Monday, September 6, 2010

Mugwort: Contradictions, Dreamtime and Thin Spaces

(Artemisia vulgaris)

A powerful herbal ally, Mugwort is just one of approximately 300 species in the genus Artemisia, named for the goddess Artemis. As the goddess of fertility and childbirth, she was frequently called upon by midwives and new mothers to ease labor; Artemis even delivered her twin brother Apollo. Artemis is the goddess of the wilderness, of the hunt; she is often depicted with her golden bow and quiver accompanied by the Stag.

The goddess is a hunter, a bringer of death, yet a friend to all wild animals; she is the goddess of fertility, yet she herself has remained always a virgin; she is a divine midwife that can ease birthing though she may extinguish the flame of life on occasion. She represents what appears to be opposition in our modern world, but just as Artemis herself presents many seeming contradictions, Mugwort also embodies apparent incongruities when it comes to her medicine.

Like the goddess she was named for Artemisia is associated with the moon and with women’s moon cycles. In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), this warming, bitter herb is used to stop prolonged menstrual bleeding when the patient is weak, cold and fatigued. “Ai Yi” is also used to calm a “restless fetus” and to prevent miscarriage -again the woman would present with pronounced signs of deficiency, cold and bleeding. Herein lies the apparent contradiction: since the herb has been shown in many studies to stimulate uterine contractions, if you are pregnant, it is unadvisable to use Mugwort in this capacity without a strong understanding of TCM diagnostics.

Here in the West, the herb is used to hasten and promote menses in instances of energetic Cold; the warming qualities of Mugwort will stimulate menstrual blood when it is congealed, slow to start, or if there are cramps that are soothed by warmth and massage. In this case the herb may be taken internally as a tincture or an infusion, or externally a strong tea or its essential oil could be added to a hot bath for a relaxing soak. Although I am a sucker for a comforting bath, when it comes to quick relief of cramps, I sometimes prefer to burn a preparation of dried leaves referred to as moxa in TCM.

Moxa has a strong tradition in TCM, and some resources suggest that burning moxa along the meridians of the body actually predate acupuncture. Moxibustion is the practice of burning Mugwort in order to deliver its deep penetrating heat to various areas of concern, thereby invigorating circulation, easing pain, and releasing constraint. It can loosen cold, stiff, arthritic joints, relieve achy knees, bring comfort to a tired and sore back, is a true blessing for monthly cramps, and is extraordinarily effective for turning a breech baby! It’s no small wonder that Artemisia earned her name and admiration from hunters and midwives alike!

Moxa is prepared by grinding dried Mugwort leaves or by scraping the soft downy fuzz from the underside of them. This fluff can then be compacted into a cigar-like roll and its warming ember of may be hovered over the skin, or it may be rolled into small balls to be burned on the end of an acupuncture needle. Stick-on moxa is placed on acupuncture points with an adhesive and a slightly insulating bit of material that keeps the ember from burning the patient, while allowing the therapeutic heat to reach the site. Some practitioners prefer to compress the loose herb and place it into a specially devised container that can be laid upon the body, or held in skilled hands for more precise work.

When ingested, Mugwort is an effective digestive bitter that was once widely used as a culinary herb to flavor meats and to protect against food-born illnesses and parasites. The entire genus is sometimes incorrectly referred to as the “wormwoods,” and as the name suggests, members of this tribe are effective vermifuges. Mugwort is a powerful anthelmintic, but unlike her brother Wormwood (A. absinthium), she is gentle enough to use with children. Mugwort has been shown to be effective against roundworm and threadworms and has been used for centuries with all parasitic infections.

It seems that the Artemisias are notorious for keeping all undesirable bugs at bay; this genus of herbs is repellant to insects, parasites, as well as a large variety of infectious pathogens. Research has shown A.vulgaris to be antibiotic against Staph, Typhoid, dysentery, Strep, E.coli, and even Pseudomonas-the second most resistant infection in hospitals. The list goes on: pneumonia, salmonella, shigella and even malaria have all been treated successfully with decoctions of Mugwort. Perhaps less impressive than curing malaria, but several changes of fresh, crushed leaves per day for about a week could even cure your warts.

Laboratory studies have isolated the compound Artemisinin as the active component that is antimalarial and can prevent certain types of cancers. Unfortunately, myopic thinking has focused solely on this single ingredient rather than testing the plant as a whole. The results of these limited studies has been less impressive than the clinical work done with the whole plant, but studies are only funded for solitary elements of a plant that could one day be synthesized into drugs and patented. Nature herself is far more adept at creating balanced and effective medicine than even the most learned human could ever hope to create artificially.

Mugwort is close kin to other well-known medicinals like Sweet Annie and Wormwood. Sweet Annie (A. annua) has received much notoriety these days for her ability to treat Lyme Disease. This tall, fragrant garden plant is strongly antispirochetal and has been shown clinically to inhibit Borrelia burgdorferi –the gram negative spirochete that causes the dreaded disease. In Africa A.annua is currently in high demand due to its effectiveness against malaria; it has come to replace quinine as the preferred treatment.

As mentioned above, Wormwood is strong medicine for intestinal parasites; however, this energetically male herb is also the notoriously famed ingredient in the elixir favored by bohemians and artists, Absinthe. Also known as “The Green Fairy,” absinthe became enormously popular with the French after troops were rationed the spirit as a preventative measure against malaria in the 1840’s. Due to its overblown reputation as a hallucinogen, the drink was banned in 1914, and the whole culture that had grown up around the ritualized drinking of this green spirit dissolved like so many sugar cubes.

Perhaps it is not as potent a hallucinogen as the hysteria proclaimed it to be, but there is some truth to Artemisia’s ability to promote a dreamy perspective. Mugwort is commonly used by herbalists and spiritualists to promote lucid dreaming. It is said that if you have trouble remembering your dreams, Mugwort will inspire more vivid and memorable images during sleep. If you have vivid dreams, but would like to have more conscious participation, she will encourage lucidity during dreamtime. For the purpose of inviting visions and dreams during meditation or sleep, Mugwort may be smoked, taken as a tea or tincture, or applied as an essential oil. Some resources even suggest that placing a bundle in your pillowcase will infuse your nights with colorful dreams.

The genus Artemisia is home to many other well-known herbs and shrubs; garden ornamentals such as southernwood and silver mound and the culinary herb French tarragon are her polite domesticated cousins. Even the high desert is home to vast landscapes of Sagebrush (A. tridentada), another well-known and ceremonial member of the Artemesias. Whether utilized as a smudging tool to clear negative energy, used as an insect repellant, taken as a medicine for infectious disease or ingested to promote visions, without contradiction Artemisia is our ally and a powerful gatekeeper for the thin spaces between worlds.

“HerbaLisl” is Lisl Meredith Huebner, Dipl.CH (NCCAOM), RH (AHG), a nationally board certified Chinese Herbalist, and a Registered Herbalist with the American Herbalists Guild. Lisl is also a certified Medicinal Aromatherapist, a Reiki Master an Acupressurist, an Auriculotherapist, a photographer, a renowned diagnostician, a teacher and a published writer who has enjoyed a successful private practice for fifteen years.
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  1. "If they would eat nettles in March and mugwort in May, fewer young ladies would go to the grave."

  2. A wonderful article. Thanks for sharing.