Use mugwort for

Burning mugwort can dispel midges and other summer biting insects, a quality sometimes suggested as a source of its name (Old Saxon muggia wort or midge plant). A case is made too for the Saxon moughte, a moth or maggot, referring to mugwort's ability to keep away moths from clothes.

The thirteenth-century Physicians of Myddfai in central Wales knew mugwort as a useful insecticide: "to destroy flies, let the mugwort be put in a place where they are frequent and they will die."

Our own favorite explanation for the name mugwort is its former use as an herbal flavoring for ale. It could have literally been the "mugwort," the measure of a brew, from a time before hops came in during and after the Middle Ages, and the Briton's drink gradually switched from ale to beer. Mugwort, along with yarrow, myrtle, and heather, was a common ingredient in gruit or grut, a strong herbal ale. This is currently enjoying something of a revival in the modern microbrewery movement.

An infusion of mugwort in cold drinks, whether beer or fruit in origin, adds a sharp summer tang and aromatic smell that you can enjoy in safety. These make for a more homely and less risky prospect than absinthe, the liqueur derived from the closely related wormwood (A. absinthium). As the world knows, this was the tipple of the fin de si├Ęcle French literary and art world. Containing a toxic essential oil that mugwort lacks, absinthe could be fatally addictive. It was banned in Europe for most of the twentieth century.

Mugwort, it will be clear by now, has had something of a dangerous past, at the hazy margin of sacred and secular culture - indeed, from a time when there was no distinction made between the two.

American herbalist Maida Silverman believes that "Folklore and superstition are bound up with the Mugwort plant to an extent hardly matched by any other herb." She instances as the oldest superstition the first-century AD Roman naturalist Pliny, who recommended that travelers carry mugwort as an amulet for psychic protection. This belief lasted through and beyond the Middle Ages, only to be roundly condemned by the "rational" herbalists like Gerard (1597) and Parkinson (1640).

Mugwort was a key Anglo-Saxon sacred herb: the Leech Book of Bald from tenth-century Wessex extols it as "eldest of worts / Thou has might for three / And against thirty." Again the great age and protective power of mugwort are emphasized.

In medieval times mugwort passed from the patronage of the pagan Artemis to the Christian care of St John the Baptist, who was said to have carried it into the wilderness to ward off evil. From this came "St

John's girdle" and the wearing of a mugwort garland on St John's day, June 24th, while dancing around the traditional fire. Throwing the garland into the fire would ensure protection for the following year, another pagan survival that so annoyed John Parkinson. He would be aghast to learn that a mugwort ceremony still marks midsummer in the Isle of Man (see box on page 108).

Wider afield, mugwort was known to Chinese medicine as a house protector and in the practice of moxibustion. This is an integral part of acupuncture, and many readers will have experienced the cone of dried mugwort leaves, moxa, being placed on the skin and burnt to stimulate an acupuncture point. The particular application of moxa is for treating abdominal pain from the cold, and it is mugwort's warming quality that makes it effective.

One other aspect of mugwort and fire can be mentioned briefly. Other names for the plant, gypsy's tobacco and muggar, record its persistent use as a smoking leaf inside strips of newspaper.

Burnt or not, mugwort has valuable warming qualities. It is known herbally as an aromatic bitter, which warms the digestion and stimulates a sluggish liver. It encourages the secretion of digestive juices and its oils help eliminate gas and griping.

On a hot summer day, when the noxious fumes and stagnant air in the city seem even more oppressive than usual, it really is a "comfort" to crush a few leaves of the plant in one's hand and inhale the clean, pungent aroma. Mugwort lives up to its reputation and certainly has the power to revive the spirits and refresh the senses.

- Silverman (1997)

Herbalists value mugwort as a general calmer of the nervous system, helping to relieve stress and nervous tension. Mugwort pillows can help soothe disturbed sleep as well as promote dreaming. In general the plant has an uplifting effect on mood and is valuable in treating forms of mild depression linked with digestive weakness.

Taken as a tincture, mugwort can help in normalizing menstrual flow, and is particularly useful for bringing on delayed or suppressed periods where they have been absent for some time. It is a good herb for young women at puberty, helping to establish a regular cycle. Because it stimulates the uterus, it is not normally used in western herbalism during pregnancy, though in China it is an accepted treatment in preventing miscarriage.

Mugwort has some antimalarial activity, though much milder than Sweet Annie (Artemisia annua). It is also effective against threadworms and roundworms, like its stronger relative wormwood, and is an effective wash for treating fungal infections.

Manx mugwort magic

Mugwort is the symbolic plant of the Isle of Man and sprigs of it are worn on Manx national day, July 5th. This is St John's day in the old Julian calendar (it has been June 24th in England and Scotland since 1752, but the old date is kept on Man). On St John's eve mugwort would be gathered and made into wreaths to be worn by cattle and men alike. Hedge and gorse fires were lit and cattle forced through while men and boys jumped over the flames. This combination of mugwort and fire would protect beast and people from evil spirits for the coming year. The next day was then safe for the many civic ceremonies of Midsummer Court, including the promulgation of laws from Tynwald Hill.

As an invited guest, even Queen Elizabeth II on her visit to Man in 2003 duly wore her spray of mugwort or bollan bane (white herb), as it is known locally.

Harvesting mugwort

Pick mugwort in summer, collecting the flower spikes when they are flowering or just before the flowers open when the buds are still silvery. The leaves can be collected too.

Mugwort tincture

Because mugwort becomes more aromatic as it dries, the tincture is best made with dried mugwort, although you can use fresh. Fill a jar with mugwort, then top up with vodka, shaking it to remove air bubbles. Put the jar in a cool dark place for 2 to 4 weeks, then strain and bottle.

Dose: Half a teaspoonful, three times a day.

Mugwort punch

Pour a cupful of red wine into a saucepan.

Add a stick of cinnamon, 5 cloves, and a handful of mugwort tops. Bring to a boil, then turn down the heat and simmer gently with a lid on for half an hour.

Strain out the herbs and spices. Sweeten with honey. It can be taken hot or cold before a meal to stimulate appetite and digestion. Either drink it fresh or keep in a bottle to mature for several weeks.

Mugwort pillow

Pick mugwort flowers and leaves and dry them. Make a small bag for the pillow out of cloth, leaving one end open -any size you like, but 8" x 10" works well. Fill the bag loosely with the dried mugwort so that the finished pillow will be about 1" thick, then stitch up the open end. Place this under your regular pillow. Smaller cloth bags of mugwort can be stored among clothing to discourage clothes moths.

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