One man’s trash is another’s treasure, one gardener’s weed is another’s wonder.
One recent west Asheville market day, I was visiting Tom Elmore’s booth and saw, to my astonishment, bundles of greenery among his offerings that were scarily familiar: MUGWORT!!! What the…???
This weed has been the bane of my horticulture existence for about 15 years since I moved to Asheville. I fought it alone until I realized I was losing the battle. Since then, I’m sure I have spent a thousand dollars, hiring hands to engage and annihilate what I call “the terrorist” in various beds around my yard over those years. Yes, it smells good, even has a pretty deeply-lobed leaf shape that could be appealing if one did not know it was a master of stealth, secreting small roots undercover in every direction, spreading with vengeance, choking out preferred plantings with impunity. It fills me with fear and loathing, bringing pangs of anxiety every time I see it raising its green head in a new location.
And here it was for sale from Thatchmore Farms!!! If I had not come to know Tom as a pillar of positivity and a walking encyclopedia of agriculture, I’d have screamed a warning, ripped the villain off his table and destroyed it to protect us all. Instead, and only after a lengthy rant, I asked him why it was there. And in his beautiful, calm way, he pointed out his pitch poster, which read: “Flavoring beer, Digestive bitter, Dream pillows, Treating “hysterical fits”, Goose stuffing, Repelling moths, Alternative to black tea in times of high prices, Protecting travelers from evil spirits, Avoid if pregnant.”
Mugwort is Artemesia vulgaris (aha, my point exactly!). While its famous cousin Wormwood (Artemisia absinthium) is one source, along with sweet fennel and green anise, of Absinthe, a Swiss distilled alcoholic liquor that is now almost entirely banned around the world, THIS variety is used to flavor ale (a nickname is “beer plant”). Tom kindly provided a recipe, but he didn’t offer the one for his mugwort coriander wine that was well received at a recent OGS CRAFT event.
Sold as a dietary supplement, with herbal applications as a women’s menstrual regulator, digestive stimulant, and concoctor of vivid dreams when stuffed into one’s pillowcase, mugwort has been used to treat the discomforts of irritable bowel syndrome and fibromyalgia. Rodale describes it as an Abortifacient, Aromatic, Diaphoretic/Sudorific, Diuretic, Emmenagogue, Nervine and Stomachic, which is to say, it can threaten a pregnancy, heal through the nose, induce sweating and/or sleep, cause water-weight gain, soothe women’s ailments and calm nerves and tummy. Some say it can ease the tremors caused by Parkinson’s. As an Antineoplast, it inhibits growth of cancer cells. It is antifungal and antibacterial. Chinese herbalists burn it to improve the flow of chi via moxa heat therapy, and it’s wrapped in smudge sticks, the smell of which I find intoxicatingly lovely. Indeed, I have its essential oil in my pharmacy, though I can’t remember the last time I opened the bottle.
It is one of the Nine Sacred Herbs employed in celebration of summer solstice since medieval times, and used by shamans before the “flight of the soul.” With many other psychic, energetic, magical and spiritual applications, mugwort sounds like the herb that has it all. There’s even a Russian folk tale that features it.
But despite knowing all this, the sight of mugwort in my garden triggers in me an impulse to attack it, though I’ve already lost this season’s war, as the herb is, at this very moment, going to seed, again.
Tom says I should be using it instead of losing to it, though that’s not quite the same as “use it or lose it,” which I’d do if I could (lose it, that is). But there is wisdom in his words, and it can apply beyond mugwort: if you can’t beat it, eat it (thanks, Tom!) – in this case, make beer! However, I’d gladly buy a bunch from him now and again if I knew how to keep it out of my raspberry bed…
Ellen Rubenstein Chelmis
Ellen Rubenstein Chelmis retired from manufacturing to start her fourth career as wife and mother at 37. Now at 67, she enjoys dabbling in various voluntary efforts to “save the world.” She’s a self-trained creative cook and lover of ethnic cuisines, and her consistent passion for food has evolved to embrace the Local Food movement—so much so that she grows food in her front yard (can’t get more local than that!). If Ellen can do this, anyone can. Ellen is an 18-year transplant to Asheville via Tampa, Washington DC suburbs (most of them), and Charlotte.