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Forgotten herb: mugwort

Oh wow, that’s a terrible name. This herb could be the cure for cancer (unlikely, but follow me here), and everyone would overlook it because it’s called mugwort. In the plant world, you’ve got to be in some serious purgatory to be slapped with a name like mugwort…or…that’s how we’d see it now. In ancient times, names were pretty practical.

Let’s break it down

Mug. Ok, what’s that supposed to mean? Like you can put it in a mug. Yep, now I’m catching up. So, like, you can make tea with mugwort. Yes! Women used it to ease the symptoms of menstruation and menopause. Ancient wisdom says mugwort tea relaxes you and alleviates stomach aches. Another popular use was as a flavoring for beer before the widespread use of hops. Beer…mug.

In fact, with the growing popularity of homebrewing and foraging, mugwort beer is making a comeback. Here’s a simple recipe that uses dried mugwort leaves in Mugwort Lemon Beer, originally published by Grow Forage Cook Ferment.

Not to mislead you, it’s not what we think of as beer. This is a fermented, bubbly beverage, but it’s not made with hops. Instead, mugwort gives the drink herby, woody, slightly bitter notes.

Does that mean the “wort” part is like “wart”? Probably not. Mugwort is medicinal, but it’s more likely to be blended into a balm to relive itching than into a wort cream. Wort is probably just a derivation of the Old English word for “root”, which seems plausible given that the German word for root is Wurzel.

People argue that a tonic made with the root gives you energy. I find that confusing given the same online research claims a tea made from the dry leaves provides calming, anxiety-relief. Lots of potential avenues for study here.

Where do I find mugwort?

Practically everywhere. And, if you are familiar with the herb, you’ll recognize it in every season. It was once a medicinal, cooking and brewing herb, which means everyone grew it. It spreads easily, which made the plant an invasive weed in most parts of the world.

Mugwort is all around you, and yet, it is almost invisible to most people. Mugwort hides in plain sight. Here’s a strip of mugwort growing wild around the edges of forest and field. It looks like a green divider through the center of this photo. You’ve seen it a million times but did you ever notice it?

During warm months, you’ll see lots of adorable baby mugwort just beginning to sprout. You can wack one of those things 20 times with your lawnmower, and it will just shrug it off and keep on growing. Joke’s on you cause the roots get stronger. Maybe that’s why there are rumors that travelers and wary soldiers wore mugwort in their belts and shoes.

I took Chicago’s Orange line from the loop to Midway last Autumn and took a picture of mugwort growing along the railroad tracks.

My neighbor shouldn’t mind too much that I walked over to the edge of his yard and captured this late-season mugwort in it’s golden-brown glory.

Photographic proof that mugwort is all around us. It begs the question: why don’t we use this herb anymore? Well, supply is not an issue. Plentiful would be an understatement. There’s just no demand for mugwort.

Lack of interest

My best guesses: the flavor is unusual (Strike one) and the name is weird (Strike two). One possible problem, there is no popular dip made with mugwort. Who are we kidding? People love dips. If you don’t use an herb to flavor a salsa, shellfish or chip dip, the marketing department just isn’t going to call.

Tough to put that in a recipe, isn’t it? Imagine trying to impress your friends with a recipe that calls for delicious lemon, fresh thyme, smooth cream and…and…something weird called mugwort. Try telling your 14 year old that you’re baking some chicken and mugwort. Let me know what sort of a look she gives you.

Like a book judged by its cover, or wine judged by its label, the herb mugwort is judged by its awful name. Perhaps I can start a petition to change the common nickname of Artemisia vulgaris? Ugh, (eye roll) even its Latin name sounds like a venereal disease.

Let’s brainstorm

What would be a better name than mugwort?

Have you smelled or tasted mugwort? It’s in the lavender range but less floral and more woody. How about holinwood? A quick internet search tells me that’s not taken. It seems appropriate as the herb is a cousin to wormwood, a potent ingredient in absinthe.

