By Matt Gibson and Erin Marissa Russell
Mugwort was considered a magical herb in Europe during the Middle Ages, and it was a common belief at the time that mugwort held protective powers. In ancient China and Japan, sprigs of mugwort were carried by travelers for protection. It is strange that the herb was used for the same purpose in both European and Asian folk medicine, considering how the two cultures existed on opposite sides of the globe with no communication or knowledge of each other’s presence.
Mugwort is a large, herbaceous perennial plant that belongs to the daisy family (Asteraceae). Its sturdy, woody root system supports its height, which can reach up to five feet tall at maturity. The leaves are lobed, pinnate, and two to eight inches long. Mugwort’s foliage is a dark, grayish-green shade with undersides that appear silvery-gray due to the tiny white hairs that populate the underside of the leaves. The stems of the mugwort plant are erect and dark green with a purple tinge.
Mugwort is cultivated for both medicinal and culinary purposes. Its leaves can also be used to create a natural insect repellent, however, the plant is most commonly grown as an ornamental foliage plant. Mugwort blooms throughout the summer, sending up small, symmetrical flower clusters in red, pink, orange, and yellow. Mugwort produces both male and female flowers on the same plant. Though the flowers of the Mugwort plant are quite showy and attractive, the plant is known more for its foliage, which provides an excellent backdrop for colorful showcase plants
Mugwort is often confused with a close relative in the Artemisia family called Common Wormwood, but wormwood is actually A. absinthium, not A.vulgaris, yet the two plants are often mistaken for each other and their names seem to be used rather interchangeably. Mugwort and wormwood are also called chrysanthemum weed, old man, moxa, felon herb, sailor’s tobacco, wild wormwood, old uncle Henry, cronewort, St. John’s plant (not St. John’s Wort), and muggons.
Toxicity warning: Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding should not consume mugwort.
Invasive species warning: Be careful where you grow mugwort. You should probably limit yourself to growing it in containers, because it can become a hard to eradicate invasive species in many areas.
Varieties of Mugwort
The Artemisia family of plants are sacred to the goddess Artemis, who is believed to provide comfort and support for women during the act of childbirth. There are many different varieties of Artemisia plants, most of which are known more for their showy foliage and pleasing aroma than for their flowers. Though most Artemisia plants do produce flowers, they are typically yellow or white and nowhere near as showy or noticeable as their leaves. Here are a few of our favorite Artemisia cultivars, and a few of the more popular plants in the Artemisia species.
Artemisia abrotanum – Also known as Southernwood, this shrub grows to three feet or higher. Upright stems are adorned with attractive, thin, feather-like, gray-green leaves. In the late summer and fall, Southernwood shrubs bloom small, yellow-white loose flower panicles.
Artemisia absinthium – Also known as Common Wormwood, used to make absinthe liquour. Wormwood has a long history of being used medicinally, however, wormwood can actually be poisonous if ingested in large quantities. Grows two to four feet tall with silky grey-green, carrot-like leaves
Artemisia annua – Commonly called Sweet wormwood, sweet Annie, sweet sagewort, annual wormwood, and annual mugwort. This fast-growing variety reaches heights of up to 9 feet. It has been used medicinally for centuries, and contains the compound artemisinin, which is the most widely-used malaria medication in the world. In order to obtain the healing compound in bulk amounts, this Artemisia species is cultivated in masses.
Artemisia argyi – Commonly referred to as Chinese mugwort, this species is used both culinarily and in traditional Chinese medicine. Also called silvery wormwood.
Artemisia douglasiana – Douglas mugwort or California mugwort
Artemisia dracunculus – Also called Tarragon, this Artemisia species is one of the world’s most popular spices, and has been used culinarily since Ancient times. Hardy to USDA zones five through eight, Tarragon can grow up to three feet tall in rich, loamy soil in a spot that gets plenty of sun with some afternoon shade. Tarragon typically doesn’t bloom.
Artemisia glacialis – Commonly called alpine mugwort, or glacier wormwood, this France, Italy, and Switzerland native grows to only seven inches tall and produces pretty yellow and pink flowers. One of the few mugwort plants that is known for its flowers. Has been used in folk medicine as a stomach and digestive aid, and as a flavoring agent in liqueurs.
