Mugwort (Artemesia vulgaris)
Common Wormwood, Felon Herb, Chrysanthemum Weed, Wild Wormwood, Old Uncle Henry, Sailor’s Tobacco, Naughty Man, Old Man, St. John’s Plant, Riverside Wormwood, Maiden Wort, Chinese Honeysuckle
About This Plant
Mugwort, one of the famed Artemisia plants, is an herbaceous perennial that grows from three to six feet tall and is commonly found on roadsides and waysides, uncultivated and wasteland throughout most temperate regions of the northern hemisphere. It is hardy in USDA Zones 3-8 and can tolerate all soil types, as long as it is well-drained. The poorer the soil, the more medicinal the qualities of Mugwort, actually. It is not frost tender and while preferring full sun, will tolerate semi-shady areas. It is drought tolerant once established.
Mugwort’s leaves are long and dark green and densely covered on the underside by fine white hairs. Leaves are narrow and lobed, usually tapered with sparsely toothed margins. It is similar in appearance to Wormwood but is distinguished by its leaves only being white on the underside and its leaf segments being pointed rather than blunt. While significantly lobed, its leaves are usually broader than other Artemisia relatives and they tend to tolerate more shade. The leaves of Mugwort have a pungent aroma when crushed.
Mugwort’s stems are stout, angular, grooved, and slightly hairy. They are tinged with a red-purplish hue and are woody at the base. Flowers are whitish-green at the budding stage and become a dull yellowish-green or purplish-green with maturity. They appear from July to October. They have numerous narrow and rather small florets. Except for their abundance, these flowerheads are inconspicuous. Mugwort’s flowers are wind-pollinated and produce lots of pollen, causing allergy symptoms in some people. Roots are about eight inches long with many thin rootlets. It spreads from stout and persistent rhizomes.
Mugwort was traditionally used as one of the flavoring and bittering agents of gruit ales, a type of non-hopped fermented grain beverage. In Nepal, its name is Titepate which translates to “bitter leaf” and is used as an offering to the gods. It is used for cleansing the environment in various ways such as by hanging a bundle inside a house, burning it as incense, or by sweeping floors with it. In Japan, Mugwort is believed to belong to the Goddess of Progeny, Life, and Death. The Greeks long associated Mugwort with Artemis, the goddess of Earth and childbirth. Artemis’ divine presence was considered to be concentrated in Mugwort and Mugwort was thus used in the worship of and ecstatic union with Artemis throughout the ancient world via its ingestion during ceremonies held under the full moon in her honor. It was commonly thought one of the ways in which Artemis relieved birth pains was by giving women Mugwort. The Chinese “Artemis” is an eternally young woman clad in Mugwort. Roman soldiers were known to put Mugwort leaves in their sandals to keep their feet from tiring.
One of the plant’s names is St. John’s Plant because it was believed that John the Baptist wore a Mugwort wreath in the wilderness for protection. Many beliefs arose suggesting that travelers should wear Mugwort to ward off wild beasts and evil spirits as well as to protect them from fatigue, sunstroke, and disease. Mugwort is included in the nine sacred herbs of Summer Solstice and the incense is traditionally used as a blessing for shamans at the beginnings of their journeys.
Mugwort is quite complex with over 75 unique chemicals that have been identified. It is what is known as an oneirogenic herb–one that assists in vivid dreaming. Dried leaves are often smoked or drunk as a tea to promote lucid dreaming. It has a history of being an ancient magical herb attributed with the power of arousing strange ideas, magical conceptions, and sacred associations in cultures across Asia, Europe, and North America for millennia. In 17th century England, young women believed digging up its roots and placing them under their beds at night would induce prophetic dreams of their future husbands.
Wormwood can be invasive and is considered in many places a noxious weed. It propagates itself from both seeds and from small fragments of rhizome which has led it to spread rapidly in areas. Wormwood is a slightly toxic herb that can be poisonous in large or prolonged doses. This has not stopped it from experiencing a long and sustained history of both medicinal and culinary uses. Contact with skin can cause dermatitis in some people. It should not be consumed by pregnant women as it may stimulate the uterus to contract.
Wormwood plants go to seed from the end of Winter to the beginning of Spring when seeds will be hydrated by rainfall in time to sprout for the Spring season. As such, you can surface sow seeds from late winter to early summer in a greenhouse. Keep seeds moist and plant out seedlings in early summer once they are large enough to handle. During the Spring and Fall seasons, you may also propagate Mugwort by root division. Mugwort propagates easily from small fragments of rhizomes. The third technique used to propagate Mugwort is by cuttings. Use clean, sterilized shears to cut 4-6” basal cuttings from the plant in the Fall after the humidity has fallen for the season. Cut below the nodes on the spot where new growth has occurred. Place the cuttings in a sunny windowsill in a glass of water and plant outdoors when all danger of frost has passed. Acclimate your cuttings appropriately during their transition.
