Mugwort – Artemisia vulgaris
Part used: leaves, flowering tops
Artemisia vulgaris L. is a vigorous, hardy, woody perennial found throughout Europe, although it is less common in the north. It is a commonplace weed in disturbed ground and waste places, where it forms dense stands. It is an aggressive weed in Canada, where it has spread rapidly as it propagates easily from small fragments of rhizome. The Flora of Turkey (Davis 1975) gives 22 Artemisia species, including Artemisia absinthium, Artemisia vulgaris, Artemisia santonicum and Artemisia abrotanum.
Erect, branched, ribbed reddish stems (50-180 cm high) bear alternate, stalked, pinnately lobed leaves, which are smooth and green on the upper side and white and downy beneath. Upper leaves are unstalked, entire and lanceolate.
Dense, tapering panicles of inconspicuous, oval, rayless, reddish flowerheads (2-3 mm across) occur in July to September. Both leaves and flowerheads are very variable.
Other species used
Tarragon Artemisia dracunculus, southernwood Artemisia abrotanum. A study in Italy of 14 wild Artemisia species found similar volatile oils in all but wide variation in concentration. Artemisia abrotanum was the only species to contain enderoperoxide, which is anthelmintic.
Mugwort becomes very woody and flowering tops should be collected as soon as they come into flower but not earlier as the concentration of volatile oil is higher during flowering.
We might rightly think that the English name for Artemisia vulgaris, mugwort, suggests some use for the plant in beermaking or as a substitute for tea. Indeed, both were done, according to Grieve: mugwort was a substitute for expensive tea among the working classes in 19th century Cornwall and the dried flowering plant was decocted with malt liquor and added to beer in the days before the introduction of hops into beer-making at the end of the 15th century. Since then, Grieve tells us ‘until recent years, it was still used in some parts of the country to flavour the table beer used by cottagers’. Dodoens mentions casting the plant into barrels or hogsheads of beer to stop them going sour. Fernie (1897) has another interpretation, copied by Grieve, that mugwort is the wort or plant for moughte – moths or maggots – recalling the documented use of wormwood laid among clothes to prevent their being eaten by moths.
Pliny offers two origins of mugwort’s Latin name artemisia: in honour of the goddess Diana (Artemis in the Greek pantheon), because of its special operation to cure diseases of women, or after Artemisia II, who was the wife of Mausolus (377-353 BC), ruler of Caria, a land in Asia minor now an area of southwest Turkey. The mythology of Artemis includes the story of her birth when, on emerging from the womb, she helped to deliver her twin, Apollo the sun god. In this way she became known as the goddess of childbirth, although she remained chaste (‘parthenis’ or virgin) and so childless herself. Her name was given to various members of the Artemisia genus because of their actions on the female womb and menstrual cycle. Artemisia II was renowned for her extraordinary grief at the death of her husband, entertaining no new husband but pining away until her death 2 years later. It was said that she mixed some of her husband’s ashes into her daily drink. At Halicarnassus she had built a majestic burial tomb to her husband, which was considered one of the seven wonders of the world. The ruins of this mausoleum are to be found in modern Bodrum.
Turner affirms in his entry for mugwort that neither of the two kinds of this herb is the ‘artemisia’ of Dioscorides and Galen. Dioscorides has an entry for ‘absinthion’ or wormwood and another for ‘artemisia’ – the very name that mugwort is called in the Latin herbals of Turner’s contemporaries. Dioscorides provides no description of absinthion because it is ‘well known’, but states that artemisia is similar to it, although with larger, shinier leaves. As to location, he says that artemisia grows, by and large, on coastal lands. It is known today that mugwort flourishes across the whole of the northern temperate region and is common in the southeast Mediterranean. Actually, Dioscorides (III 113) describes two kinds of artemisia: that with relatively broader leaves and a more delicate kind with narrower leaves and small white flowers oppressive in scent. Next there is reference to another herb found inland which some call by the same name, a small plant with a single stalk and slender stems full of yellowish flowers. In the next chapter (III 114) on ambrosia, a small shrub with numerous branches and leaves similar to those of rue surrounding the base of the stem, Dioscorides says that some call this artemisia too. This is clearly not mugwort but Beck identifies none of them as Artemisia vulgaris. Instead, the first, larger kind is designated Artemisia arborescens, also called wormwood, or mugwort, or sagebrush, a species common to Mediterranean areas; the smaller is Artemisia campestris, the field southernwood; and ambrosia is Artemisia maritima, a sea wormwood. Thus Beck is in agreement with Turner that Dioscorides does not describe mugwort among the Artemisias.
