Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris)
by Krystal Thompson
Common Names: Felon Herb, St. John’s Plant, Chrysanthemum Weed, Wild Wormwood, Old Uncle Henry, Sailor’s Tobacco, Maiden Wort, Chinese Honeysuckle.
Description/Taxonomy: Artemisia vulgaris is a member of the daisy family Asteraceae, also sometimes called Compositae. It is a tall-growing plant (between three and six feet when mature) that is native to Europe and Asia but has been naturalized through much of the world. Mugwort propagates easily from small fragments of rhizome, and by this process it has spread rapidly and become an aggressive weed in Canada (10). Mugwort likes weedy areas or places where the soil has been disturbed, but always where there is plenty of sunlight. It is commonly found growing in dense stands on hedgebanks and waste places. The stems are angular and often have a purplish hue, with once or twice pinnately lobed leaves that are dark green on top and covered with a dense cottony fuzz on the underside. When in bloom, Mugwort flowers in small, oval-shaped reddish or pale yellow heads. Mugwort is similar in appearance to common Wormwood, but distinguished by its leaves only being white on the underside, and its leaf segments being pointed rather than blunt (1).
History: One of Mugwort’s common nicknames, St. John’s Plant, comes from the belief that John the Baptist wore a girdle of Mugwort in the wilderness for protection (2). The actual name Mugwort however is often attributed to its historical use in flavoring drinks, specifically in beer (often with other herbs such as Ground Ivy) before the use of hops became common practice at the end of the 15th century. For this purpose, fresh Mugwort was gathered when in flower, dried, decocted in malt liquor, then added to finished beer. Another theory about the source of this plant’s name is from the Greek word moughte, meaning moth or maggot. Like Wormwood, Mugwort was known for its success in repelling moths (1). The botanical name Artemisia is that of the Greek goddess of the hunt, fertility, and the forests and hills (2).
Parts Used: Leaves, root, flowering tops. Interestingly, the cottony down underside of the leaves is sometimes sought exclusively. This is harvested by heating the leaves and rubbing them between the harvester’s hands until the cottony fibers alone remain. These fibers are then formed into small cones or cylinders for topical use (1). See Medicinal Uses below for more on this!
Cultivation and Harvest: The flowering tops of Mugwort should be collected as soon as they bloom, as this is the height of volatile oil concentration (10). Mugwort leaves should be collected before the plant flowers and dried like Wormwood: spread into fan shapes so the leaves dry evenly, then tied into bundles and hung in open air. Though Mugwort’s aromatic properties are not quite as potent as Wormwood’s, it is still good practice to hang the bundles in a shady space protected from direct sunlight; this will ensure preservation of the aromatic properties. Mugwort roots are dug in autumn and immediately washed in cold water to be separated from rootlets. Roots should be well spread out before left to dry, as contact could promote mold growth. They should be dried in a warm room for about ten days and turned frequently. Once they appear a bit shrunken and shriveled, the drying process must be finished artificially in a drying room or near a stove or fire. The drying process is not complete until roots are dry all the way through and brittle; they should snap when bent (1).
Herbal Actions: Anthelmintic: expels parasitic worms and other internal parasites without harming the host. Diaphoretic: induces perspiration. Diuretic: promotes urine production. Emmenagogue: stimulates blood flow in the pelvic area and uterus; some stimulate menstruation. Nervine: benefits the nervous system, in this case as both a stimulant and tonic nervine. Oneirogen: enhances dreaming. Stomachic: promotes the appetite or aids digestion.
Constituents: Roots contain tannin, inulin, resin. Volatile oil contains over one hundred identified components including cineole, camphor and thujone. The flowers contain beta-sitosterol, coumarins, and alpha and beta-carotene. Study of a crude extract yielded alkaloids, coumarins, flavonoids, saponins, sterols, and terpenes.
Energetics: bitter, acrid, warm. Dryness in the body can be caused by overuse of warming foods and herbs, and issues that are caused by dryness may be worsened if responded to with Mugwort.
Meridians/Organs Affected: spleen, liver, kidney.
