Mugwort

Mugwort

Mugwort was used extensively to flavour and preserve ale before the discovery of hops. I have to say, one of my favourite home brew flavourings so far…

Habitat

Common on hedge banks and waysides, uncultivated and waste land. Throughout most temperate regions of the northern hemisphere, including Britain. It likes nitrogenous soils so is commonly found on roadsides and wasteland, and alongside stinging nettles and other “weedy” plants.

Description

Artemisia vulgaris is a tall herbaceous perennial plant growing 1–2 m tall, with a woody root and extensive rhizomes. Whilst it can spread by seed, it also spread by those rhizomes. The leaves are 5–20 cm long, dark green, pinnate and sessile, with dense, short, white, downy hairs on the underside. The stiff stems are grooved and sometimes have a reddish tinge. The small florets (5 mm long) are radially symmetrical with many yellow or red petals. The narrow and numerous capitula (flower heads), all fertile, spread out in racemose panicles. It flowers from mid-summer to early autumn.

Identifying Features

  • Leaves – The leaves are 5–20 cm long, dark green, pinnate and sessile, with short, dense, downy, white hairs on the underside.
Mugwort leaf
Mugwort leaf
Mugwort leaf underside
Mugwort leaf underside
  • Flowers – Small florets (5 mm long), radially symmetrical with many yellow or red petals. Narrow and numerous capitula (flower heads), all fertile, spread out in racemose panicles. It flowers from mid-summer to early autumn.
Mugwort dried flowers
Mugwort dried flowers
  • Stem – The stiff stems are grooved and sometimes have a reddish tinge.

Pictures

Uses

Food

Leaves – can be eaten raw or cooked, they are very aromatic and somewhat bitter. Their addition to the diet aids the digestion and so they are often used in small quantities as a flavouring, especially with fatty foods. They are also used to give colour and flavour to Mochi (glutinous-rice dumplings) in Japan. The young shoots are used in spring. In Japan the young leaves are used as a potherb. The dried leaves and flowering tops are steeped into tea. They have also been used as a flavouring in beer, though fell into virtual disuse once hops came into favour – I can vouch for the fact that Mugwort makes an excellent home brewed beer.

Medicine

Mugwort has a long history of use in herbal medicine especially in matters connected to the digestive system, menstrual complaints and the treatment of worms. It is slightly toxic, however, and should never be used by pregnant women, especially in their first trimester, since it can cause a miscarriage4,5.

Other uses

The fresh or the dried plant repels insects, it can be used as a spray but caution is advised since it can also inhibit plant growth. A weak tea made from the infused plant is a good all-purpose insecticide. The down on the leaves makes a good tinder for starting fires. A number of species of Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths) feed on the leaves and flowers.

The dried leaves are often smoked or drunk as a tea to promote lucid dreaming. This supposed effect is believed to be due to the thujone contained in the plant.

It has been used as an ingredient in perfumes and soap – give the flowers a rub and inhale deeply and you’ll see why.

Known hazards

The plant might be poisonous in large doses6. Being a member of the Asteraceae family, skin contact can cause dermatitis in some people. Probably unsafe for pregnant women as it may stimulate the uterus to contract and induce abortion.

Harvesting

The leaves are harvested in August and can be dried for later use.
The roots are harvested in the autumn and dried for later use.

Potential lookalikes

There are many species in the Artemisia genus and some can look superficially similar. Be certain that you have the correct species for using it for anything.

Franz Eugen Köhler, Köhler's Medizinal-Pflanzen, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Mythology and Folklore

There is a legend that St. John the Baptist wore a girdle of Mugwort, and garlands made from plants cured in the smoke from St. John’s Eve bonfires were believed to protect a home from evil.

Known in the Middle Ages as Mater Herbarum (mother of herbs), Mugwort was held sacred by various cultures and thought to be the oldest of plants. In particular it was believed to be a plant that offered protection to humans. It was once common to hang a sprig of mugwort over the doorway — or to burn it as an incense — to keep illness and evil spirits away from the home.

The ‘mug’ in Mugwort is said by some to be derived from an old word for ‘moth’, the plant once having been used (like moth-balls) to protect clothes against hungry moths. The nicer, although less likely belief is that the ‘mug’ referred to is to do with the vessel that ale was drunk from; In common with a number of other herbs, Mugwort was used to flavour beer in the days before hops were introduced. Its dried leaves have also been used as substitutes for both tea and tobacco (hence the old Norfolk name of ‘Jack bacca’).

The properties of Mugwort, or muggons, seem to have been well known to Scottish mermaids. This was the advice reputed to have been sung by one such as she watched a young girl’s funeral processing along the banks of the Firth of Clyde:-

If they wad drink nettles in March
And eat muggons in May,
Sae mony braw maidens
Wadna gang to the clay.

Mugwort infusing into wild fennel vodka
Mugwort infusing into wild fennel vodka

Sources

  1. Wikipedia – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Artemisia_vulgaris
  2. PFAF – https://pfaf.org/user/Plant.aspx?LatinName=Artemisia+vulgaris
  3. Chiej. R. Encyclopaedia of Medicinal Plants. MacDonald 1984 ISBN 0-356-10541-5.
  4. Bown. D. Encyclopaedia of Herbs and their Uses. Dorling Kindersley, London. 1995 ISBN 0-7513-020-31.
  5. Stuart. M. The Encyclopedia of Herbs and Herbalism Orbis Publishing. London. 1979 ISBN 0-85613-067-2.
  6. Grieve. A Modern Herbal. Penguin 1984 ISBN 0-14-046-440-9.
  7. Triska. Dr. Hamlyn Encyclopaedia of Plants. Hamlyn 1975 ISBN 0-600-33545-3.
  8. Lust. J. The Herb Book. Bantam books 1983 ISBN 0-553-23827-2.
  9. Mills. S. Y. The Dictionary of Modern Herbalism.
  10. Foster. S. & Duke. J. A. A Field Guide to Medicinal Plants. Eastern and Central N. America. Houghton Mifflin Co. 1990 ISBN 0395467225.
  11. Yeung. Him-Che. Handbook of Chinese Herbs and Formulas. Institute of Chinese Medicine, Los Angeles 1985.
  12. Medicinal Plants of Nepal Dept. of Medicinal Plants. Nepal. 1993.
  13. A. Addo-Mensah, G. Garcia, I.A. Maldonado, E. Anaya, G. Cadena and L.G. Lee, 2015. Evaluation of Antibacterial Activity of Artemisia vulgaris Extracts. Research Journal of Medicinal Plants, 9: 234-240.
  14. Duke. J. A. and Ayensu. E. S. Medicinal Plants of China Reference Publications, Inc. 1985 ISBN 0-917256-20-4.

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