Mugwort has an extensive history of use – both medicinally and culinary. It derives its name from having been used to flavor beer before the wide use of hops. It is commonly brewed into a tea and used to calm nerves, promote dreams and regulate menstruation. Use during pregnancy should be avoided.
It has also been surrounded by legends and superstitions. Roman soldiers were known to put mugwort in their sandals to keep their feet from getting tired. Native Americans equate mugwort with witchcraft. In some European countries it is known as St John plant (not to be confused with St John’s wort a completely different plant) based on the story that John the Baptist worn a girdle of mugwort to protect him from harm and evil. It came to be gathered and made into crowns to wear to protect against diseases and misfortunes.
Although there are many historic references to mugwort, over time that knowledge has been mostly forgotten and other plants have taken its place. It fell out of favor perhaps due to some of its unfavorable characteristics. Several of which have kept us from growing it.
Wormwood, Artemisia absinthium, is one of the bitterest plants known. Probably its most famous reputation comes from the beverage absinthe, a green alcoholic drink that was banned at one time in many countries including the United States. Depending on whom you ask, it is either a hallucinogenic green spirit that makes people crazy or it’s a high-proof gin-like spirit that is now regulated but not illegal. If you’re curious about absinthe and would like a more detailed accounting try this website.
Wormwood’s common name comes from its ability to act as a wormer for animals and children. It is also a good insect repellent and was used in granaries to drive away weevils. In the spring it was used as a strewing herb to rid the home of fleas.
This was one of the main reasons we grew wormwood – to use in the flea repellent products we make for pets. As we researched various recipes for flea repellents, wormwood was often mentioned. This was about 13 years ago and we were in our infancy in our business and certainly not as knowledgeable about herbs as we are today. When we began to use it, neither of us could really tolerate the smell – it bordered on sickening. The more we used it, this became literally true for Erin who was pregnant at the time. We were quickly learning about wormwood, somewhat the hard way. The final straw was when the plants growing near the wormwood began to look sick. So this is what we learned about wormwood- it is not a good companion plant and should not be grown near other plants, and it should never be used by pregnant or lactating women.
So what is it good for, then? The essential oil extracted from this bitter-tasting herb is purported to have many health benefits, including improving digestive health, pain management, and reduced inflammation. We would recommend working with a certified herbalist if you choose to try wormwood. A weak tea will discourage slugs when sprayed on the ground in the fall and spring and it is good at repelling fleas. There just are also quite a few other herbs that will do many of the benefits ascribed to wormwood and be less troubling. Another lesson we learned was to do more research on herbs that we were choosing to plant in our gardens. Needless to say we got rid of the plant and looked for an alternative.
Tarragon, Artemisia dracunculus, is really the only Artemisia that tastes good and is used in cooking. It is an ancient herb going back hundreds of years, having been recorded by the Greeks in about 500 BCE. It was ascribed with power to draw out venom from snake and insect bites. If chewed it will provide a tingly, numbing effect to the tongue for a brief period. We know this to be true, having given it a try.
Before we go much further into the wonderful culinary uses of tarragon, let’s note that there are two tarragons. There can be quite a controversy over which is best and also conflicting information. French tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus sativa) and Russian tarragon (A. dracunculus dracunculoides) actually look a little different – French has darker leaves and doesn’t grow quite as tall as Russian. French tarragon does not produce seeds so must be grown from a plant. Both spread by underground twisting runners. In some colder areas, French tarragon does not winter over well.
Typically French tarragon is described as having the best flavor. Russian tarragon however, is described as tasting like grass or having no flavor at all. Russian Tarragon can have bitter overtones whereas French Tarragon is said to be sweeter. However, fresh French Tarragon has a pronounced anise taste, which some people dislike. So, you may like fresh Russian Tarragon which has a more subtle taste. It has a wide range of uses in cooking and is well known for traditional tarragon vinegar. It is also a primary herb in many French sauces and is often included in fines herbes.
What is our experience with tarragon? French tarragon is difficult to grow and the one plant we started with continues to be small and has never spread. Sometimes we wonder if we still have it. The Russian tarragon has thrived, spread into a nice bed, bears seeds and overwinters well. For all these characteristics we feel certain we are growing Russian tarragon, in case anyone is wondering. We found the Russian variety numbed our tongue contrary to reports that indicated it was only the French that did that. We find the taste of Russian to be the mild anise-like flavor described and holds up well when dried. It is a strong bold flavor and should be used sparingly unless you are looking for a robust taste. It makes a tasty vinegar and this spring, customers have been purchasing it fresh weekly at Second Mile Marketplace without complaints. As with many herbs, you will have to decide for yourself. We will stick with the Russian tarragon. You can read more about tarragon in our previous blog
So should you give artemisia go in the herb garden? Do your research, choose your site well and give them a try!
Complete Book of Herbs, Maggie Stuckey, Berkley Books, 1994
New Age Herbalist, Richard Mabey, Collier Books, 1988
Rodale Herb Book, William H. Hylton editor, Rodale Press, 1978