When, many years ago, I was walking through Prospect Park with my then toddler Francis, tasting the sprouting plants, he pointed out a lace-leafed plant with a lovely aroma. We tasted it and agreed that, in judicious quantities, it was delicious and used it in our wild salads and omelets along with chickweed, oxalis and wild onion. But once it got over five inches the bitter taste was overpowering. This was our introduction to mugwort.
Mugwort is a shrubby artemisia, Artemisia vulgaris, although other mugwort species can be found in temperate climates. It looks in the spring a bit like a chrysanthemum or baby poison hemlock, so smell before you taste and look at the underside of the leaf. A feathery perennial, mugwort has deeply divided pinnate and opposite leaves which are fuzzy on the underside with their signature, a powdery silver sheen. The crushed leaves, when crushed, emit a pungent, distinctive aroma reminiscent of chrysanthemums and sagebrush.
Mugwort grows to be from three to five feet tall, in thick stands, generally found along streams or near sources of water. Howie Brounstein talks about following a stand of mugwort up an otherwise dry Southern California hill, finding a hidden spring with archeological treasures. I have found it in Eastern Washington state above petrified logs, along with its cousin sagebrush, Artemisia tridentata. It is ubiquitous in Brooklyn because of our wet summers.
Mugwort is well-known for its use in dream pillows. Dream pillows are traditionally made with late summer or autumn mugwort, although the essential oils are stronger before flowering. It works just to hang a few stalks bundled over your bed, but filling a pillow is more fun. The oils stimulate dreaming, or the memory of dreams but the pleasantness of those dreams depends upon your own subconscious. You can pull off the small leaves and dry them to stuff the pillow, or can rub the dry leaves between your hands until the leaves form an owl-pellet constituency which makes for a softer pillow. If you keep rubbing and compressing you can make moxa, used for moxibustion in Chinese medicine.
In China, the related species Artemisia argyi is used both internally and to make moxa which is traditionally burned over acupuncture points to heat the body and over the little toe to turn a breech pregnancy. The fluff of rubbed leaves of a plant over a foot high is compressed into cones or rice grain-sized rods, or is rolled into a stick the size of a cigar wrapped in parchment. The herb has a very directional heat: if you light a small cone over a watermelon and keep replacing it, the cone will make a laser-like hole as the heat penetrates instead of a wide mushy area. This allows the heat to penetrate to the meridians. Broad areas are warmed using a moxa box, a small box with a handle that has a double layer of screen allowing moxa fluff to burn above an area like the kidneys to warm them. There are different grades of moxa depending upon the cleanliness of the fluff and the quality of the herb. Long snake moxibustion is used along the spine, shown in the Pacific Symposium Facebook video here. Low quality greenish moxa may smell like marijuana while the higher grade gold moxa is less odorous.
Mugwort is high in minerals like calcium and magnesium and I use it to make an infused vinegar that is both bone-building and digestive. Mugwort qualifies as a warming bitter so can be taken long term. The bitterness of the leaf, although modified by the vinegar stimulates the flow of bile to digest food, engage peristalsis and reduce gut-associated depression. The acidity of the vinegar helps reduce blood sugar fluctuations. To make mugwort vinegar, stuff a jar to the top with fresh mugwort leaves taken off the stems. Fill with vinegar. Top off in a few days, let stand for 45 days and strain. You can take two tablespooons in water before meals. It is best to take the mugwort leaves before June for this, although to be fair it works at any time.
If you make beer, you can substitute mugwort leaves for hops. It works best with a dark larger or stout. In fact its use preceded hops in western beermaking. Perhaps is mildly psychotropic properties added to the beer experience. It is also smoked to get a mild high, although I have been advised that a lower quality is less likely to give headaches and is thus preferred.
Spring mugwort can be used to make green mochi, the rice-flour pastries used in Japan and China. You can use small leaves later in the season, but they need to be stir fried in lye water to break down the leaves (traditionally made from rice stalk or soya ash soaked in water.) The young leaves are easier to use. Gather two quarts of small leaves and boil in water in a wok or saucepan. When the leaves are entirely wilted, remove from the water and wring out to reduce the bitterness. If they are still fibrous, blend momentarily in a blender or Vitamix. Put in a measuring cup and see if you have at least a 3 cups- top up with water if need be. Mix one cup cane sugar with four cups of glutinous rice (or 2 cups rice flour and 2 cups glutinous rice flour if you prefer a chewer cake) and make a mound on the counter. Place the cooked leaves in the center and work until you have a dough-like consistency, adding more flour if needed. Form into round cakes about the size of the palm of your hand and dust with cornstarch. Steam in a steamer lined with parchment for 30 minutes until dark green. You may slice them open and add a spoonful of red bean paste (Japanese style), pinching them closed or eat them as is ( Chinese style.)
Medicinally mugwort is useful for cold womb dysmenorrhea where a woman feels cold, has dull pain and brownish blood. It is combined for that with cinnamon, yarrow and white peony root. I combine it with cinnamon, cyperus and ginger for diarrhea or indigestion from cold. You can also stir fry the fresh leaves in vinegar and eat them or make into tea for abdominal pain. Fresh leaves can be applied to warts as a poultice, changing at least twice a day.
Howie Brounstein A Dreamy Mugwort Treat
Lorraine Wilcox. Long Snake Moxibustion
Alex Tiberi and the Pacific Symposium. Long Snake Moxibustion video
David Winston Materia Medica (pre-publication manuscript.)
Nick Tacket. How to Make Chinese Mugwort Rice Cake photographs