Mugwort: A versatile herb with many survival uses

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[Nyerges is the author of “Guide to Wild Foods and Useful Plants,” “How to Survive Anywhere,” and other books. His schedule of outings is available from School of Self-Reliance, P.O. Box 41834, Eagle Rock, CA 90041 and can be viewed on-line at www.SchoolofSelf-Reliance.com.]

Mugwort is an aromatic plant with species found all over the world. It is perhaps one of the few herbs widely steeped in lore and mythology. Mugwort (Artemisia douglasiana and other closely-related species) is a multiple use plant, having been used for food, medicine, fire-starting, dreaming, and more.
I have known people who ate the raw mugwort leaves in salad and added to sandwiches, in much the same way as you’d add a pickle or a piece of lettuce to a sandwich. However, I have always found it too bitter for my taste to eat raw. But once simmered in water and cooked like spinach, its appeal is greatly increased. If you’re really hungry and there’s nothing else, this will be acceptable.
Southern California Indians gathered the mugwort seeds and ground them into meal to make bread products. And in Japan, the dried and powdered mugwort is often used to flavor and color rice cakes. Still, the food value of mugwort is not its greatest asset.

MEDICINE
As an infused tea, mugwort is used by herbalists to improve the appetite and digestion, and to relieve stomach pains and fevers. The dried herb is commonly sold in Mexican herb shops under the name “estafiate.”
An infusion from the dried leaves is applied externally for inflammatory swellings. Bruises are reputed to heal quicker if bathed with a mugwort infusion. As a bath additive, it’s used for tired legs and feet. Plus, in the bath water, mugwort gives the bathroom a pleasant aroma!
In areas where poison oak grows, it’s a very old custom to mush up the fresh leaves of mugwort and rub the wet poultice over exposed portions of the body before entering poison oak areas in order to prevent the rash. Some western Indians used the fresh leaves externally as a cure for poison oak and wounds.
Before I immunized myself from poison oak, I have used the freshly crushed leaves of mugwort rubbed over newly-developing poison oak rash with good results. Aloe vera is the best treatment for poison oak that I have found, but you don’t usually find aloe in the wild.

BEER
Mugwort gets its name from the English practice of putting a leaf of it in their mugs of beer to improve the flavor. (“Wort” is an Old English word meaning “herb.”) This is still practiced in London pubs.
Mugwort is also used by home beer-brewers, such as Pascal Baudar in Southern California. The results depend on the recipe, ranging from a mead-like beer, to a very crisp, light beer.

FOR FIRE BUNDLES
One of the most effective wilderness “punks” is made by gathering the mugwort leaves that have dried and browned on the stalk. Slide your hand along the lower stalk to gather the dried leaves and then roll them into a cigar. By lighting the end of this “cigar” and then wrapping the entire cigar in larger fresh mugwort leaves, you can effectively carry fire over long distances. This was the technique practiced by Southwestern Indian tribes for transporting fire from camp to camp. It can still come to the aid of today’s campers where matches are scarce or unavailable. In fact, I have tested dozens of tinders using both natural and man-made materials, and mugwort has consistently proven to be one of the best natural tinders. [Note: Survival Seeds (Box 41-834, L.A., CA 90041) sells bags of mugwort for tinder, for $7 a bag. ]
When we teach and practice the art of fire-making with the hand drill, or the bow-and-drill, we nearly always have a good supply of the mugwort leaves on hand. It is the ideal tinder to shape into a birdnest, and to drop your ember into it. By gently blowing on this ember, it slowly gets larger and larger. Dried grass or pine needles are then added around the mugwort, and one continues to blow until it bursts into flame.

DREAMING
Sleeping on “pillows” of dried mugwort leaves is said to induce wild, vivid dreams and visions of the future. To test this, I placed several of the fresh leaves around my pillow. Those nights, I had very colorful dreams, though they were not what I would describe as “lucid” nor did I ever receive visions of the future. Nevertheless, some enterprising folks have begun to sell “dream pillows” which are small pillows stuffed with mugwort leaves.

STIMULATION
Folklore from various parts of the world states that a leaf of mugwort in the shoe will enable you to walk all day without leg fatigue.
Nathaniel Schleimer of Pasadena, California, a student of acupressure, pointed out to me that there may be some factual basis for this “folklore.” Schleimer told me that there is an acupuncture point on the bottom of the foot which is said to “regulate fatigue.” The mugwort leaves which have naturally dried on the plant are collected and used in a therapeutic technique called acupressure. These dried leaves, when rolled into small balls or into a cigar-shaped cylinder, are called “moxa.” A Chinese species is said to be the best, but all species can be used in the following fashion, described by J.C. Cerney in his book Acupressure — Acupuncture Without Needles: “On the outside of the lower leg, below the level of the knee, is the head of the fibula. Just below and slightly in front of the head of the fibula is what the Japanese refer to as sanri or S-36. This is an important vitality-stimulating zone. It’s a point where weary Oriental foot travelers applied a burning ball of moxa and with energy restored, traveled on.”

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