Mugwort, Artemisia vulgaris, is famously used for three things: protecting travelers, inverting breech babies, and causing intense lucid dreams that can later be recalled with ease.
These vivid nocturnal adventures sometimes take unpleasant forms, which is why mugwort merchants often include these words on the packaging: “Warning, may cause nightmares.” Mugwort is dried and smoked or taken as a tea; it can also be combined fresh with alcohol and water and cured to make a tincture. It may be the chemical component thujone, also present in the psychoactive liquor absinthe, that is the active ingredient. But some people say mugwort is so powerful that you don’t even need to ingest it, that you can simply put in your bedroom or near your person and feel an effect.
Three years ago I was driving down a highway with mugwort drying on the dashboard when red-and-blue lights emerged in my rearview mirror. My adrenaline surged with fear and dread. The cop accused me of speeding and threatened to give me a $200 ticket that would, on top of the other violations I had amassed, cause the state to revoke my license. He took my information back to his car and left me sitting alone for an interminable amount of time. My stomach tightened, my shoulders tensed. I had tried to be charming when I rolled down my window but I wasn’t sure if it worked. And if it went badly, it would have life-altering consequences: this thing was my turtle shell. At the time I had no place to live. I pleaded to the otherworldly powers for help. When the cop returned, he let me off with a warning. I sighed with relief.
My life was brought to the brink of inversion and settled back to normalcy again within minutes. It was like a bad dream.
And it wasn’t the only time it happened like this. A week ago I plucked a mugwort leaf and put it in my pocket in a convenience store parking lot in Highland Park, NJ. I was excited to see it lining the roadsides, an ironic fit for an herb touted as a travelers’ charm. It was dusk on a humid day, and I wandered the oak-lined suburban streets there in pursuit of yellow dock, tiger lily, yucca, oxalis and other plants, doing the prep walk for a foraging walk I would later lead. When I returned to my parked car, I couldn’t find my keys. I poured the contents of my purse on the hood of the rental to no avail. I wracked my brain: How had this happened? Where could they be? I patted my pockets. Empty. My cell phone was dead and I didn’t know how I’d get to my next destination. I was beside myself with frustration. And then I remembered the mugwort. Aha, I thought. This wasn’t my doing. “Alright, you jerk plant, quit it!” I said aloud. “Give me my keys back.” I set my eyes on the ground, scanning as I walked the perimeter of the lot. Something glimmered in the dirt next a dumpster: My keys. I have no idea how they got there.
According to the Peterson Field Guide to Eastern/Central Medicinal plants, mugwort ranges from Canada down to Georgia in North America, concentrated in the east but venturing westward. It is invasive here but said to be native to Europe, Asia and northern Africa. If you want to identify mugwort, look at the underside of the leaf: as shown in the photo here, it is gray, dramatically lighter than the dark green of the topside of the leaf. Take a taste, too. It has an unmistakable smoky sage type flavor. (For this reason, it is sometimes used as a flavoring in cooking.) In addition to the uses discussed above, other medicinal actions of mugwort include: sending blood flow to the uterus, inducing sweating, and possibly lowering blood sugar. It is burned and used in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) in an acupuncture procedure called moxibustion to treat a variety of ailments. Folklore suggests it can ward off evil spirits, but your mileage may vary.
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