The genus “Artemisia” belongs to the Asteraceae family – the “star blossomers” (lat. “aster” = star), so called because of the star-like structure of their blossoms. It was also called before the “composite” or “daisy” plant family. “Composite” because of their special way to compose their flowers in a circular group together, giving the impression that we have to do only with one single flower. But in fact, they are composed of many small flowers, called florets. The family has more than 1,620 different sub-groups (genera) and altogether more than 23,600 species in form of herbs, bushes, and trees. Asteraceae’s appear on all continents and are one of the largest plant families on our planet – and probably also one of the most recent. This “grouping” of flowers in one composite “mandala flower” has something fascinating. It shows – in a sense – a principle of evolution where unity in diversity gives an evolutionary direction – and maybe also an advantage in specie survival.
Some Botanists think that the first members of this group may have appeared in Argentina something like 50 million years ago. That is not very long ago… 🙂 They represent today one of the best studied plant families with a total of 5,000 species examined for their chemical ingredients, many of them containing carrier oils or essential oils and other medicinal compounds. Some of the Asteraceae for example store the famous substance Inulin in the underground parts of the plant. This substance serves as a sugar substitute for diabetes. Others are high in Esters and Sesquiterpenes like the Chamomiles, and others often high in Ketones like the Artemisias.
Let’s look closer to the Artemisia group
This genus as a sub-group of the Asteraceae family is very special. It is a large diverse plant genus with more than 400 species. They are mostly native to temperate or hot regions of Europe, Asia and North Africa, and they like to grow in dry and semi-dry habitats, mostly in soil rich in nitrogen. Like the Wormwood or Absynth plant (Artemisia absynthium) in High Provence which loves specifically limestone soil. I have seen Artemisias also growing in near desert like soil i.e. the white Wormwood (Artemisia herba alba) in south Morocco.
All Artemisias are medicinal, and most of them are linked to a special bio-chemical group: the Ketones. Ketones are a real mystery in the treasure house of plant evolution. Whether you take Wormwood (Artemisia absynthium), white Wormwood (Artemisia herba alba), sweet Annie (Artemisia annua), Artemisia vulgaris (Mugwort), Artemisia pallens etc. you will always have to do with ketones, specifically the Artemisia ketone or the different Thuyones (camphor, alpha-thuyone, beta-thuyone, cis-thuyone, trans-thuyone for example), and sometimes also very special sesquiterpene lactones, for example the famous Artemisine in sweet Annie, etc.
Bitter for better
Now, Ketones are part of the “bitter stuff” in Nature. And bitter, as I often say, is medicine per se. No animal will eat a bitter plant – except when it feels sick, wanting for example to clear its intestines from parasites , i.e. with some Wormwood leaves. Yes, the bitter taste is a warning signal in Nature. It does not mean “do not eat me”, but “pay attention, do not eat too much”.
“Bitter flavor seems to be the signal from the plant world to watch out – eat less – and activate your detoxification mechanisms.”Guido Masé, “The Wild Medicine Solution”
Also the famous “alcaloids”, base ingredients of many so called “toxic” drugs, have specialized in the bitter taste. Of course, the plants certainly have engineered this taste to protect themselves, but at the same time they have participated with their bitter cocktails in an amazing “health food cuisine” which later became so intrinsically helpful for us humans. Because… one of our most important organs, the liver, LOVES bitter, and the liver is the nr. 1 detoxifier in our body. In fact, we need this “xenobiome” as scientists call it today, we need this help from outside plant agents to keep our system healthy and clean.
In that sense we can say, the bitter essential oils are in all cases participating in liver cleansing. And again: it is the dosage of these oils which is important.
“Everything is toxic, nothing is toxic, the dosage makes the difference”.Hippocrates
And, in principle, it is good to challenge the system with some bitter taste also in our normal food in order to balance the sweet which is over-abundantly available today in everything we eat or drink. Let us say in other words: Surely, the bitter taste is a challenge to our body, but a necessary one. Scientists speak today of the “Goldilocks principle” of stress: Not too much, not too little, but just the right amount. That is exactly what should happen when we use (even orally) some of the Artemisia oils from our home apothecary. It may be a stress for a short moment to the system, but we are stronger right away after it.
