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Mugwort is Wormwood is Artemesia

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Food as Herbs, Health, and Medicine

Winter Volume: 2011 Issue: 18(4) page(s): 18 and 19


Botanically, this plant is in the Asteraceae family and is an herbal most often known as mugwort or wormwood. Some Chinese and other Asians know it, others have no idea what it is, but many of them do cook and love it. An important question is, are both mugwort and wormwood one and the same? Most say yes, a few disagree.

This green plant has many common names and some confusions. Some of the names include Verlot's Mugwort, Chrysanthemum Weed, Old Uncle Henry's Herb, Sailor's Tobacco, Naughty Man, Old Man, and St. John's Green. Everyone recommends looking for divided leaves, well almost everyone. One thing for sure, its characteristic aroma is valued in and as an outdoor plant spray. Many pests avoid being in its neighborhood. Indoors it is said to repel fleas and moths.

Common mugwort roots are popular in medicine for moxibustion, the leaves used as vegetables. Most varieties are perennials and some do attract butterflies and moths. Insects feed on their leaves as do thousands of people who eat them, particularly their young leaves. There seem to be a variety of different ways to cook them, the easiest is to sweat them down, add garlic, a pinch of sugar, and some sesame oil, then stir for a minute or two before serving them.

Not new to the Chinese, an 11th century writer, Su Shi, mentions this plant in his poems. He is not the first to do so. Lou Hao gets credit for that circa the 3rd century BCE. Then and now, this plant is both a 'moxa' and a source of hay fever. Botanically, the two most common varieties are Artemisia verlotiorum and Artemesia vulgaris. There are more than twenty others including Artemisia absinthium.

Chinese herbal and general medical practitioners advise these greens can increase appetite, treat digestive disorders, prevent miscarriages, reduce or stop heavy menstrual bleeding, and generally warm the body. They say they are not only warm, but pungent. In addition, they advise never to eat too much of them because some varieties can burn a hole in the stomach. One of their most common recommendations to always cook them with sugar.

In the Chinese Materia Medica, the botanical name is Artemisi argi Levl et Vant. The Chinese name is ai ye with alternative names of wu yue ai, qi ai, bai zhu, and bai ai; and there are others. Grown throughout China, especially in the Shandong, Anhui, Hubei, and Hebei Provinces, the leaves of these plants are harvested at the end of spring before the flowers bloom.

In moxabustion, the leaves are the principal ingredient, said to warm and penetrate bodily channels. Traditional medical practitioners also use them, but with caution, in cases of heat in the blood or yin deficiency. For these conditions and a few others, they recommend charring older leaves that are bitter or acrid. This, they say, will enhance their hemostatic properties. In the raw form, they have fewer concerns because they are relatively neutral, but they suggest to use sparingly.

If the above sounds confusing, the reason one doctor gave was this "may be true when speaking about the same variety of the same plant, but not everyone does." Medicinally, "the most popular botanical items look different and are different," he went on. On a second visit wanting more clarification, he added: "Keep in mind there are two dozen or so relatives." We came away more confused that ever.

There are major differences in the entire wormwood plant family. There is Artemesia lactiflora or duck foot vegetable, often known as ay jiao cai or ya jiao ai. The different names, Chinese herbalists tell us, are because there are different plants used for irregular menstruation, to regulate qi, or when used as a poultice mixed with Chinese chives and wine and sometimes the same plant is used for one or another reason. One herbalist told me to stir-fry the leaves and apply them as a poultice if ever needed to reduce swelling. All this advise hardly clarifies things.

Another source said the items in this composite family, sometimes called sagebrush or wormseed, are also used to expel intestinal worms. That chap added: "They are bitter and used to treat headaches, asthma, and gastric disorders." That seems a conflict as some medical persons say they cause asthma. The seeds of one or more of these plants are also used for eye diseases, many of their leaves and stalks for dysentery, the whole plant used to reduce fever, and the flowers suggested to treat headache, rheumatism, and tuberculosis.

One variety of roots are aromatic, silky, and silvery, and have been used to make the absinthe put into vermouth. However, one person told us that those roots were banned in 1915. Why? Because they were deemed addictive, narcotic, hallucinogenic, and sometimes even fatal.

We recently learned that the earliest use of wormwood is discussed on an Egyptian papyrus, circa 1600 BCE. Was it one of the bitter herbs mentioned in the Bible? It is important to know that when banned, only the roots were not to be used. The leaves and tops were never banned, nor were the flowers. Roots, leaves, and flowers used to be used to make medicinal teas even though they were thought to contain thujone, a toxic chemical believed to be the cause of psychoses.

What is needed are answers to questions such as: Should one not use wormwood? Eating small amounts of the leaves seem to be no problem, but if wanting to ingest the roots, which varieties are OK, if any. All agree that one should not consume too much of any part of the plant; but how much is too much?

On the culinary front, and we saved this for last, you need to ask yourself if you should put any of these leaves in your salad. The Chinese use many of them but only cooked in soups, congees, and cakes. They also often cook them in tripe dishes and/or with fatty pork, poultry, lamb, and/or eel. In the past, the leaves were popular as wrappings for glutinous rice cakes to be steamed and then eaten during the Dragon Boat Festival. In our research, we never found a recipe for their use raw.

When used in a dough, and they do color it green, this plant is often used dried or as an extract. It is ground with rice flour and made into items called 'perfumed dumplings.' A wine can also be made with the ground dried leaves. Oil from the plant has been used by some traditional medicinal practitioners as a heart stimulant. However, some say this is poisonous and should only be prescribed and used by a licensed medical practitioner.

For those who wonder what the leaves look like, the answer is somewhat like chrysanthemum leaves or members of the tarragon family. One knows them as very aromatic, and a tiny bite of one quickly informs that they are very bitter. Popular in many parts of China and other Asian countries, this plant is also found in some candies and in several alcoholic beverages. One question does nag, why are they more popular in China and Asian countries than anywhere else in the world though they are found in almost every country in the world?

Our recommendation, only use the leaves when young, do so in small amounts, and always cook them. Unless labeled by a vendor, another suggestion is to go to the web and learn more about the plants in the wormwood family. We have intentionally not included a picture as we do know that people can not always tell one from another. The herbal doctors we consulted said they have the same problem.

                                                                                                                                                       
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