herbs" (Mater Herbarun), mugwort has been known and respected for centuries. Some of its first uses were as a magical herb to repel demons and evil spirits. It also afforded protection for travelers.
Mugwort is considered under the rule of the moon (Artemis) and is still used by some as an herb of protection, purification, vivid dreaming and divination. To invoke its protection, mugwort is added to a smudge stick, to incense, or to a fire.
Directions: To make a tea, pour one cup of boiling water over one teaspoon of herb and steep, covered, for five minutes.
Suggested Uses: Mugwort-stuffed sleep pillows have been used for centuries, purportedly to help induce dreaming. Used by itself or with other relaxing herbs such as hops flowers or chamomile, it's easy to make your own sleep pillow.
Another easy, make-your-own use for mugwort is as an ingredient in closet and drawer sachets to help protect woolens in storage.
Mugwort is also used as a bitter tonic and as an appetite stimulant. It is sometimes used as a food flavoring and in an ingredient in some German sausage and some English beers.
Caution/Safety: The Botanical Safety Handbook* classifies mugwort as:
Class: 2b Herbs not to be used during pregnancy.
*Michael McGuffin, ed., American Herbal Products Association's Botanical Safety Handbook, (New York: CRC Press, 1997)