There are several hundred species of Artemisia identified today. The three artemisias listed one after another by Dioscorides, including the inland kind, are worthy of note according to Van Arsdall (2002), since three artemisias are also grouped together in The Old English Herbarium, although they do not correspond to the first three of Dioscorides. In the Anglo-Saxon text all three are styled mucgwyrt or mugwort, but they are identified by Van Arsdall, respectively, as Artemisia vulgaris or mugwort, Tanacetum vulgare or tansy and Artemisia leptofilos, a Greek name for field southernwood Artemisia campestris. Van Arsdall suggests that identification of each herb may have altered over the centuries to match where the compiler lived, since in any one area it is possible to find a number of Artemisia species, and a practitioner would have to learn which one was meant from one who knew the plants of that area.
It is clear that in attempting to identify the modern Artemisia vulgaris in historical texts, there is much opportunity for a confusion of names, not only among the many species of the genus, but also with those of the Tanacetum genus, namely tansy and feverfew Tanacetum parthenium. Tansy and mugwort both have erect stems and may have both been styled Artemisia monoklonos at one time or another. In the case of feverfew, to which the Greek name ‘parthenion’ is given in Dioscorides, the confounding of artemis/artemisia and parthenis/parthenion is possible. Moreover, feverfew is called matricaria by Parkinson and Culpeper but this name, meaning ‘care of the mother/ womb’, is included in Bauhin’s alternative names for mugwort, along with parthenis. Mugwort is also designated mater herbarum or ‘mother of herbs’ by the Saler-nitan herbal and in Parkinson and Gerard, the latter adding that of the alternative names, ‘most of these agree with the right artemisia, and divers of them with other herbes, which now and then are numbred among the mugworts’. Bauhin affirms that many different herbs were called artemisia in his time. Among them was another member of the Asteraceae, the Roman chamomile. For, tansy, feverfew and Roman chamomile share with mugwort heating and drying qualities, a bitter taste and gynaecological uses. It may be, as Van Arsdall indicates, that these plants too may have substituted for mugwort in different places and times.
Our central issue, however, is whether the artemisia of Dioscorides is mugwort. Fuchs in Germany shows no hesitation in accepting that the beyfusz of his country, called armoise by the French and Artemisia latifolia or broad-leaved artemisia by the Italians, is the artemisia of Dioscorides, Galen and Pliny, and he quotes them exactly on the plant’s medicinal actions. It is to be found in wet, uncultivated, rough places and should be gathered when in full flower. Dalechamps is equally confident of the identification, although the depiction in his herbal of armoise is not convincing. Mattioli, on the other hand, presents a much more lucid analysis of how he concluded the same. He recognizes the two coastal types of artemisia in Dioscorides as being very common in Tuscany: these mugworts are the same in terms of appearance, taste and smell, they share the same properties and only differ in size. Thus he is dumbfounded by the assertions of his fellow countryman and leading physician Antonio Musa Brassavola (1500-1555) that the smaller artemisia, which Dioscorides describes as oppressive in scent, is matricaria or feverfew, and that the artemisias may have a single stem like the inland plant mentioned by Dioscorides as being called artemisia by some. Thus Brassavola is guilty in Mattioli’s eyes of expanding the two kinds of coastal artemisia into three separate species. Here lies the confusion between mugwort, the more strongly smelling feverfew Tanacetum parthenium, and the single-stemmed tansy Tanacetum vulgare, and it is confusion, says Mattioli, since feverfew flowers look nothing like those of mugwort and tansy is not a small plant like the ‘third’ inland kind of Dioscorides. Mattioli finds that Ruellius (lean Ruel 1474-1537) is in agreement with him that the two coastal types are mugworts but Ruellius shares Brassavola’s opinion that the third kind is tansy. The monks who have translated Mesue, says Mattioli, pass on both errors, that lesser artemisia is feverfew and the third kind is tansy and Fuchs is also found guilty of this mistake. Mattioli instead cites other ‘diligent investigators of simples’, very probably including specialists in ancient Greek language, who reckon that the third kind of artemisia is a later addition to the original text of Dioscorides and a simple error in Pliny, who confused it with ambrosia. As evidence for this assertion he notes that Galen, Paul of Aegina, Oribasius and Serapio cite Dioscorides but do not mention a third kind of artemisia. Furthermore, Mattioli’s own collation of corrections based on the oldest manuscripts of Dioscorides and Oribasius generously made available to him by Gabrielle Falloppio (1523-1562), chair of anatomy and surgery at the university of Padua, show that Dioscorides really only discusses two kinds of artemisia. This is apparent in Beck’s translation of the standard edition of the Greek text (1906-1914) by Max Wellmann after a full census of extant manuscripts.
