“The third angel blew his trumpet, and a great star fell from heaven, blazing like a torch, and it fell on a third of the rivers and on the springs of water. The name of the star is Wormwood. A third of the waters became wormwood, and many died from the water, because it was made bitter.”
Imagine one of those barmy hazy summer evenings, perhaps you’re out for a walk or driving home from work just as the sun is beginning its daily descent toward the western horizon. The sound of grasshoppers and birds fills the air around you and among the sun-scorched stubble of grasses stands great swathes of Mugwort, towering over the surrounding vegetation like immense silvery green skyscrapers punctuating the parched land. As the warm summer breeze whispers across the scrub lands, motorway verges and central reservations you see hundreds of Mugwort clumps, bending and flexing with the wind, dancing, leaves revealing flashes and flickers of their silvery undersides.
Ok, so I’m already cheating…Both Mugwort and Wormwood are very special herbs in my opinion and I couldn’t bring myself to separate them so A is for Artemisia, specifically A.absinthium (Wormwood) and A.vugaris (Mugwort) possibly the two greatest green loves of my life and well deserving of the first in my Alp-herb-et series!
Before I get going, apologies for the lack of pictures accompanying this post. Plants in my garden are just stirring after winter so there isn’t much to show. To see both Mugwort and Wormwood in their full glory look online, or get hold of a good field guide. I am not in the business of borrowing images from other online sources…and I would much rather show what I grow!
Growth and Cultivation
I grow both Wormwood and Mugwort in my garden however A.vulgaris grows very readily here in the UK’s waste lands and roadside verges and is easily come by. Both are recognisable by their scent as much as their form. They definitely seem to prefer uncultivated, poor soil and I had great trouble germinating Mugwort from seed however Wormwood was slightly easier once I neglected the seeds a little! They both now grow happily side by side in a back corner of the garden. Both grow pretty tall, around 4 -5 feet in my case and are hardy, herbaceous perennials which die right back over winter and shoot again around the spring.
Wormwood (A.absinthium) is a stunning plant. Great whitish- silvery woody stems shoot from the crown which darken with age, each covered in hundreds of silvery lace like leaves, not unlike great fans. The flower heads appear in late summer and are a canary yellow colour and look like tiny little ball-bearings covering each silvery grey flower spike which quickly set seed.
Mugwort’s foliage is dark green with a silvery underside (although I grow a very attractive variegated variety). The leaves are more pointy and jagged and in type form Mugwort has beautifully russet stems which darken as the seasons shift towards autumn. Flowers also quickly turn to seed and the preceding flower heads are less yellow and similar in colour to the foliage, maybe slightly lighter.
Both Mugwort and Wormwood self-seed readily and like any British wild plant will germinate fine providing the soil is not over cultivated. If you grow Mugwort try not to be too hasty cutting the plant back, Mugwort turns a very dry dark brown in winter and the seeds gradually fall from the flower heads but despite that I think the plant still looks beautiful especially when covered in dense early morning frosts. I won’t chop Mugwort back until I see new growth emerging, which is roundabout now. Wormwood however tends to wither and turn yellow, looks very sad, and I prune hard much earlier although if you want a bigger plant a less drastic pruning is OK too.
It should be said that Mugwort spreads by sending runners beneath the soil surface and is far easier to propagate via the runners rather than seed. Bare this in mind if you have limited space, pull the runners off the parent plant and donate them to friends! I haven’t ever tried propagating cuttings from either, and in my small garden, one plant of each is more than plenty, that being said I spotted a mugwort runner emerging about a metre from the parent plant this morning…you have been warned!
Where do I even begin? Wormwood was one of the first plant spirits I truly encountered, whilst I have worked with the green folk for many years it was only recently that Wormwood revealed itself to me in a way unlike any other plant had previously, for that reason it has a special place in my work. The name ‘Artemisia’ comes from the Goddess Artemis, the Greek hunter Goddess of the Moon, and similarly the plants are endowed with some very lunar attributes; dreaming, divination and seership to name a few. It would be wrong however to assume that all Artemisia’s are all allies in every type of lunar workings. I have found Wormwood to be very helpful with dream work and journeying whereas Mugwort seems far more willing to assist with divination, waking ‘seeing’ and so on. Of course the same may not be true of everyone!
