If they would drink nettles in March
And eat mugwort in May,
So many fine maidens
Wouldn’t go to the clay.
The days drag when unrelieved by summer festivals, backyard parties and weekend getaways. My Google Calendar, which in years past teemed with events during the warm months, sits as empty as beauty salons did late last March. On rainy days I fill the hours with the important-looking books I always intended to read but never found reason to — all eleven volumes of Will and Ariel Durant’s The Story of Civilization, say, or John Cowper Powys’s A Glastonbury Romance. And when the sun shines I head outdoors to read the natural world.
Most of the latter sort of reading I do in a small riverside park near my apartment. A copy of Peterson’s Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants of Eastern and Central North America in hand, I walk among plants I once called weeds, ragged-leafed things that seemed to have no use other than to spoil lawns and gardens. But over the past few weeks I’ve come to appreciate these doughty summer mainstays, for they are really not “weeds” at all; they are food, medicine, religion. In this post and those to follow I’ll discuss the history and lore behind some of the more interesting specimens I’ve discovered.
Take mugwort. If you live anywhere in Asia, Europe, or North America, you’re likely within a stone’s throw of this elegant yet unassuming plant. Although it prefers the moist banks of rivers and ponds, it may also be found along parched roadsides and fields. Coarsely-toothed lobed leaves of deep olive-green on top and a silvery white underneath make mugwort easy to identify. Yet, should you doubt you’ve found some, crush a few leaves; they should emit a tell-tale odor of camphor and sage.
Mugwort is the common name for a prolific species of flowering plant found in the genus Artemisia. There’s alpine mugwort (A. glacialis), Chinese mugwort (A. argyi), hoary mugwort (A. stelleriana), and about a dozen more besides. “Mugwort” derives from the Old Norse words for “marsh” (Muggi) and the German word for “root” (Wuertz), the name reflecting the plant’s power to repel moths, flies, and other insects. I can attest to this: When hiking on torrid summer afternoons, I’ll stick a sprig of mugwort in my hat, and it keeps most insects from my eyes, nose, mouth and ears. (Though I do also give myself a few blasts of Cutter Backwoods when the buzzing blitz issuing from cedar swamps and hemlock groves becomes too much.)
Repelling bugs is just one of mugwort’s virtues. The plant ranks among the most important healing kinds and has even earned the honorific “mother of herbs.” Native Americans used mugwort to alleviate colds and fevers and soothe bruises, sores, eczema flare-ups, reactions to poison ivy and other skin irritations. They applied it to bleeding noses, aching heads, and reluctant reproductive organs. Mugwort saw medicinal use in Europe, as well. Anthropologist and folklorist James Frazer (he of The Golden Bough) writes how the people of France’s Arbois region “carried bundles of mugwort, or wore it round their body” in order to prevent backache caused by reaping harvests. In China, practitioners of that country’s traditional medicine used it to cauterize wounds and in moxibustion, a treatment in which mugwort is held near acupuncture points on the skin and heated. The act of heating sends some essence of the mugwort traveling through the bodily meridians, conduits through which the vital energy known as qi also courses. On meeting qi, mugwort serves to regulate the former’s flow. And the Anglo-Saxons of English antiquity included mugwort in their “Nine-Herbs Charm,” which, as the name suggests, was a melange of herbs crushed together with old soap and apple juice. The resulting balm was used to treat infection and poisoning.
To mugwort many cultures imputed powers not only medicinal but metaphysical. Germans wore girdles of mugwort on St. John’s Eve to procure protection from misfortune and ward off ghosts and witches. On the Isle of Man in the Irish Sea mugwort was gathered on Midsummer Eve for similar reasons. And in parts of China mugwort-stuffed dolls were brandished to “expel poisonous airs and influences.”
I like mugwort not because it expels ghosts, but because it invites other ethereal entities. I sometimes steep a handful of fresh mugwort leaves in hot water. The musky tea I drink before bed, and then let the resulting languor carry me to sleep, where I discover waiting behind my eyelids dreams unusually vivid and immersive — and not always pleasantly so. These qualities make them seem something more that Jungian dispatches from the subconscious. They seem almost like the virtual experiences in the film eXistenZ. Surf buffets you and leaves a salt taste on your lips should you dream of an ocean swim. A dream of a desert trek has you feeling sunburnt and parched. And the people you meet on these nocturnal wanderings become uncanny intimates before vanishing in the dawn. More than once I’ve awakened after a night of mugwort dreams feeling both rested and exhausted, as though I had lived a lifetime in a night.
I can thank a terpene compound called thujone for these oneiric ordeals. It is said to make the brain’s neurons fire easier, and it is the principle chemical in the more familiar species of mugwort, wormwood (Artemisia absinthium). Wormwood found its way into absinthe, which in turn found its way into Charles Baudelaire, Arthur Rimbaud and their fellow French Symbolist poets. In the cafes of Paris they drank absinthe until the green fairy bore them to Elysium. Baudelaire even ranked wormwood’s effects above those of wine and opium. “My dreams throng to drink at those green distilling pools,” he said of absinthe. But any would-be thujone-fueled psychonauts should proceed with caution. Too much absinthe can visit unpleasantness on waking life. It has been speculated that the heady spirits caused Van Gogh to hack off his ear. In Guy De Maupassant’s “A Queer Night in Paris,” the protagonist drinks so much absinthe he waltzes with a chair and wakes up naked in a strange bed.
You’d have to consume a lot of wormwood to suffer such disaster. Absinthe earned its bad reputation more for its high alcohol content than its concentration of thujone. (Which is not to say thujone is harmless. An excess can damage the liver and kidneys and cause seizures. Pregnant women should never consume it.) Indeed, wormwood is also found in vermouth and génépy, an herbal liqueur. And before hops became popular in brewing, wormwood and mugwort imparted to beer its characteristic spicy, bitter finish. Mugwort is often used to flavor food. It seasons the German Christmas goose and Chinese stir fries. The Hakka Taiwanese flavor sweet dumplings with it; the Japanese, mochi and rice cakes. Even Martha Stewart has a recipe for mugwort soup.
I myself am content to sip an occasional mugwort tea. It takes the edge off the dreariness of life under lockdown. And each time I visit my poky riverside park, I find the vast patches of it there left entirely untouched. I’m surprised more people haven’t claimed their rightful bit of transport through this strange and storied herb which grows everywhere yet seems to do so unnoticed.