And it is so true: “(…) that we have already seen that plants have come up with molecular challenges to the organisms that eat them and that the process of adapting to those challenges has even helped create the liver and metabolic tissues that we have today.”Guido Masé
And here we are in the center of our evolutionary philosophy: What we call “toxins” today, they are part of the “time machine” of the planet’s life evolution. The enemy is after all not just an enemy but assists in developing a stronger system, a more resistant psycho-physiology – and a better functioning “metabolic machinery” also in our case here. If we would remove all the challenging chemicals from our daily intake, we would probably be less resilient to the stress and strain of our daily exposure to the world.
“Getting the signal of bitterness on the tongue increases antioxidant enzyme and bile secretion in the liver through the combined action of hormones, such as cholecystokinin, and nerves, such as the vagus nerve. This combination of effects prepares us to interact successfully with the bitter botanical chemistry we have experienced throughout our evolutionary history… Reduced food consumption and lower blood sugar levels are another profound consequence of the bitter taste….in the management of diabetes.”Guido Masé, “The Wild Medicine Solution”
An example: Mugwort
Mugwort is a perennial plant growing often in waste places, along road sides, fences and riverbanks. As most of the Artemisias, the herb is very undemanding as to soil quality. Being related to the Wormwood plant due to its similar ingredients it is also known as ‘Wild Wormwood’.
The essential oil of Mugwort is obtained by steam distillation of the dried leaves. The yield of essential oil can be between 0,1 to 1,4 % depending on the part of the plant used, the season of harvest, and the origin of the plant. The nearly colourless oil has a spicy aroma with a bitter campherous note, smelling like a spicy black tea. The chemical contents are bitter principles and tannins. Mugwort essential oil contains in majority mono-terpenketones (mainly alpha- and beta-thujone, also camphor). The essential oil today is produced in Canada, France, Hungary, Morocco, India, China and Japan.
A bit of folk medicinal knowledge
Mugwort has been used since antiquity in the oriental as well as in the occidental civilizations for ritual purposes. People celebrated fumigations with it, called up the courage of warriors, worshipped gods of thunder, consecrated sacred places, made brooms to purify holy locations and treated various diseases.
In those ancient times the herb was dedicated to Artemis, the deity responsible for hunting and plants, hence the generic name ‘Artemisia’ for the genus of these “warrior plants”. Apart from that, Artemis acted as a patron deity for birth and midwives. Still today the so called ‘moxation’ often finds application in case the baby has not taken the right position for birth with the head downward. The midwife then inflames a Mugwort cigar and puts it at a special spot of the mother’s foot so to stimulate the baby to make the desired turn.
The Mugwort herb has been part of the female mystical traditions all over the world. In Provence, young girls who had their first menstruation were received in the groups of adult females by wearing Mugwort crowns on their heads and decorating their dresses with leaves of the plant. Mugwort was used to stimulate fertility, to facilitate birth, promote the afterbirth, relieve menstrual pains like nausea and headache – but also (due to their ketonic profile) promote abortion by use of high doses. That is why the herb or oil should not be taken during pregnancy. Furthermore, it can also cause the menopause from appearing untimely or too early. A popular name for Mugwort in German is “Frauenwurz” = women’s spice, which shows the connection of the plant with the female system and its special effects on the female menstrual cycle and the reproductive system. Mugwort was always seen to soothen the abdominal area of the woman and – due to that – also to help increase joy and pleasure in the female body.
The plant and its essential oil is a very helpful agent in case of diseases of the abdominal organs caused by colds. For the Teutonic tribes Mugwort was probably regarded as the most powerful of all plants. Thor, the Teutonic God of Thunder, was believed to strengthen his magic abilities by wearing a belt which the dwarfs had woven for him out of Mugwort switches. Mugwort was kept as a holy plant during the days of the summer and winter solstice and was used for fumigation against evil spirits at home and in the stables. As a plant connected with the sun it stood for opening the heart for spiritual light and for finding the golden thread within one’s life concept. The Christian church (of course) did not like Mugwort in the past; it was considered a herb linked to witchcraft – although the traditional Christmas goose still today is spiced with the herb :). Since ancient times the goose symbolizes the power of the waning and waxing sun. Since Mugwort was regarded as a magical plant in Europe and Asia it was often worn and burnt to surrender a person’s worry and suffering to the fire.