Both Mugwort and Wormwood are repellent to parasites. Wormwood being so-called because it is anthelmintic in nature (anthelmintic means it expels internal worms although ‘worm’ was often used to describe any parasitic creepy crawly) and both were often used in homes to repel fleas and lice. Tusser in 1557 wrote “While Wormwood hath seed get a handful or twaine, to save against march, to make flea refraine”. As with all things, the mundane often transformed into the magical so Mugwort became a popular protective herb for the home, being hung or strewn around to repel negativity, illness and other such nastiness. Mugwort, also known as St Johns Herb (not to be confused with St Johns Wort) makes up a quarter of my Midsummer protective bundle, gathered and hung in the kitchen every Midsummer’s eve (“Mugwort, St Johns Wort, Vervain, Dill…Hinder evil of its will!”). Much like White Sage in the Americas, Mugwort is also used extensively in my household, on hot coals to cleanse and ward the property but also in baths and surface washes, especially for washing the dark mirror. Along a similar thread, Wormwood also appears to resist decay suggesting it is a rather good antiseptic.
The Romano-British were big fans of Mugwort who referred to it as “Mater Herbarum” or “The Mother Herb” believing also that a sprig placed in one’s shoe with the words “Tollam te Artemisia ne lassus sim in via” (which I think roughly translates to “I will take you Artemisia and I shall not weary”) would prevent fatigue on a long journey and supposedly this charm was used extensively by Roman soldiers who would march for miles at a time, given also that Mugwort tends to spring up all along the roadsides of Britain, it seems pretty logical really, after all it is said that herbs will often appear where and when they are needed the most! And speaking of ancient providence, I urge those with interest to study the 9 Herbs Charm which hails from around the 10th century…Mugwort is the first herb mentioned…in fact it’s the first word and in this charm it is referred to as “Una … oldest of herbs”
Mugwort, often called Sailors Tobacco, can indeed be smoked. Whilst I don’t recommend or advocate ingestion of herbs to anyone who hasn’t a clue what they are doing, its worthy of discussion none the less. When ground up Mugwort becomes this wonderfully soft ball of fuzz which actually is a very pleasant smoke, perfect just before divination and also binds and clings to other herbs beautifully if making a blend. Mugwort tea is also very tasty (in my opinion) but Wormwood however is nasty and has to be one of the most bitter tasting herbs I have ever encountered…I have persevered with it over the years but there ain’t enough honey in the world to mask the taste of this one…it’s completely unpalatable, a reminder that whilst Artemis, Goddess of the Moon protects, her love can be bitter sweet…handle with care! Evidence of Wormwood’s bitterness can be found in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet where the nurse attests to its use in weaning, applying the bitter herb to the breast. Wormwood also appears frequently in the Bible where in one reference a star called ‘Wormwood’ falls to earth making a third of all the water bitter and therefore undrinkable. Wormwood was also said to sprout along the serpent’s path in the garden of Eden. Take from this what you will!
If you do wish to experience the effects of Wormwood in a safe (well…safer!) way there is of course the infamous Absinthe (as in A. absinthium). Absinthe can be purchased very easily in this country although good quality Absinthe is not cheap and will probably set you back £200 give or take. Absinthe is a liqueur made from Wormwood and has been dubbed “The Green Fairy”. I can say from experience that Absinthe is a powerful sacrament, opening the mind to limitless ideas and possibilities. I have made my own ‘Absinthe’ by making a tincture of Wormwood in Brandy, flavouring with other herbs. Whilst it’s still bitter it’s much easier on the palate. The active chemical in Wormwood is Thujone, which can accumulate in the body with repeated use so care must (as always) be taken and ingestion kept for special occasions…remember Artemis, handle with care and respect!
As I have said previously, I work with Wormwood and Mugwort a great deal, although I’m always learning. Wormwood for me is dark and nocturnal; its spirit invoked as I’m drifting off to sleep, occasionally administered in pill form also (due to the bitterness) and is becoming an ally in the truest sense of the word, thanks to the assistance of Wormwood and Mugwort I have had some of the most vivid and meaningful dreams and waking visions.
In terms of their healing benefits, Mugwort is said to assist with ‘women’s’ complaints…menstruation and easing labour during childbirth etc. However, just as the moon is both light and dark, Wormwood was not only used to help during labour but often used to bring on miscarriages! Not being a woman myself I cannot confirm or deny these claims with the voice of experience, however if we start at the beginning all over again, look to Artemis, look to the moon, its clear where these theories arise.
There are other forms of Artemisia, hundreds in fact such as A.abrotanum (Southernwood) and the Sagebrushes are also members of the Artemisia group…the possibilities are endless! Be kind to the green ones and as always treat with respect!
For further information on the Artemisias (or any herb in fact) I can’t recommend http://botanical.com/ highly enough. As with all things research is key before embarking on intimate relationships with the green folk…if in doubt…leave it out!