Ethnobotany: Roman soldiers were known to put Mugwort leaves in their sandals to keep their feet from tiring (2). Native Americans used Mugwort as a spiritual ally in addition to a medicinal one. They believed that rubbing Mugwort leaves along the body would keep ghosts away, and that wearing a necklace of Mugwort leaves would keep one from dreaming about the dead (2). Cheyenne women also commonly used “woman’s” Mugwort or prairie sagewort, Artemisia frigida, to regulate their fertility. Women of other Native American tribes such as the Blackfoot and Arapaho also depended on Mugwort as a stimulant in the case of missed menstruation (6).
Medicinal Uses: As a tonic, Mugwort is highly sought after for its affinity for the female reproductive system. It is commonly used as a uterine stimulant that can both bring on delayed menstruation and aid in the balance and support of a regular menstrual cycle, which can be achieved by taking Mugwort internally or applying it topically onto the lower abdomen (10). It also halts excessive menstrual bleeding caused by deficiency, circulates the blood to the pelvic region, warms the womb, pacifies the fetus, and arrests threatened miscarriages (7). Further, Dioscorides recommended a decoction of Mugwort in a bath if there is trouble passing the placenta after birth. This, and most of Mugwort’s female tonic actions, is achieved by a warming and thinning effect.
The use of the down of Mugwort leaves is a very popular practice in TCM, Japanese, and Korean medicine for cases of rheumatism. Once formed, the cottony cones are placed directly onto the skin and then ignited for use as a counterirritant. The cones (or sometimes the mugwort is prepared into a sort of cigarette form where a hot ash can build on one end) are left on the arthritic spot until it becomes hot, and then are moved to the next spot, and back and forth until the areas become red, but not blistered. Through this process, the veins in the areas of pain or “congestion” are dilated, promoting circulation. Commonly referred to as Moxas or moxabustion, this is a good method for quick pain relief in cases such as injuries or bruises, and for long-term rheumatic pain support (5). It can also be thought of as a sort of “tonic process,” as it can be used at any time to stimulate the flow of qi. In general, it especially dispels cold and dampness (6).
Mugwort is beneficial as a diaphoretic at the onset of the common cold (1). As a nervine, it is used in cases of hysteria and fits, both epileptic and otherwise. It is noted that it is an especially good choice for epileptics with weak constitutions (1). David Hoffman notes that Mugwort’s nervine benefit against depression and tension is due to its volatile oil (8). That means it is especially important to take care when brewing Mugwort infusion for this purpose, as the volatile oils can be lost if the infusion is prepared or left to cool uncovered.
According to Culpepper, Mugwort root is one of the best stomachics available to us, though he also notes using a fresh leaf infusion for the same purpose. “A slight infusion is excellent for all disorders of the stomach, prevents sickness after meals, and creates an appetite,” he says. But he also cautions that to brew the infusion too strong is to cause the opposite effect and that it will disgust the tastes. Mugwort aids the digestive system via the combination of the bitter stimulation of digestive juices while also providing a carminative oil (8).
Culpepper suggests drinking an infusion morning and evening for cases of hysterics and obstruction of the spleen. He suggests that the oil in the infusion (assuming it’s brewed correctly- I repeat, keep those lids ON, y’all) kills worms, resists poison, and benefits the liver and jaundice (1). On this note, Mugwort can be used preventatively or curatively for parasites and worms, both internally and externally. As is the case for most of the Artemisias, Mugwort also has mild antifungal properties and is beneficial against dysentery (7).
In my browsing for this article, I also saw notes from a few studies that suggested that Mugwort has immunosuppressive activity which could be beneficial in the response to autoimmune diseases. Similarly, Mugwort is beneficial topically against eruptive reactions, such as contact with Poison Ivy. In this case, one would use a strongly brewed infused as an external wash (7).
