Everyday Flora – Mugshot

This month’s Joe Sixpack, thankless cog, common schlub, Queen of the Quotidian, a virtual dyed-in-the-wool worker bee.  It’s family (Asteraceae) is the most populous in world, (some might argue Orchidaceae but let’s not get into that) and the genus has over 500 members.  What it lacks in glitz it makes up for in garden utility and cultural significance and mystique.  Blooming right now in the wild, take a deep bow Artemisia douglasiana:

California mugwort

Named for a 19th century Scottish botanist and explorer, mugwort is a close cousin of wormwood (absinthe) and our local California Sagebrush.  While you could find it virtually anywhere in Ojai it generally prefers some shade and moisture to really thrive.  Growing in slowly spreading colonies, mugwort is considered an herbaceous perennial, dying back to the ground in the late summer after flowering.  The more water available the faster it will spread.

Stalks can get up to 5 feet high with 2 inch long leaves, usually somewhat toothed in appearance.  Dark green on the top and silvery gray on the bottom, the foliage has a minty scent to the touch, rubbing the leaves will also produce a powdery substance which can be rolled into a ball.

Green top, silver bottom

The flowers are tiny, yellow and inconspicuous, blooming from July through September, and I’ll be honest you won’t notice them unless you are looking for them.  They closely resemble the flowers of mugwort’s closest cousin, California Sagebrush.

There is probably no plant easier in the nursery world to propagate than mugwort.  Collect a handful of seeds in September and spread them in a pot with a perlite/soil mix and within days you’ll have babies.  If that’s not fast enough for you snip a healthy growing stalk of your friend’s mugwort and put it right in a pot, no growth hormone required.

Mugwort’s history as an important medicinal and cultural herb is well documented.  Rub it directly on your skin as an insect repellant or to ease the itch an rash of poison oak.  A tea made from the stem and leaves has been reported to ease muscle and joint pain as well as the symptoms of PMS.  Inhaling the smoke of burned leaves or putting a bundle of mugwort in one’s pillow is supposed to clarify and intensify dreams as well as ward off nightmares.

My favorite use from Jan Timbrook’s book involved the fine white powder from the bottoms of the leaves I mentioned that can be slowly formed into a ball.  Chumash medicine men would expertly form a large cone of the powder and place it directly on the wound or sore of a patient.  He would then light the cone, letting it slowly burn down to the skin, cauterizing the wound and promoting healing.  Don’t know if I’d try that one, but go ahead and snip a sprig and let me know how your dreams work out tonight…

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