Coming up now on pathways and in meadows are two very useful members of the asteraceae, or sunflower family. Artemisia vulgaris, or mugwort, and achillea millefolium, known as yarrow, are herbs of great medicinal and food value, each with a rich folk history.
Each also carries a warning, as they contain thujone (a component of absinthe) and other phytochemicals which when used in correct measure are harmless or healing, but can cause spasms or worse when overconsumed. They are both unsafe during pregnancy.
It’s often said that most members of the asteraceae family are edible, but this is only true insomuch as “yes, you can eat most of them, but many contain substances which can harm you if not used properly.”
Mugwort in folk history is a magical herb, burnt as a smudge or stuffed in dream pillows to aid in shamanic dreams, sacred to the goddesses Diana and Artemis. In folk medicine it has long been used in Korea, Japan, and China to staunch bleeding, lower fevers, and treat liver disorders.
Medieval Europeans used it in their gardens to repel moths and in herbal charms. In modern medicine it is being studied as a treatment for menstrual disorders and discomfort in menopause, as it contains a sesquiterpene that seems to work through a serotonergic mechanism which may be helpful to women, and safer than hormone replacement therapy.
Culinary uses range form mugwort jelly and smoothies to mugwort and mushroom soup. The leaves are the part used and should be gathered before the plant flowers. It was used to brew beer before hops; some suggest that its use in the mug is where it gets its name. This early beer was called gruit, and was also brewed using bog myrtle and yarrow.
Yarrow gets its Latin name, achillea, from its long use in reducing bleeding, said to be carried by the mythical Achilles for this use on the battlefield. It is also known as Soldiers Woundwort. Great for cuts and abrasions, it is also effective as a sweating herb to bring down fevers. Caution should be used when combining it with other herbs, for its synergic qualities increase the potency of the herbs it is mixed with.
If making tea of yarrow, be sure to use flowers and leaves mixed, never just the leaves. In Chinese folk tradition, the stalks of yarrow gathered in early winter were used to make the I Ching; the plant is considered to have the right balance of yin and yang energy.
Yarrow enjoyed use a vegetable in the past, the young leaves steamed like spinach and often served with game. I enjoy yarrow in soup, added last as boiling ruins it, or very lightly sautéed with honey and garlic served over squash or pumpkin. As the leaf grows it becomes more bitter, but is so plentiful in our area that I attempt to find new ways each year to enjoy this healthy, healing plant.