Artemisia indica – Oriental mugwort is native to eastern Asia and is cultivated primarily for its many medicinal properties. Oriental mugwort has culinary value as well, as young leaves of the plant are cooked and eaten with barley and used to flavor rice. The essential oil made from the plant is used as a larvicide and insecticide, while its flowers and leaves are dried and used as incense.
Artemisia japonica – Japanese mugwort is native to Japan and is used in Japanese and Taiwanese cuisines and is a common ingredient in traditional eastern medicine. Its leaves are hairy, finely-cut, and bright green. In Japan, young leaves are boiled and then pounded into sweet mochi rice to form dumplings. In Taiwan, young leaves are often stir-fried or put into soups for flavoring.
Artemisia lactiflora – White mugwort is one of the few Artemisia cultivars that is known primarily for its flowers. Whereas most Artemisia species have inconspicuous yellow flowers, white mugwort sends up a showy collection of tiny, creamy-white flower plumes on slightly-arched stems. White mugwort’s flowers are contrasted by its lovely dark-green leaves.
Artemisia ludoviciana – Also known as western mugwort, white sage, and white sagebrush, this species is commonly cultivated for ornamental purposes due to its glorious silver-white foliage. The leaves emit a pleasant aroma when bruised. Dried bushels of sage leaves are burned and used in smudging rituals to purify spaces and drive out evil spirits.
Artemisia norvegica – Commonly called Norwegian mugwort, alpine sagewort, arctic wormwood,boreal sagewort, mountain sagewort, and spruce wormwood. This variety grows in arctic habitats like the tundra. It is a food source for mountain goats and other animals that reside in arctic areas.
Artemisia pontica – Also called Roman mugwort or small absinthe, this variety is commonly used to make absinthe and vermouth.
Artemisia princeps – Also known as Japanese mugwort, Korean mugwort, and Korean wormwood, this Asian variety is a member of the sunflower family. In Asia, the mugworts are used heavily in traditional eastern medicine.
Artemisia schmidtiana – Silver mound is a Japanese native that is commonly grown as an ornamental plant all around the world. Silver mound is known for its silver leaves and lush texture.
Artemisia stelleriana – Also called beach wormwood, hoary mugwort, dusty miller, and oldwoman, this herbaceous perennial is commonly grown in North America, Scandinavia, and Asia as an ornamental.
Artemisia verlotiorum – This variety is another plant that is commonly referred to as Chinese mugwort, and a member of the sunflower family. Long cultivated for its medicinal value, this variety of mugwort is now mostly naturalized in the wild.
Artemisia vulgaris – This species of mugwort is also known as Common mugwort, and is the subject of this article. It is a member of the daisy family and is the primary species that is called mugwort. It attracts wildlife and has both culinary and medicinal uses.
Growing Conditions for Mugwort
Mugwort needs a location with full sunlight and a slightly moist but well-draining soil. Mugwort can tolerate partial shade and dry soils as well but will not tolerate wet soil conditions. Mugwort can adjust to many different types of soil conditions, such as high nitrogen or alkaline soil types. Once plants are fully established, mugwort is especially hardy and can even tolerate drought.
Mugwort plants can live longer and be more aromatic when given poor soil and dry weather conditions, though plants will grow to a smaller size in those conditions. Mugwort roots grow by root spreading, so you have to decide where you want the plant to grow and then cut back the roots as needed to keep it from invasively spreading out into areas where you don’t want it to grow.
The roots of mugwort also release chemicals that can hurt the ability of surrounding plants to grow and spread. Keep this in mind when you decide where to plant wormwood plants and mugwort in your garden, and what plants you choose to plant near them. If you don’t want your mugwort plants to inhibit the growth of any of the other plants in your garden, you might consider planting it in a large container all by itself. Alternatively, you could plant it in an area in your garden that has deep borders, or an area where the plant is isolated.
How to Plant Mugwort
Before planting, till the beds and remove any rocks, clumps, roots, and weeds that you find. Amend the soil with lots of compost and a little bit of balanced all-purpose fertilizer to provide food for your plants throughout the season. Follow the directions carefully for how much fertilizer to add to the soil, as too much fertilizer will burn the roots.
