Mugwort is a hardy, tall European plant which has widely distributed itself all over the world, with the assistance of human helpers. Traditionally, it was used as a healing herb and to flavor some foods and beverages. Like many herbs, mugwort was believed at one time to have auspicious properties, and it was often planted along roadways since mugwort was supposed to provide good fortune to travelers. Later discovery of a toxin in mugwort suggests that it should probably only be consumed in small amounts.
Usually, mugwort refers to a specific plant, Artemisia vulgaris, which is known by a variety of other common names such as common wormwood, sailor's tobacco, felon herb, chrysanthemum weed, traveler's plant, and St. John's Plant. This last should not be confused with St. John's Wort, Hypericum perforatum, an entirely different plant. Some people also use “mugwort” generically to refer to any plant in the Artemisia genus, including actual wormwood, Artemisia absinthium.
The plant can grow up to 18 feet (6 meters) in height, and it has hairy angular stalks which are tinted with purple. The leaves are deeply segmented and often serrated, and the flowers are small, with a purple to red color. Mugwort can be found wild all over the world, and sometimes volunteers itself in cultivated gardens as well. Since it is highly tenacious, this can be disruptive, and gardeners who do not want mugwort in their gardens should be aggressive about eliminating it. The flowering period ranges from July to September.
Many herbalists used mugwort to treat a wide range of symptoms including digestive problems and menstrual irregularity. Folklore also held that mugwort placed under the pillow or burned in the bedroom would bring vivid, intense dreams. This may well be true, since thujone, the toxin in mugwort, is also found in wormwood, the primary ingredient in absinthe. The plant was also traditionally used to flavor beers and wines, and some cooks included it as a bitter ingredient in savory dishes.
When mugwort is harvested, it is typically cured by drying, so that it can be used in the winter. The plant can also be used to make a tincture, although concentrated mugwort is potentially more dangerous than the plain plant, as it focuses the toxin. The leaves, buds, and flowers are all used. Pregnant women and people with liver damage, however, should probably avoid consuming mugwort, because of the toxic properties of the plant.