On full moon nights I like to walk out into the hills nearby and stare up at that glowing silvery orb. For thousands of years the moon was associated with Artemis, the Goddess of the hunt, the wilderness, wild animals and the moon. You can see images of her in sculptures and paintings as the wild free young huntress with a quiver of arrows and often accompanied by a wild stag or a hunting dog.
We find the name Artemis associated with a number of strongly scented, aromatic bitter herbs under the Artemisia genus. Think mugwort, wormwood and sagebrush. All of these plants have long been used cross culturally not only for their medicinal virtues but for their strongly magical associations. In China and Japan, moxa wands made of mugwort are commonly used to “move qi”, “warm the channels” and expel negative influences. In Bald’s leechbook, , an english medical textbook from the 9th century, mugwort is suggested for casting out demonic possession. In Britain it was also seen as an important ready for curing people who have been attacked by invisible arrows slung by fairies.
Sagebrush (A. tridentata) has long been used by Native American tribes to cleanse and sanctify space and rid the area of harmful energies. The Cheyenne have worked with a species of mugwort (A. ludoviciana) to drive away ominous dreams and to repel bad spirits and evil influences. The Mewuk peoples would give orphans mugwort (A. ludoviciana) after their parents died to ward off malicious ghosts. The Blackfoot would work with mugwort (A. ludoviciana) to cleanse the singers before ceremony, as a good luck charm.
Outside of magical purposes, mugwort has long been used in beer making (thus the name mug) and prior to hops becoming the standard plants like mugwort and yarrow were often used as key aromatic and bitter plants for brewing. The term used today for these old school beers flavored with aromatic/bitter herbs (that isn’t hops) a gruit ale. And of course, mugwort has been a medicinal ally for many people from different cultures since ancient times.
Walk down one of the trails along the coast past the tall Sitka Spruces, licorice ferns, salmonberry and elder to the beach. Standing above the crashing waves, you will find pockets of coastal mugwort (A. suksdorfii). You can usually see last years dried stalks aiming to the sky with small tufts of gently lobed leaves- green on the top and silvery white beneath. Sweep your hand through some of the leaves and bring your hands to your nose. The scent is unmistakeable, inimitable- strong, pungent, biting, aromatic and fresh with vitality and life. Take a small portion of leaf and chew a bit- the bitterness starts to develop until after a minute or so most people can’t handle it and will spit the leaf out or swallow it. The heady particular scent and the bitterness is key to mugwort. Many of our most protective plants either are deeply horned (rose, Devil’s Club, Hawthorn) or very pungent and aromatic (mugwort, yarrow, sage).
When we think of strongly aromatic and bitter plants, the first thing that comes to mind is movement. Aromatic and bitter plants move things- the blood, lymph, breath and improve digestive strength, motility and elimination. Mugwort is one of our great movers when we need to shift out of stagnation towards greater movement and flow. Think of this great coastal mugwort spending its time above the waves, ever watchful while the waves retreat and crash, as the moon ebbs and flows. Coastal mugwort is truly one of my deepest friends, and goes to the heart of my story. If you have time, please read:
In my mid 20’s I developed some severe mental health challenges. In a short space of a few weeks I descended into a complex set of symptoms that included rapid cycling between ups and downs, some bizarre thinking patterns, panic attacks and crippling social anxiety. I had gone from a pretty well adjusted happy go lucky adult with lots of friends to someone who primarily isolated in my home with an enormous amount of fear around simply interacting with the world at large on any level. It was a brutal change that left me dizzy with sadness and confusion over what had happened. I entered into conventional therapy and saw a psychiatrist. Though I worked with a therapist for months, the symptoms were not abating. The psychiatrist put me on zoloft (antidepressant) and klonopin (benzodiazepine) and both left me feeling worse and even suicidal at times. Though many people find great support in these avenues (hey I am a therapist), they were not working for me and I went on a search to find other forms of support.
A few years prior to my crisis I had met and connected with a local herbalist and healer named Joyce Netishen (thats a picture of her at the top of the page) and gave her a call and made an appointment. That appointment proved to be lifechanging. When she saw me she could see I was in deep distress. I couldn’t make eye contact, talked rapidly or fell into confused mutterings. I was bad off. After her assessment, she offered me an “energetic dose” of mugwort- specifically the coastal mugwort that grows here (Artemisia suksdorfii). This is the strange part of the story. The mugwort coursed quickly through my body and I had the incredible and odd sensation that another entity had hosted itself in me and was imbedded at a very deep level and specifically the acupuncture channels throughout my body. In short, I felt the sensation of being possessed.
Now this may seem like a pretty bizarre and ridiculous thing to think of as a modern person. But the idea of an entity possessing us has its roots in traditional cultures throughout the world. Disease is often seen as a manifestation of something getting in, or someone aiming a curse or hex at another. Healing is perceived as removing that entity or curse. Healing techniques often involve some combination of plant medicines, smoke, tools such as rattles and drums and an adept healer who has the facility of working in liminal places. From forms of earth based magic imbedded in Celtic cultures to shamanic practices in Siberia to South American and African healing practices, exorcism and removal of hexes are common ways to work with people in severe distress.