In the German language the herb carries the name ‘Beifuß’ meaning ‘at foot’ thereby hinting at its foot healing properties already reported by the ancient Romans. Their soldiers put the leaves of Mugwort into their shoes to get through the possible pain of long, tiring marches. Some people today use a few drops of Mugwort essential oil in their shoes to strengthen physical well being and also spiritual progress. Since feet represent in a sense the “basis” of the body, the idea is convincing.
Some further medicinal aspects
Its modesty of needs and great adaptability is the reason why the Mugwort plant finds suitable living conditions worldwide. As we saw, it has been in high esteem due to its medicinal properties since time immemorial. In right dosage Mugwort and its oil is able to calm down epileptic and hysteric attacks due to its relaxing and soothing effects on the brain and the nervous system. In the long term it can play an important role in curing epilepsy and hysteria to an encouraging extent. But – as already mentioned – also here the dosage has to be well observed in order to avoid contradictory results. By virtue of its calming effects on the nervous system, Mugwort and its essential oil is also helpful in case of insomnia. Used in light doses, the sedating effects on afflictions of the nerves may also lead to more focused activity and alertness.
Mugwort has made a legendary name for itself in regards to fatty meals that are difficult to digest. Ketones – we have seen – support the digestive functions in the body. And they command our fat metabolism. Actually, they dissolve fat. Due to the bitter principles the herb supports the production of gastric juice and bile fluid which act as a digestive remedy. Mugwort is a tasty spice for potato dishes, cabbage dishes, meat-, fish- and chicken-dishes as well as mushrooms. On the whole, the plant is able to cure digestive disorders.
As a diuretic Mugwort increases urination thereby removing excess water, salts and toxins like uric acid and also renal calculi from the body. It has healing effects on rheumatism, arthritis and gout and can be of help for those suffering from overweight and hypertension. The essential oil – like most of the Artemisia oils – also unfolds great success in killing parasites such as intestinal worms. If children are treated with the oil, the dosis should be kept particularly low. Good to note: Intestinal parasites suppress normal growth and prevent nutrients from getting absorbed by the body. They substantially weaken the body – and Mugwort can help to regain normal strength by eliminating these pests from the system.
Interesting to note also that the essential oil has been shown “to inhibit growth of different cancer cells, as pure compounds or part of other plants extracted oil”.
And, what is good to note again: Mugwort and its essential oil is not to be used by pregnant women. High ketonic oils such as the Artemisia oils but also oils like Sage, Santolina, etc. are known to be abortifacient. I call them the “dis-incarnators”.
The mythology or folk-medicinal traditions of medicinal plants are often the best indicators for the true healing aspects hidden behind symbols, stories, paintings etc. The primeval knowledge of a herb can assist us nowadays to learn how to strengthen our physical health – which results in improvement of all the other parts of our consciousness, be it the emotional, mental or spiritual side. The Mugwort plant may also teach us that the inconspicuousness of its outer appearance may bear amazing miracles and blessings “hidden behind”.
If – as said above – a plant like Mugwort is “connected with the sun and stood for opening the heart for spiritual light, for finding the golden thread within one’s life concept”, there is a deep meaning in it. The Artemisia genus is – we can say – a typical and most powerful medicinal plant genus as such. Because to be a healing plant it has to convey new energy to the system, has to function as a transformer, to be able to purify and renew the spirit in man. To play with a word: it has to be “medi-cinal” = “med” (lat. meaning : “center”) and “kyne” (greek : “move”) that is: capable to move us to the center. Which center? The innermost Center of our Being. This is exactly what the Artemisias and their essential oils do. Their “ketonic effulgence” transfers biochemically cosmic radiation to our body, giving – often a decisive – kick to our physiological “matter-fields” if they have become chaotic and have caused “disease”. Creating “ease” therefore is the most simple and first principle of healing. And that is in reality what the Goddess Artemis with her bow and arrow wants to convey. Her shot is meant to go where the hindrances have to be overcome!