Magical Herb of the Moon Goddess
by Corinna Wood
first published in the Mountain Xpress
Each spring, I like to visit a gardener friend of mine whose neatly tended beds are her pride and joy. She’s rather traditional, preferring a very structured, mannered approach--while I tend to be more of a wild child, but anyone who loves green, growing things is a kindred spirit. We’ve spent many a pleasant afternoon together amid the flora. As we wandered about her land enjoying the early blooms, she lamented over a rather ubiquitous weed that was peeking up at the edges of her footpaths and all around her greenhouse. Now, I have long believed that most “weeds” are simply misunderstood herbal allies, so I asked her to point out the culprit. Sure enough, it was mugwort. I had to smile. “This,” I told her, “is not just a weed. This is the stuff that dreams are made of!”
Mugwort (Artemesia vulgaris), or cronewort, is named after the lunar goddess, Artemis, and, like the moon, invites us to travel with her from the material world into the magical. Over the growing season, this unassuming, leafy beauty will transition from a plant that nurtures our bodies into one that feeds our souls. A feathery perennial, her deeply divided, pinnate leaves are glazed on the underside with the signature, silvery sheen, evocative of the silver light of the moon. Those leaves, when crushed, emit a pungent, distinctive aroma reminiscent of chrysanthemums and sage.
While her leaves are similar to those of poison hemlock (Conium maculatum), it is easy to distinguish mugwort from her more noxious counterpart by her moonlike glow and, during flowering, by hemlock’s umbrella shaped flowering structure. Whenever using wild plants with deeply divided leaves (like parsley or carrot tops), it is critical to be positive of the identification. When in doubt, watch it through its entire growing season to observe the flowering structure, or consult someone who knows.
The young mugwort sprouts are quite edible and tasty, with a lovely, aromatic quality. Gather the tender shoots in early spring, until they reach a height of about four inches, to toss in your fresh green salads. Chopped mugwort also makes a delicious addition to devilled eggs. As the plant rises up to a foot high in April, it is best not to consume mugwort directly, but it can be utilized in a fortifying herbal vinegar. Vinegar is an excellent menstrum, or medium, for drawing out the minerals that abound in mugwort, which is rich in calcium, as well as the magnesium necessary for our bodies to absorb calcium’s benefits. I like to combine mugwort with nettle and chickweed for my “strong bones” vinegar. You can make your own delicious and nutritious “strong bones” vinegar from any one of those plants.
Herbal vinegars are very easy to make. Tightly pack a jar full of plant material and fill the jar to the top with raw, organic apple cider vinegar. Make sure to line the top with waxed paper or plastic wrap to prevent rust if your jar has a metal lid. The plants will usually absorb enough liquid overnight to end up uncovered, so top off the liquid level as needed. Let it brew on your countertop, out of direct sunlight. After six weeks, strain out the plant material and enjoy!
Once mugwort’s stems exceed a foot, she begins her transition into the realm of the metaphysical. Mugwort is closely related to desert sage (Artemesia tridentata), often burned as smudge, an energetic cleanser to prepare a sacred space for ritual, and to wormwood (Artemesia absinthium), which is distilled into the narcotic liquor, absinthe. Vincent van Gogh is said to have had quite a thirst for absinthe, and it has been suggested that its long-term use may have contributed not only to his magnificent creativity, but also to his madness. So it is wise to approach this plant with a respect for its magic and caution for its slightly toxic properties, which increase as mugwort grows and flowers. Blooms appear around the end of summer and are displayed in a raceme, a cone of small, inconspicuous, daisy-like blossoms.
In its early flowering stage, the herb is at the peak of her mystical potency and can be harvested for smudge sticks and dream pillows. Local mugwort is an excellent alternative to the sage imported from the west, and may indeed be a better choice for centering, clearing and grounding, since it incorporates the resident spirit of our home soil – and speaks to our roots.
Some herbalists prefer to reap mugwort near the full moon, when the plant is photosynthesizing at night as well as during daylight hours and the energies are concentrated in the above ground portions. Mugwort grows well over four feet high, so choose only the most vibrant upper parts, leaving the dry, lower one to two feet.
Create bundles of three stalks and bind the ends with cotton string. If you are fashioning smudge sticks, you may want to wrap the entire bunch cross-wise on the diagonal while the plant is still flexible to avoid the crumbling that occurs after drying. Hang your bundles away from direct sun, or dry them in the oven using only the pilot light, until the thickest part of the stalk is easily snapped. Your vehicle can also be utilized as a solar dehydrator. Just make certain to shade the southern side so they are not in direct sunlight.
Mugwort stimulates the creative centers of the brain and is the base of almost all dream pillows. Yours can be as simple as stuffing an old sock or as elaborate as a finely embroidered, silk coverlet. Strip the leaves from the dried stalk and fill to your liking. While mugwort alone is quite effective, you may also choose add lavender to aid in relaxation, or some other favorite, fragrant herb. Cuddle up with your pillow to encourage more vivid, memorable dreams and to help you to access the intuitive guidance that they contain. For several years, mugwort aided me in the process of tapping into my subconscious and keeping dream journals (until I decided that my dreams had become vivid and memorable enough, thank you!)
Of course, there is no guarantee as to the nature of your dreams. A friend of mine once told me that every time her boyfriend slept over, she would find her dream pillow tossed out of the bed when she arose in the morning!
Medicinally, acupuncturists burn dried mugwort as moxa on acupuncture points of the body as an alternative to needles. Moxa is known in Chinese medicine to strengthen the blood, stimulate the flow of qi, and maintain general health, making this extraordinary plant beloved of healers and seers alike.
As for my gardener friend, she isn’t a total convert. She has cleared the mugwort from around most of her prized flowerbeds, but, happily, the stand near her greenhouse remains. She’s also been working on a lovely little needlepoint “sachet.” In whatever form mugwort enters your life, may she bring you good health and sweet dreams.
Corinna Wood is founder and director of Southeast Wise Women. Her early initiation into the herbal world included an extensive apprenticeship with Susun Weed. For the last 25 years, Corinna has been practicing and sharing the Wise Woman Tradition, based in honoring of women and the Earth. Through two decades of teaching, as well as founding Red Moon Herbs in her home community, Earthaven Ecovillage, Corinna has opened countless hearts to the wisdom of the plants and their own bodies.