I am comfortable with both thinking of my severe distress as due to genetics, trauma and stressors- and also see it through a very ancient lens of being overwhelmed by “other” forces. At this point it doesn’t matter to me if it was metaphorical or real- but at the time the experience felt extremely real.
In that well lit room filled with flowers and plant medicines long ago I knew right away for me that Joyce’s work was instrumental in changing the course of my life. That offering of mugwort lit up the presence of this strange entity that had overtaken my very lifeblood and was slowly squeezing, sinking me deeper and deeper into madness. The mugwort acted as battery acid acts in an engine- it quickly dissolved the presence of this “other” from my being. I remember feeling completely overwhelmed, scared, writhing, and at one point questioning whether this thing should be removed- that perhaps it had become part of me and shouldn’t go. Joyce quickly admonished me that it must go and added one more drop that pushed out this growing electric black-blue presence from my body and soul.
I didn’t recover right away. It took me years to come fully back to myself. But that was the point where I stopped descending further. The course was reversed and I was able to start building my life back again. I ended up apprenticing with Joyce for several years after that- developing deep and abiding relationships with the plant world that carries through to this day. Mugwort facilitated that transformation.
Generally we should gather this plant primarily from gardens where it has been grown. The whole aerial plant is useful and I prefer to gather it in May and June when the leaves are still tender, a little less bitter and the flowers are just emerging but not excessively tall. The plant can be hung on a line in an area of the house that is shaded away from direct sunlight and not excessively cold or hot.
A word about the name mugwort. First we need to be clear on nomenclature. Mugwort is often used as a name for a variety of plants. Generally we think of the name mugwort associated with the classic medicinal mugwort- Artemisia vulgaris- an herb that is often found in herbalists gardens. But truly there are hundreds of Artemisias including our desert sagebrush (Aretmisia tridentata). While the term mugwort is mainly associated with the Artemisia vulgaris, it is often associated with Artemisia douglasiana (California mugwort), Artemisia ludoviciana (Western mugwort) and Artemisia sukksdorfii (Coastal mugwort) as well as a few others. All of these species have similar mugwort like medicinal properties.
All the pictures here are of the coastal mugwort (A. sukksdorfii). Native to the coastal regions from northern California through British Columbia. As a rhizomatous perennial, you will often see the dried stalks of this plant from the previous year and then the lobed green leaves on top and wooly silver white colored beneath. The plant grows upwards of several feet in clusters with stalks that can grow to 6 feet high with clusters of small yellowish flowers that become rusty brown as they dry.
Deworming Mugwort is bitter, extremely bitter. A little bitter will help with digestion and elimination but strongly bitter plants can have a marked laxative and even emetic effect. It is this purgative quality in mugwort that makes it useful for ridding the body of worms.
Cold/Flu Mugwort’s strongly aromatic nature helps to induce sweating that can help break a long nasty fever and allow the body to cool itself through diaphoretic release through the skin pores.
Aid for UTIs: Mugwort acts as a diuretic to improve urinary output, clear excessive dampness/bloating, remove stones and help in formulas for UTIs.
For poor menstrual flow Mugwort can help with improving menstrual flow for those who have spotty, cramped periods.
Circulatory stimulant: As an aromatic plant, mugwort moves blood and lymph to help with circulation.
Nerve tonic: Mugwort has unusual effects on the nervous system. I have seen some people take to mugwort as a nice calmative agent, but occasionally it seems to stir certain people up. I worked with a woman who chewed a bit of leaf when we were taking a plant walk. For the rest of the day she felt altered and ungrounded. It really is a plant that is particular to each individual.
Digestive Aid: Mugwort’s bitter and aromatic qualities make it a nice addition to formulas that help improve digestion, reduce bloating and cramping and help with absorption of nutrients and elimination.
Dream Enhancer: This is likely one of the main things you have heard about mugwort- that it can induce strange and unusual dreams. It definitely can have interesting effects for some people- including causing lucid dreams with deeply vibrant and potent visions that can be transformative.
Protection: Again- on the magical side, mugwort has long been used as a protector. Think of Artemis the hunter on your side, guarding against the bad intentions of seen and unseen others.
Contraindications: Because if its strongly moving nature, mugwort should be avoided by pregnant women. Mugwort contains thujone (in varying degrees depending on the species) that can be toxic in large doses. In general, mugwort should be consumed in small amounts for very short periods.
Latin Name: Artemisia vulgaris, Artemisia sukksdorfii, other
Parts Used: Aerial portions
Energetics/Taste: Warming, bitter, drying
Actions: Anthelmintic, diaphoretic, diuretic, emmenagogue, nervine, digestive
Signs of Use: For those who appear blocked, cramped, bloated with poor digestion, scanty menstruation, somewhat anxious, tight.
Mugwort Smoke Medicine
Mugwort smoke medicine has been made for thousands of years any various cultures for smudging, moxibustion and for ritual and sacred purposes. Simply bundle about 5 fresh tops and tie them together with string. Allow to dry on a line for about a week. Burn as needed.