Space plants out about 12” to 18” and provide another 12” to 18” space around the outside of the plants for weeding. Take the transplants out of their pots and cut them down to around eight inches long. Put them in the ground so that they are sitting around the same depth in the soil as they were in their starter pots. Fill the soil back in around the plant and pat it down with your hands and then water it well to help it adjust to its new home and to help settle the soil.
Care for Mugwort
Mugwort can be grown in the outdoor garden by gardeners in USDA Hardiness Zones 4 through 8. It will grow in all kinds of soil, even poor soil, with pH levels ranging from 6.0 to 7.0 as long as the soil offers plenty of drainage. (Not sure of the pH level in your garden? Refer to our article How to Test pH in Your Soil.
Because mugwort spreads so thickly it is often considered invasive, you may wish to separate it from the rest of your garden using a container or window box. You can bury a container below the surface of the soil if you want to maintain the look of direct planting.
To plant mugwort cuttings, fill a 10-inch container with horticultural perlite, leaving half an inch of empty space at the top. Use a pencil or skewer to create a hole for each cutting you would like to plant. You can plant up to two or three cuttings per pot. The hole should be a third as long as your cuttings are and about twice as wide as your cuttings.
Remove the leaves from the bottom third of each cutting, and treat the cut ends with a rooting hormone powder. Cover the cut areas completely with the rooting hormone. Place each cutting into the depression you created for it, and pull perlite around each cutting to create a small mound to support it.
Water your newly planted mugwort deeply, until the moisture drips from the drainage holes at the bottom of the container. Move the container outside to a place with plenty of bright, indirect sunlight. Use a plastic bag turned upside down over the cutting to create a greenhouse effect, using a rubber band to secure the plastic at the edge of the container. Use a spray bottle to mist the cuttings every couple of days. In a few weeks when tugging the cutting indicates roots have developed, the plastic bag can be removed and mugwort can be transplanted into the garden.
How to Propagate Mugwort
Mugwort is considered invasive in many areas because of the far-reaching underground rhizomes it uses to propagate itself. The plant also goes to seed from the end of winter to the beginning of spring, when seeds will be hydrated by rainfall in time to sprout for the spring season. You may also propagate mugwort by using clean, sterilized shears to take four- to six-inch basal cuttings from the plant in fall after the humidity has fallen for the season, cutting below the nodes on a spot where new growth has occurred. Place the cuttings in a sunny windowsill in a glass of water, and planting outdoors when there is no more danger of frost. During the spring and fall seasons, mugwort plants may also be propagated by division much as you would a bearded iris.
Garden Pests and Diseases of Mugwort
Mugwort does not struggle with pests and diseases. In fact, it is so prolific that in many gardens, it is considered an invasive weed. For this reason, you may wish to grow mugwort in a container garden or window box so that its spread is limited.
How to Harvest Mugwort
When mugwort is in bloom, use clean, sterilized shears to snip off the top third of the plant. Depending on how it is being used, mugwort can be harvested at various times throughout the year and in multiple ways. Some people harvest young shoots in the springtime before it blooms, while others cut and dry a portion of the upper side of the stalk in the late summer or fall.
How to Store Mugwort
Mugwort can be stored for future use by drying the herb to preserve it. Gather up bundles of mugwort made of several stems held together. Use twine or a rubber band to tie the herbs together at the base of the bundle. Find a warm, dry place where you can hang the bundles upside down out of the sunlight, such as a basement, shed, or garage. It should be a place with plenty of air circulation where the drying herbs are not at risk of being exposed to insects or too much humidity. Take care not to make bundles for drying too big, or they will not dry out quickly enough and may struggle with rot or mold.
Mugwort’s tendency to proliferate makes it a very easy herb to grow and care for, and the more mugwort you grow, the more uses you’re bound to find for it. Why not add some mugwort to your herb garden this year?
Mugwort plants are cultivated for ornamental, culinary, and medicinal purposes. Growing mugwort is relatively easy. The hardest part about growing the plant is germinating the seeds and keeping the plant from growing into areas where it is not wanted, or suffocating the plants in its near vicinity.