Mugwort is a perennial herb in the aster family that is indigenous to Europe, Asia, Africa, and naturalized in North America to the point of being considered a nuisance weed. The word “mugwort” refers to several species in the Artemisia genus including Artemisia absinthus, otherwise known as absinthe wormwood, the source of the alcoholic beverage called absinthe. Mugwort is also known as common wormwood, which contributes to the identity confusion. To be clear, this article pertains to A. vulgaris, also known as Douglas mugwort, cronewort, sailor’s tobacco, old Uncle Henry, St. John’s plant (sorry!), chrysanthemum weed and, for some odd reason unknown to us, felon herb.
Before hops became the botanical of choice, mugwort was used in early beer-making. The reason for the common name for the plant stems from this practice since “wort” meant any herb used for food or medicine and “mug” is an apparent reference to the vehicle of imbibement, likely taken from the Scandinavian mugg or mugge, meaning drinking vessel. (Note that when spelled “mug,” the word was also once used to call someone a fool, perhaps one who imbibed too much. In modern usage, it refers to a dopey countenance or expression.)
The botanical name for this herb honors Artemisia, the Greek goddess of the hunt, fertility and the forests and sister to Apollo. Although her name is adapted from Artemis, the Greek name for Diana, the goddess was known as the latter to the ancient Romans. The nickname St. John’s plant is derived from the legend that Saint John the Baptist wore a cingulum, or girdle, woven from mugwort.
The first century Greek physician and botanist Dioscorides described mugwort as an aide to assist women in childbirth. In ancient Rome, the soft, downy texture of the leaves of the plant were used to cushion the soles of sandals worn by soldiers, who had abundant and free access the herb because it was purposely planted along roadsides to accommodate them while traveling on foot. Whether or not the herb was ever smoked by wayfarers as one of its common names suggests is not clear, but it is known that ancient sailors also cushioned their worn out shoes with mugwort.
In the Druid tradition, mugwort is considered the Mother of Herbs and a gift from Woden as one of the nine sacred herbs. While the herb is traditionally used to ward off negative energy and spirits, especially for road travelers, it is also central to pagan fertility rites. Mugwort is also traditionally used to invite lucid dreams. It is a stuffed into herbal sleep pillows, often along with hops, dill, valerian and various other herbs reputed to induce sleep. It is also taken as tea just before retiring, or simply sprinkled around the pillow.
Mugwort flowers contain beta-sitosterol, coumarins, and alpha- and beta-carotene. The essential oil of mugwort contains more than 100 known components, including 1,8-cineole, camphor, linalool, thujone, borneol, artemisin, quercetin, silica, antibiotic polacetylenes, inulin, hydroxycoumarins, fiber, calcium, zinc and vitamin C.
Typical Preparations & Uses
Mugwort is most commonly prepared as tea, usually in combination with other, more palatable herbs. The dried herb may also be encapsulated or tinctured. In Europe, mugwort is still used as seasoning for poultry, fish and game. The herb also has effective insect-repelling properties and can be placed in closets and chests to deter moths. According to a pilot study published in the Journal of Vector Borne Diseases in December 2013, the ethonolic leaf extract of A. vulgaris demonstrates antiparasitic activity against chloroquine-resistant Plasmodium falciparum malaria, the primary cause of the increased incidence of world-wide malaria. (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24499850)