I admit holinwood doesn’t have the same ring as sage, cilantro or dill, but it’s got a certain acceptable herbal masculinity. Too masculine? I mean, cilantro is kind of masculine, and it’s popular.

Herb of legend

There are all kinds of legends about mugwort. I mentioned travelers and soldiers carrying the leaves with them, which may have been for strength, as the internet suggests, or for the pleasant scent and use as an evening tea. Jury’s out until St. John the Baptist or a Roman soldier confirm their association with the herb.

Mugwort has a darker reputation…as an allergen. Some quick search engine checks show me that lots of people search for “mugwort allergy”. Strike three! I skimmed some academic articles on the subject. Mugwort pollen gives people hay fever. Guilty as charged.

Actually, it’s even darker. If you are pregnant, breastfeeding or trying to conceive, avoid ingesting mugwort. While it is difficult to study, legend and academic literature agree that mugwort is too risky for pregnant women.

What do we know for sure?

There’s a bunch of other stuff on the internet about mugwort legends. It’s an ancient herb with a rich history. You can do a quick search if interested. It’s highly repetitive, and it looks like every blogger who ever wrote about mugwort just copies these legends from the same places.

There’s no way to verify whether this stuff is true or some writer (me) made up a new common name for mugwort (holinwood) and then it became internet fact.

What I will share with you, is info I know for a fact. Herbal fans like to stuff dried mugwort leaves into dream pillows. Fact.

I first heard about mugwort at a yard walk housewarming party (read about yard walks here). Our hostess suggested making dream pillows full of dried mugwort leaves, which she loves. I can see how this practice came about, the scent is like a woodier, calming lavender. Some people describe it as a sage-mint, which is close, but it’s not as potent as mint. Maybe mugwort smells 80% like a medicinal sage and 20% like mint.

The small, handmade pillow is a little bigger than a pouch and is supposed to bring you vivid dreams. I’m not so convinced, but wouldn’t it be fun to try? Please leave a comment if you had a vivid, PG-rated dream because of mugwort.

She’s a keeper

My family and I attended a rehearsal lunch for a cousin who got married last year. It was October in New England, and the dads took three of the flower girls outside to play in the gardens around the restaurant.

The little girls picked the stems of long weeds growing along the banks of a creek, a favorite habitat for mugwort. They danced with them, dipped them in puddles and used them as brushes to write their names on the pavement.

I walked outside and just blurted out, “oh, it’s mugwort. Hey, girls, crush one of the leaves and tell me what you think about the smell.”

One of the dads said, “mugwort?” And I told them all about how it used to be used to brew a beer. Someone mentioned I’d be useful post-apocalypse. I get that a lot. And someone else shouted to my husband, “she’s a keeper!”

Consult the history books

Here’s the really good stuff. I saved the best for last.

Who can resist info I found about mugwort in really old books. Emphasize O-L-D. What I love about Google Books is that they scan pages as they appear with yellowed pages and historic font. Reading tip: the second “s” in a word looks more like an “f” to modern eyes.

Nicholas Culpeper mentions mugwort at least five times in this manual for midwives published in 1676, two decades after his death. Mugwort teas and tonics were thought to help expel the afterbirth, among other uses. But, wow, Culpeper gives his readers terrible advice about bleeding people and giving them toxic mercury: absolutely the wrong things to do. Do not go near mercury.

I love this Gardener’s Dictionary from 1768. The tag line is “Containing the best and newest methods.” The latest and greatest straight out of the 18th century! I guess we can’t chuckle too much, considering that mugwort is now almost forgotten, and we don’t even mention it in gardening books anymore.

Samuel F. Gray offers some brief notes about mugwort and its relatives in this manual from 1821. Common mugwort is on page 449.

The practical, everyday advice in these books drives home the point that everyone used this herb all the time, and then somehow knowledge of mugwort just faded away.

To combat that knowledge loss, the next time you see something that might be mugwort, would you just pick some leaves, crush them in your hand and rediscover the fresh scent?