We might conclude, therefore, that if feverfew, tansy or Roman chamomile was substituted for mugwort at times, it is likely to be based on these errors of identification that have been passed down through modified versions of Dioscorides and a confusion of names in Apuleius, more than a knowledge of equivalent empirical effects. Mattioli has made the picture clearer but seemingly not to the satisfaction of Dodoens, who links armoise and beyfusz with the English mugwort but equates them with Artemisia leptofilos, the old Greek name for field southernwood mentioned above. Dodoens insists that this is also called Artemisia tenuifolia or narrow-leaved Artemisia in Latin, the fourth kind of artemisia in Dioscorides and the third in Apuleius! Bauhin explicitly rejects this attribution, following Mattioli that it is an insertion into Dodoen’s copy of Dioscorides, where originally only the two kinds of Artemisia are described. Mattioli mentions Artemisia tenuifolia separately as a plant of field borders and by water channels that is good topically applied for stomach and joint pains. Dodoens has repeated these locations but more usefully adds that mugwort can appear in two colors: that with reddish stems and flowers, and another with green branches tending to white. In all other respects, they are the same. Gerard follows suit, and more ably describes the latter sort as having a darker green upper surface of the leaves and a hoary or greyish-white color underneath. He adds his own third kind, which has a pleasant smell similar to that sea southernwood and a whitish appearance all over, and grows by the sea around Rye and Winchelsea castle and at Portsmouth. Parkinson prefers to distinguish between greater and lesser mugworts, both of which may have green stems and leaves that are green on the upper surface and hoary below, or equally with red stems and more deeply colored flowers. Both kinds are to be found in various places, by waysides and small water courses, but the small mugwort far less often. The common mugwort is called Artemisia vulgaris, he says, because it is found in many countries (this has been italicized as it is a current binomial, although Parkinson was writing before Linnaeus). Culpeper simply copies word for word Parkinson’s description of mugwort and his presentation of its medicinal virtues, only adding that it is ruled by Venus. Bauhin seems to accept the artemisia with larger shinier leaves from Dioscorides as the mugwort of his day and he exactly cites Dioscorides, Pliny and Galen on the actions and indications of artemisia, its location by the sea, and adding also the recommendation of Hippocrates that if the placenta is not delivered after childbirth, then artemisia is better than all other herbs to effect this. He then rather cautiously concludes ‘but even if it [artemisia/ mugwort] does not correspond at all to the history of the Greeks concerning artemisia, and this cannot be confirmed by any author, it should nevertheless not be completely rejected, for the power of artemisia [mugwort] is very great in gynaecological matters’.
Dosage: The British Herbal Pharmacopoeia 500 mg to 2 g three times a day of dried aerial parts and notes that large doses should be avoided.
For unexplained infertility, 0.5 mL of the tincture mixed with 0.5 mL each of tansy and pennyroyal and with other supporting herbs as the prescribing herbalist regards as necessary three times daily for a period of treatment designed to facilitate conception.
The fresh herb gathered while in flower and the specific tincture should be used.
Total 0.2-0.4%, monoterpenes: sabinene 0-8.4%, alpha-pinene 0.1-12.9%; oxygenated monoterpenes: 1,8-cineole 2.6-17.6%, chrysanthenyl acetate 0-23.6%; ketones: alpha-thujone 0-12.9%, beta-thujone 0-20.2%; sesquiterpenes: germacrene D 5.3-15.5%, carophyllene 2.5-12.2% (wild, seven sites, Lithuania).
Monoterpenes; oxygenated monoterpenes: borneol 7-29%, 1,8-cineole 0.8-12.6%; ketones: beta-thujone 0-8.7%, camphor 0.8-55%, chrysanthenone 3-19%; sesquiterpenes: caryophyllene oxide 2-21 % (France).
