by Julia Skinner
For millennia, my ancestors thrived in the craggy and remote Scottish Highlands and on the beautiful but sometimes harsh western French coast. As with humans everywhere, our diets and apothecaries were built by what the environment provided. Alongside them, a common weed called artemesia vulgaris (commonly called mugwort) also thrived. Mugwort is a slender, graceful plant with lobed leaves that tend towards a cool, dark green on top with an almost silver underside.
When I first met mugwort, it was not in person but in a dream, where the plant appeared on a hillside in the background of the main scene that unfolded (which, ironically, I cannot remember the details of). I recall wondering what this beautiful plant was as it swayed in the breeze on a rocky coast, but not having a referent for her.
And indeed, this first encounter became a metaphor for my relationship with mugwort over the years: She comes to the forefront when she needs to, but is always there quietly offering support and comfort, helping things slowly come into view. Later, I happened upon a packet of mugwort seeds and began to grow my own (note: Mugwort is one of my best friends but is also invasive in some environments, so plant with care!)
I planted these seeds at a time of great upheaval, as family members fell ill and required hospice care, as friends passed, and as I made a (very positive) career move away from a position that no longer served me. I’ve often wondered whether the timing of mugwort’s appearance was a coincidence, but intentional or not, mugwort became a critical ally in my healing. My first interaction with mugwort was simply to place a leaf on my tongue, and then sit with the way I felt in both body and soul. This simple, meditative act made me immediately feel more grounded, and eager to explore the ways I could work with mugwort more fully.
This meditation, it turns out, is connected to the lore surrounding mugwort. Robin Santos, a folk herbalist and medicinal herb farmer at Fancy Dream Farm in Dahlonega, Georgia, points to mugwort’s use as an oneirogen, which is “dream enhancing, specifically lucid dreams that help us tap into our intuition.” And mugwort’s mythological connection bears this out: “Artemisia vulgaris, named after Artemis, goddess of the moon, the herbalists, midwives, the wild, and the hunt. These qualities are reflected in the healing qualities and uses of Mugwort.”
Around western Europe, legend says that John the Baptist wore a girdle of it in the wilderness. While it’s possible he was doing so it keep flies away, this story has morphed into a tradition where mugwort is gathered on Midsummer’s Eve (also called Saint John’s Eve) to keep evil at bay. Pliny said it would keep travelers from feeling road weary, and there are even legends that it can magically open locks!
While the lore is impressive in its own right, so too is mugwort’s list of medicinal uses. Robin Santos says mugwort “is energetically bitter, making it a great ally for digestion by stimulating gastric juices and bile secretion.” She also uses it as an emmenagogue, which can help induce menstruation, and notes a number of other uses, including as a nervine and diuretic. Kelbi McCumber Morris, herbalist and reiki master and owner of Lumenous Healing Decatur, Georgia, has used mugwort for everything from detoxification to easing menopause symptoms and aiding with digestion and sleep.
In the thirteenth century in Wales, and the seventeenth century in England, there are records of mugwort being used by midwives, and folk sayings and records from Scotland show it was important there as well. Artemesia Vulgaris was brought by European colonists to what is now the United States, where it and similar species (native to this continent) were used by Indigenous communities for childbirth and rheumatism.
Another species of mugwort is powdered and used for moxa cones and sticks in Traditional Chinese Medicine, which is the basis the basis of moxibustion therapy. Kathi Langelier, founder of Herbal Revolution Farm + Apothecary in Union, Maine, notes that moxa is “often used by acupuncturist and herbalist, to help stimulate qi and encourage blood flow to certain parts of the body. I like to use it on sprains and cold aching joints, etc.”
Modern sources point to its use globally in childbirth and reproductive health, and note that it is even useful for keeping flies away by wearing a fresh sprig or applying an infusion to exposed skin.
