Tuesday, April 06, 2010
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.
Spring Mugwort. Picture by Nick Tacket.
Mugwort is a shrubby artemisia, Artemisia
, 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.
grades of moxa for Chinese medicine. Image by Yuryu. via Flickr
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.
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,...
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