Wormwood plants should be spaced 12”-18” apart.
Mugwort is easily grown as long as it is given a sunny location with slightly moist soil and good drainage. It’s adaptable to partial shade and dry soils, but will not tolerate wet soil conditions. The plant is not high-maintenance and will actually live longer and be more hardy and aromatic when grown in poor dry soil. Established plants are drought tolerant. If stems flop or the foliage declines in the summer, the plant may be cut back to revitalize it. Foliage decline is often seen in high humidity summer climates.
There are two things to keep in mind when cultivating Mugwort, however. The first is that its roots release secretions that inhibit the growth of surrounding plants. The second thing to keep in mind when choosing a location for Mugwort is that it tends to be aggressively invasive by way of its spreading rhizomes. You must choose a location accordingly and cut back the roots as needed. You may consider planting it in a large container by itself in order to address these two issues or choose an area in your garden where the plant will be isolated.
If harvesting for culinary or medicinal purposes, the leaves of Wormwood should be gathered before the plant flowers. Bundles of the stems can be hung in a shady space with good airflow and protected from direct sunlight so as to ensure the preservation of the aromatic properties. Flowering tops should be collected as soon as they bloom as this with be the height of their volatile oil concentration. Roots can be dug in Autumn. Wash the roots in cold water and separated them from the rootlets. Spread them out to dry and turn them several times a day with clean hands. Contact between roots can promote mold growth. Once the roots appear a bit shrunken, the drying process must be finished artificially, either in a drying room or near a stove. Roots will be brittle once fully dried.
Seeds can be collected once seed heads are fully dry. Rub the seed heads between your hands to separate the seed. Winnow or screen the seeds to separate the chaff. Store in a cool, dry place in an air-tight container. Artemisias can cross-pollinate so for pure seed, Wormwood should be located at least ¼ mile from other Artemisias.
- Fresh and dried plants repel insects; can be used as a strewing herb in pantries and drawers or used as a broom to cleanse floors
- Essential oil from the plant kills insect larvae, but use with caution as spraying with it will also inhibit plant growth
- The down of the leaves make good tinder for starting fires
- A number of species of butterflies and moths feed on the leaves and flowers
- Suitable for dried flowers
- Culinary uses
Mugwort is aromatic and somewhat bitter. Its addition to the diet aids in digestion. It is typically used in small qualities as a flavoring, usually paired with fatty foods. In Japan, young leaves are used as a potherb. Dried leaves and flowering tops can be steeped into a tea. Mugwort was historically used as one of the green herbs with which geese were stuffed before roasting. It can be used in herbal vinegars and seasonings. It was once used as a flavoring agent in beer prior to the use of hops. Mugwort is used to give a green color to Japanese mochi.
Mugwort has a long history of use as an herbal medicine, especially in matters connected to the digestive system, menstrual complaints, and the treatment of worms. The leaves are antibacterial and inhibit the growth of Staphylococcus aureus and other bacteria. Infusions of the leaves and flowering tops have been used in the treatment of nervous and spasmodic affections, sterility, dysmenorrhoea, and asthma. Its bitterness can stimulate appetite and it is also used as a diuretic. Tonics made from the root were also thought to be beneficial in the treatment of complaints such as anxiety, irritability, and restlessness. Leaves placed inside the shoes were utilized to soothe sore feet. Sometimes, the cottony fibers alone are gathered from the plants for medicinal purposes. Many of Mugwort’s benefits are because of its volatile oil, so it’s extra important when making infusions to keep the lids on while steeping so that the delicate oils are maintained.
In Chinese medicine, Mugwort is known as Ai ye or Hao-shu and is the highly valued herb used in moxibustion. It is harvested, dried, and aged, and then shaped into a cigar-like roll. The “Moxa” is burned close to the skin to heat specific pressure points. It has long been used like this to alleviate rheumatic pains aggravated by cold and damp circumstances. Studies have also been done on Moxa’s effect on turning breech babies into a head-down position.
One of the most aspects of Mugwort is its notoriety as an oneirogen–an herb that enhances dreaming. Dried leaves are often smoked or drunk as a tea to promote lucid dreaming. This effect is believed to be due to the thujone content in the plant. The herb is used to fill dream pillows or fresh leaves are put directly onto pillows.
Mugwort is slightly toxic and large, prolonged dosages can damage the nervous system. It should never be used by pregnant women, especially in the first trimester as it can cause uterine contractions.
Mugwort is native to the temperate regions of Europe, Asia, northern Africa, and Alaska. It has been naturalized in North America.