A range of flowers in Colins Paddock

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Wild flowers at Magog Down prev  :  next

Mugwort - Artemisia vulgaris

mugwortStill lame from a road accident, I have lately been unable to walk on Magog Down. I sit, therefore, on New Year's Eve wondering what plant I could guarantee your finding there - even in the middle of this dreary winter. My choice of mugwort is, perhaps, unfair as you certainly won't find it in flower at this time of the year. However, its dead stems (often over three feet tall) will still, I can be sure, form a feature of the landscape, especially along the fence where the dog-run borders open fields.

Mugwort cannot be said to be a 'pretty' flower. In summer, however, it stands tall and handsome with its distinctive divided and toothed leaves, glossy above and downy beneath, the upper ones subtending panicles of small flowers. Each 'flower' consists of an involucre of downy, green bracts surrounding a small head of rather insignificant, reddish-brown florets - a feature which places it firmly in the dandelion family (Compositae).

Though less aromatic than its closely related wormwood (A. absinthium), mugwort shares with its relative an honoured place in both herbal medicine and folklore. There is a legend that St. John the Baptist wore a girdle of mugwort, and garlands made from plants cured in the smoke from St. John's Eve bonfires were believed to protect a home from evil. Bankes's herbal of 1525 notes that 'yf it be within a house there shall no wycked spyryte abide'. It was also said that a traveller carrying a sprig of the plant would never weary.

Known in the Middle Ages as Mater Herbarum (= mother of herbs), mugwort was reckoned to be effective as an aid to both conception and childbirth, and its use against "women's complaints" persisted until recent times. Recommended as a nervine and stimulant, it has also been used for such diverse purposes as treating ague and killing intestinal worms.

The 'mug' in 'mugwort' is said by some to be derived from an old word for 'moth', the plant once having been used (like moth-balls) to protect clothes against the depredations of such insects. Other, however, favour a more prosaic etymology, saying that the 'mug' referred to is the king found in inns - mugwort, in common with a number of other herbs, was used to flavour beer in the days before hops were introduced. Its dried leaves have also been used as substitutes for both tea and tobacco (hence the old Norfolk name of 'Jack bacca' by which it was known by my father).

Curiously, for a plant that has no particular association with the coast, the properties of mugwort (+ 'muggons') seem to have been particularly well known to Scottish mermaids. Ladies may care to heed the advice reputed to have been sung by one such as she watched a young girl's funeral processing along the banks of the Firth of Clyde:-

If they wad drink nettles in March
And eat muggons in May,
Sae mony braw maidens
Wadna gang to the clay.

Sadly, neither of these seasonal cure-alls is available on the National Health - but both can be readily obtained from the hedgerows without a prescription!

David Yarham
January 1996

See also...

Report of the visit from Cambridge Natural History Society in August 2017


News about a visit by the local branch of Butterfly Conservation charity taking place in August 2016


News about the very special area of Colin's Bank, published in February 2015

Pasque Flower

One of our Friends sent us this beautiful picture of some Pasque Flowers taken in amongst the Cowslips in May 2016.pasqueflower_jb_may2016_crop_453

Photo by Jill Butler