Total 0.09-0.61% (81 compounds) monoterpenes: alpha-pinene 1.3-15.5%, alpha-phellandrene 0.4-12.9%; oxygenated monoterpenes: transchrysanthenyl acetate 0-24.6%, 1,8-cineole 4.6-16.6%; ketones: beta-thujone 5.3-20.8% (wild, four samples June-Sept, Croatia).
Total 0.03-0.15%, oxygenated monoterpenes: borneol 5.6-27%, 1,8-cineole 0-15.1%, ketones: beta-thujone 1-9%, artemisia ketone 0-14.9%, camphor 2.3-12.9% (wild, four samples June-Sept, France).
Monoterpenes: mycene 9-70%; oxygenated monoterpenes: vulgarole 3-25%, 1,8-cineole 0.5-26.8%, borneol 1.5-14.6%; ketones: beta-thujone 1.8-20%, alpha-thujone 0-5.7%, camphor 3.2-18.5% (wild, four sites, Italy).
Monoterpenes; oxygenated monoterpenes; ketones: alpha-thujone 56.3%, beta-thujone 7.4%, camphor 3% (wild, India).
Monoterpenes: camphene 9%; oxygenated monoterpenes: trans-verbenol 7%; ketones: camphor 47.7%; sesquiterpenes: beta-caryophyllene (wild, Italy).
Total 0.06%, monoterpenes: sabinene 13.7%; oxygenated monoterpenes; ketones: beta-thujone 13.5%; sesquiterpenes: beta-caryophyllene (wild, Serbia).
Monoterpenes, irregular: artemisia triene, santolina triene; oxygenated monoterpenes: artemisia alcohol, santolina alcohol, santolinyl acetate; ketones: thujone 35%, camphor 30%. The authors associate the irregular monoterpenes with the fragrance of the oil.
In a study which identified 135 compounds, vulgarole was identified as a characteristic compound that could be used to identify Artemisia vulgaris samples for quality assurance (commercial, Germany). Linley (2002) argues that vulgarole is not always reported but this may reflect the methods used in different studies.
Studies have shown wide variation in the presence of and concentration of volatile compounds. For example, in the above studies the concentration of the ketones varies substantially: alpha-thujone 0-56%, beta-thujone 0-21 %, camphor 0-55%. Concentration varies with time of year and some studies found it to be higher during flowering. Leaf and flower oils were found to be similar.
Sesquiterpenes: Sesquiterpenes 3-25%; sesquiterpene alcohols 3-10% (wild, four sites, Italy).
Sesquiterpenes: eudesmane acids (fresh, wild, Germany).
Sesquiterpene lactones: yomogin, a eudesmenolide (cultivated, Philippines).
Total 0.1 %, flavonoids 0.04% (fresh leaves, cv. Green Boy, cultivated, Mauritius).
Hydroxycinnamic acids 6-9%: chlorogenic acid 0.8-1.3%, dicaffeoylquinic acids (flowering tops, 13 wild samples, 12 commercial, France).
Dicaffeoylquinic acids (flowering tops, wild, France).
Flavonol: quercetin; flavone: apigenin (no luteolin) (cv. Green Boy, cultivated, Mauritius).
Flavones: Luteolin and glycosides, eriodictyol and glycosides, vitexin, apigenin and flavone methylethers (wild, Korea). The concentrations of luteolin and eriodyctiol were 10 times higher than for any other flavonoid.
Recommendations On Safety
Bradley (2006) suggests this caution is based on the traditional usage in amenorrhoea rather than on any studies, in which case the use of mugwort to prevent miscarriage in certain women could be a subject of research.
Mugwort pollen is a common aeroallergen and mugwort 9-kd protein is homologous to birch (see wild celery). Some food allergens such as hazelnut, kiwi fruit and peach may also interact but this depends on the particular allergen.
A study in Tenerife on 24 patients with asthma or rhinitis who were sensitized to mugwort found that 21 also had positive skin-prick test to Matricana chamomilla, and 17 to other Asteraceae pollens. The authors suggest that sensitization to mugwort may be a major risk factor in reactions to teas made from chamomile. Allergies are argued to be associated with the western lifestyle but a recent study in four regions of China on 6304 people with asthma and/or rhinitis found that 72% were positive for skin prick tests to 13 common aeroallergens: 58% responded to dust mites and 11% to mugwort.