Hmmm- how to put this- most people don’t drink a hearty cup of mugwort tea (unless you hang out with my awesomely weird herbalist friends.) The reason? Its bitter- and if you let it steep for too long- extremely bitter. That’s not to say you shouldn’t do it- just that most people prefer mugwort tea as part of a formula where the intensity of the herb is softened by others. That being said- one can make a cup of mugwort tea by adding a tablespoon of cut mugwort to a pint of hot water, steeped 10 mins and then strained and drunk. Mugwort contains some throne in it and this is not an herb to take regularly but in small doses intermittently. Here are some other options for working with mugwort in tea form though-
Onset of a Cold formula for when you have had a strong fever that isn’t breaking for a long time- Add ingredients together and then add a tablespoon to a pint of hot water, step for 10 minutes, strain and drink.
Mint 3 parts
Elder Flower 3 parts
Yarrow 1 part
Mugwort 1 part
Licorice 1/2 part
Digestive Aid formula For when you feel cramped, bloated with poor digestion with an anxiety component. Add ingredients together and then add a tablespoon to a pint of hot water, step for 10 minutes, strain and drink.
Chamomile 3 parts
Lemon Balm 3 parts
Mugwort 1 part
Licorice 1/2 part
Menstrual Flow Formula For when menstruation is scanty with tightness, irritability and bloating. Add ingredients together and then add a tablespoon to a pint of hot water, step for 10 minutes, strain and drink.
Sage 1 part
Dandelion leaf 1 part
Mugwort 1 part
Ginger 1 part
Licorice 1/2 part
Mugwort infused oil
Simply fill up a mason jar loosely with dried mugwort and then fill the jar with olive or fractionated coconut oil to the top. Cap, label and place in a sunny spot for 4 weeks. Then strain. The oil is lovely in formulas for pain relief, for massaging into the lower belly for menstrual cramps, for protection work and for magical purposes.
For those who grow a lot of mugwort (or who just find it taking over a corner of a garden), making mugwort hydrosol is a fantastic endeavor. The plant contains azulene, a compound that can give the essential oil and hydrosol a blue-green tinted appearance. The yield is lower in the spring but fruitier and sweeter- versus the more pungent mature oil that comes out later in the summer. Thujone content rises in the summer as well- a compound that would be toxic if ingested and can cause skin irritation in strong enough doses. Mugwort hydrosol can be purchased from reputable ethical vendors as well and is great for linaments, as a spray to protect agains insect bites, for baths and soaks- and for ritual and magical purposes such as enhancing dreaming.
One of the best ways to work with mugwort is to add it into meals as a garnish, a traditional spice similar to Mediterranean cooking or in vinegars and salad dressings. In this recipe I combine some herbs that are available fresh by mid spring.
1- 8 ounce mason jar
handful of lemon balm
8 sprigs of oregano
3 mugwort tops
pinch of salt
Spoonful of honey (if sweetness desired)
Almost a cup of apple cider vinegar (7 oz)
Add all ingredients to a blender and pulse at high speed until all ingredients are blended. Pour into mason jar and top up with more vinegar if needed. Cap and label. Keep in warm sunlit window and wait a week. Then either strain and add to oil as an oil and vinegar or keep the herbs in and add to oil as a spiced vinaigrette.
Mugwort tincture is not something most herbalists use regularly- partially because it will contain thujone that can be toxic in high doses. In small amounts for most people there is no problem. The tincture can be used mostly as a circulatory stimulant, emmenagogue, vermifuge and digestive aid (less so as a diuretic and a diaphoretic). I find I generally offer mugwort tincture in energetic doses (1-3 drops) primarily for alliance and working with the plant spiritually.
Native Oregon Bitters Mix equal parts of the four herbs below and take 1-2 droppers before a meal to improve digestion. You can also add this formula to a cocktail- 1 ounce vodka, 1/2 tablespoon simple syrup, 2 droppers of Oregon bitters.
1 part Oregon Grape
1 part Reishi
1 part Douglas Fir
1 part Mugwort
This is an image of Artemis with her faithful stag. She is reaching back to get an arrow from her quiver. She is bold, strong, intrepid, powerful and independent. The mugworts connect us to her image and to that fierce strength of hers. Mugwort also connects us to the moon and its cycles. I am particularly called to the coastal mugwort that loves to rest near the ocean waves- further amplifying that watery, powerful medicine. And yes mugwort is medicinal- but for thousands of years it has also been seen as highly magical- a transformative agent that takes us to deep and witchy places, helps us to dream, prophesize, call on protection and find our own bold, moon lit intrepid heart.
This article written by Jon Keyes, Licensed Professional Counselor and herbalist. For more articles like this, please go to www.Hearthsidehealing.com. You can also find me at the Facebook group Herbs for Mental Health.
Mugwort Monograph Krystal Thompson, Herb Rally
Mugwort Maude Grieve
Mugwort: A Wild Beauty in Urban Places Steph Zabel
Mugwort Deane/Eat the Weeds