Mugwort as Medicine for the Soul
In holistic herbal practices, mugwort’s use extends well beyond treating physical symptoms: Mugwort is an herb that heals the heart, aids in dreaming, offers protection, and opens the intuition, all things that are sorely needed during times of grief or even just acute stress. When you’re feeling lost at sea, mugwort may just be the friend who helps shepherd you to shore.
A couple years ago, entangled in the complexities of loss and responsibility that are a part of end of life caregiving (and then estate settling, still an ongoing process), I turned to mugwort. Mugwort helped me find my way back to shore, by reminding me that the shore I needed to find and build a home on was within myself.
I would put mugwort in my meals, in teas, and in meads and wild fermented beers. I also dried mugwort, and would make herbal smokes and dream bundles to cleanse and bless my home space. I found myself called to meditate more often, but specifically to meditate with mugwort nearby or right after ingesting. And what I received every time I meditated with mugwort was a reminder to tend to my heart and care for myself.
Sometimes these would be pretty clear directives like remembering to sleep, which is a hard thing to do when offering round-the-clock care. But other times, it would simply be a feeling of overwhelming love, which I would have reflected to me and could then reflect onto myself.
I’ve now been meditating with mugwort for over two years, and in that time I’ve cultivated a daily, deep practice of showing myself love through everything from affirmations to care for my body to cultivating healthy relationships (and nixing bad ones). While my practice now extends well beyond my meditations, it was mugwort who started me on that journey.
It turns out I am not alone in my love of mugwort. Kathi Langelier grows mugwort on her farm, and “love[s] the energy it brings to the garden. It’s a mystical energy that offers protection, strength and also intrigue.” Robin Santos uses the herb in “saining” (the Scottish word for protecting, blessing, or consecrating) as a sacred smoke to bless her home and spiritual practice. She also feels a special connection to the plant herself: “I tend to think about her right before spotting in the wild and have experienced many insightful lucid dreams after partaking in a night cap of Chamomile and Mugwort tea.”
Kathi Langelier notes that all of mugwort’s healing powers are important, but that her personal favorite is for sweet dreams: “Mugwort has a long and magical history of being used for relieving bad dreams, and bringing on dreams to the dreamless. It also has been used for dreamwork with lucid dreams.”
Though my ancestors would have worked with common European mugwort, other species are spread around the world, including the western United States and in China, and have historically been used in similar ways by the communities indigenous to those areas.
I’ve engaged with mugwort as a medicine for several years, but some of my greatest interactions with her have existed in the overlap between food and medicine, either wild harvested or harvested from my garden. This plant’s resilience, while an important part of her healing powers, is also a double-edged sword: Quick to adapt to new environments, mugwort can be invasive. I usually recommend folks grow mugwort in containers, or forage for it if it’s locally abundant.
Pascal Baudar, for example, uses mugwort and other abundant native plants and invasives in a variety of creative ways, including as a bittering agent for wildcrated beverages and a flavoring in vinegars. There are many other uses as well: Robin Santos uses it for medicinal and culinary applications, noting that “it can be taken as a tincture or tea and makes a wonderful moon-time [pre- or during menses] massage oil. Mugwort has as many uses as a culinary herb as a spice for meats, soups, or beverages. I’ve most recently used it as an ingredient in kombucha and a nutritive finishing salt.
I’ve found home uses to be simple and fun (make sure to check for a qualified moxibustionist in your area if you are curious about mugwort). I often find myself adding mugwort as a regular ingredient to my fire cider (which I use for everything from a health tonic to salad dressing to culturing butter), and even just finely chopped in whatever mixture of herbs I’m putting in a dish.
If you do so, just make sure to use it sparingly: A few leaves, if that, should add a bitter and earthy note without overwhelming. And, make sure to spend a moment thanking yourself for giving yourself some love through your food, with a little help from one of our oldest plant friends. As Kelbi McCumber Morris says, “The essence of the plants is powerful used inside and out.”
How lucky we are that mugwort chooses to share that power with us.
*Please note that, although mugwort is considered safe for most people, some people can have an allergic reaction. Be sure to consult a doctor before adding it to your diet.
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons, public domain image