Dreaming and Ceremonial Use: Admittedly, that Mugwort is often used as an aid for lucid dreaming and other dream explorations is all that I knew about this plant when I chose it for the subject of my monograph this month. Now that we know that this plant does in fact also benefit us in waking life, let’s go ahead and talk dreams. Were you waiting for it? I kind of was. Here goes. Likely the most common preparation of Mugwort for its oneirogen, or dream enhancing, properties is to fill a dream pillow with dried leaves or to rest fresh leaves directly onto one’s regular bedtime pillow. Mugwort is also prepared and used as a smudging herb for ceremonial purposes that include the connection to or mimicking of a dream like state. It was also traditionally combined with plants such as Sage, Thuja, and Osha and burned over a piece of charcoal in a seashell or similar container to purify a physical environment (7).
Popular interest in dream retention and analysis hit an all-time high in the late 20th century, and thus the demand for and interest in Mugwort significantly increased. I would feel confident in wagering that the average person would still be more likely to recognize Mugwort for its dream enhancing properties rather than its medicinal benefits. Plant-based oneirogens are typically used in one of two ways: either taken before sleep to stimulate dreaming, or used to induce a dream-like state that closely parallels the sensory and mental experience of a vivid dream, such as ceremonial smudging.
Mugwort is almost always included in the nine sacred herbs of summer solstice, and the incense is traditionally used as a blessing for shamans at the beginning of their journeys (6). No doubt this is also because of the plant’s oneirogen properties.
Allies: As an emmenagogue, Mugwort has historically been used with Pennyroyal and Southernwood (1). The calming properties of Lavender are a good balance to the vivid and sometimes overwhelming dreams that Mugwort can produce; the two are often used together in dream pillows. It is also suggested that combining Agrimony, Mugwort, and vinegar is an excellent alleviation for sciatica or muscular stiffness (6). Mugwort was also traditionally paired with Myrrh in an infusion to aid in drawing out menstrual blood or afterbirth (10).
Culinary Use: In cooking, Mugwort is primarily used as an aromatic, and was historically one of the green herbs with which geese were stuffed before roasting (1), and in herbal vinegars and seasonings. Because of its bitter taste, it is best paired in small quantities with fatty foods. Surprisingly, Mugwort also commonly appears as a coloring agent in Japanese mochi.
Cautions and Contraindications: Though it is a gentle emmenagogue on the scale of plants with that action, Mugwort is not recommended for use during pregnancy. Allergies to the pollen of Mugwort are also common, use cautiously if you tend to have issues with ragweed. Regardless of physical condition, using large amounts of Mugwort can cause gastrointestinal distress. Other than these few notes, there are no reports of side effects and contraindications when used properly (9).
Dosage and Method of Delivery: Mugwort is commonly prepared as an infusion, roughly one ounce of the herb to one pint of boiling water, steeped in a covered vessel to limit the loss of water soluble property evaporation. When using as a diaphoretic, this infusion should be given warm in ½ teaspoon doses. This same infusion may also be taken cold as a tonic up to three times daily (1). As the action of Mugwort is bitter, so is its flavor. Sweeter herbs like Lemon Balm are good additions to a Mugwort tonic if it is too bitter for the drinker. The flowering tops are also commonly used in powdered form, this preparation being specifically indicated for agues (fever or shivering fits).
References & Citations:
Grieve, Maud. A Modern Herbal. Mrs. M Grieve, 1931.
Barrett, Deirdre, McNamara, Patrick, Ph.D. Encyclopedia of Sleep and Dreams: The Evolution, Function, Nature, and Mystery of Nocturnal Behaviors. ABL-CLIO, Inc., 2012.
Blankenship, Valerie. “Western and Chinese Herbal Medicine for Arthritis.” www.sagewomanherbs.com, 2014.
“Mugwort, Artemisia vulgaris.” www.anniesremedy.com
Tierra, Michael, C.A., N.D. Planetary Herbology. Lotus Press, 1992.
Hoffman, David. The Herbal Handbook, A User’s Guide to Medical Herbalism. Healing Arts Press, 1998.
Skenderi, Gazmend. Herbal Vade Mecum. Herbacy Press, 2003.
Tobyn, Graeme, Alison Denham, and Midge Whitelegg. The Western Herbal Tradition: 2,000 Years of Medicinal Plant Knowledge. Churchill Livingstone/Elsevier, 2011.