It’s That Time of Year Again…Picking Mugwort
By Lorraine Wilcox
Malia’s note: Considering that everyone’s favorite moxibustion guru, Lorraine Wilcox, will be teaching a live seminar for us here in Boulder this upcoming June, I’ve been perusing some of her older blog posts as a quick refresher in preparation. As I was scrolling through the files, I discovered this little gem and found it appropriate for reposting on the blog today, especially being that we’re smack in the middle of mugwort picking season for use during moxibustion. For those interested in signing up for Lorraine’s hands-on workshop, please CLICK HERE FOR MORE INFORMATION. Enjoy!
Friday, April 16th, 2010 was the third day of the third lunar month in the Chinese calendar. Li Shizhen in Ben Cao Gang Mu and Yang Jizhou in Zhen Jiu Da Cheng both mention picking mugwort on the third day of the third lunar month and the fifth day of the fifth lunar month.
Since Friday was this special day for picking mugwort, I visited my favorite grove of mugwort in Malibu. This is not the Malibu of surfers; I walked up into the canyon through sage and sagebrush (native), mustard and fennel (non-native), following the path near the seasonal stream. When I got to the grove of mugwort, the dew was still on the plants but the sun was starting to warm the bottom of the canyon.
This is Artemisia douglasiana, a mugwort that grows in Calfornia.
In this part of the country, the local mugwort is Artemisia douglasiana, but it is closely related to the Chinese species of mugwort. In fact, some books say it is really a subspecies of Artemisia vulgaris. The indigenous people of Malibu, the Chumash, used this plant for certain gynecological problems, same as the Chinese. They also used it topically as an antidote for poison oak. But the most interesting native use of mugwort was as ‘dream sage.’ Putting it in your pillow can promote pleasant but vivid dreams. (Healing with Medicinal Plants of the West by Cecilia Garcia and James D. Adams, Jr., pages 33-36.)
I offered a little tobacco and cut eight stalks of mugwort out of the hundreds growing in this area.
Since it was still early on this mugwort-picking day, I headed over to the Learning Garden in Venice California. A large section of Chinese medicinal herbs grow there, including two species of mugwort.
This is Artemisia argyi, a type of Chinese mugwort that is processed into mugwort floss for moxibustion.
Artemisia argyi is a type of mugwort that is mostly found in Japan and China. It is the primary herb listed by Bensky for Ai Ye.
Here is Li Shizhen’s description of mugwort: “This herb often grows in a mountainous wilderness. In the second month, the perennial roots grow sprouts, forming groves. The white-colored stalks grow straight, four or five chi high. The leaves spread in groups of four, and look like sweet wormwood [hao]. Each leaf is separated into five points, and forks into smaller points. The face of the leaf is green [qing] and the back is white. It has soft thick fuzz. In the seventh or eighth lunar month, it sends out spikes of tiny flowers between the leaves, like the spikes of plantago [che qian]. It forms branches with clusters full of fruit. There are tiny seeds inside. After a frost it begins to wither.”
This is Artemisia vulgaris, another type of Chinese mugwort that is used for moxibustion.
Artemisia vulgaris grows all over the world in temperate regions, including in China, where it is also used as Ai Ye or to make moxa floss.
The leaves of all three types of mugwort are bright green on top but white and fuzzy underneath. A. argi and A. vulgaris are ‘cut’ into five main ‘points’ with additional cutouts in each of the five points. A. douglasiana usually has one or three points, rarely more, so it looks a little different than the other two. All three types have a characteristic strong fragrance, which some describe as similar to sage.
Artemisia argyi is on the top left. Artemisia vulgaris is on the top right, and Artemisia douglasiana is on the bottom of the picture.
Generally mugwort is considered to be a weed. Seeds germinate only about 30% of the time, but it seems to be very efficient at sending out shoots underground. It is certainly a hardy plant that likes to spread, so be careful if you take it into your garden. Planting it in a large container is probably a wise move.
Well, finally I got home with my harvest. I hung them up to dry in my bedroom, in order to take advantage of any dreams they might send me. I love sleeping with the smell of the chaparral around me.
We can continue to pick mugwort until the fifth day of the fifth lunar month, around the time it starts to develop flowers. This year, the fifth day of the fifth lunar month is June 16th, 2010.
In two weeks or so, when the stalks are dry, I will remove the leaves from the stems. If I have a little free time I will process the dried leaves into moxa floss. It will be a nice experiment, seeing if the three Artemisias produce different qualities in their floss. But we cannot have the final answer for a long time, because floss is supposed to be aged for three years after it is made. I will discuss this in the next blog.