Mugwort: Home Medicine Cycle

Plant identification can be tricky and it is the biggest safety concern for the herbalist. While it is possible to hurt yourself with too much of a known herb or by using an herb improperly, it is much more likely that harm from herbs will result from incorrect identification.

For me, there's the particular issue that I'm more than 90 percent blind. I've always had trouble gathering herbs in the wild because everything in a meadow just looks generic green unless I put a leaf up two inches from my eye.

That's why most of my work with herbs focuses on things I can grow. My herb gathering is a lot more efficient that way. And when I plant and nurture an herb through the seasons, I am sure what I'm getting and I learn it's smell, texture and taste long before I have to go off and identify it in the wild

My mugwort plant top

My mugwort plant top

But even growing your own isn't always a sure thing. Some years ago, I planted what were supposed to be mugwort seeds and a plant sprouted. The leaves looked a bit thinner and wispier than the online photos of mugwort. The flowers were also greenish brown, rather than the dusky red shown in must mugwort pictures in books and online, so I asked some of the women from the local village who had a little knowledge of herbs. Two of them insisted that it wasn't mugwort but possibly something related.

Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris) is related to wormwood (Artemisia absinthium) but this didn't appear to be that either. I had read that mugwort is occasionally mistaken for poisonous hemlock, which can be deadly, so I was more than a little cautious. 

For several years, I let the plant live in the corner of my herb garden and each year it got bigger, beating out other hardy plants. Finally, I decided I had to fully research the identification for once and for all or get rid of the plant. The main markers for differentiating between mugwort and hemlock are the smell, the silvery sheen and small hairs on mugwort leaves, and later in the year, the flowers. 

Smell would someday be key for me but first I had to know the plant intimately to identify the smell. It was too early in the year for flowers (and mugwort is usually harvested before it blooms, so this is a common problem in mugwort identification) and relying solely on the hairs and a silver sheen of the leaves seems a bit shaky when your life is literally at stake. 

My mugwort stem

My mugwort stem

First, I carefully picked each individual part of the plant--the leaves, buds and stems--photographed them and put them through a plant analysis program. That program quickly proclaimed it to be mugwort. But I wasn't convinced. There were still the village women, who weren't exactly experts but they were local people with some experience in the natural environment.. So, I sent my samples in to a plant identification group. Finally, I got back my answer. 

It is mugwort. Several members of the group explained more clearly the most crucial identifying characteristics. The stem of my plant is clearly ridged and purple all over. Hemlock has a stem that is barely ridged at all and only spattered with purple (like when someone does an ink spattering art project). The flowers are quite different and I could confirm from previous years that while my flowers are a bit pale, they do match some photos of mugwort and most certainly are not hemlock flowers. 

It was a relief to finally make the determination and not have to uproot my plant. But I don't regret any of the time and caution spent to confirm it. Even with a plant I grew myself, the risk of dealing with a poisonous plant is there and always worth considering.

My mugwort buds

My mugwort buds

As soon as I was sure of it, I used some mugwort leaves to settle a sour stomach I had been struggling with for several days and made a bath of it for my kids who had bug bites all over their arms and legs from summer camp in the woods. My son also had a weird rash that might be bug bites, an allergic reaction of some kind or possibly skin parasites. Mugwort soothes bug bites and some other allergies but more importantly it is one of the best remedies for skin (and stomach) parasites.

I doubt the rash was parasites in this instance. But again, it's better to be safe than sorry. Now at least I have mugwort on my side for that.

Mugwort leaves and buds are used in teas, tinctures, washes and salves for a variety of discomforts and diseases, particularly stomach acidity, ulcers, constipation and intestinal parasites as well as skin infections. Mugwort is strongly antibiotic and anti-microbial. The tea has a calming effect on nerves and can help regulate abnormal hormone levels, which could be helpful for insomnia and obesity.

Women with light or sporadic periods can use mugwort to regulate menstrual flow and reduce the related pain of menstruation. Yarrow and/or red raspberry leaf may be better herbs for those with heavy menstruation, but mugwort has also been shown to bring relief during menopause. 

My mugwort leaf

My mugwort leaf

Still, while mugwort isn't poisonous, it does have a low level of toxicity that could cause temporary sickness if more than three cups of the tea are taken per day for several days in a row. It is best used as a short-term treatment for digestive problems, even though thousands of people drank it daily during WWII when tea was difficult to obtain in Britain and people drank mugwort tea instead.

The most important warning on mugwort is that it has been used to bring about abortions and to stimulate the uterus while giving birth. Given that, it isn't at all appropriate for pregnant women, and due to the low level of toxicity, shouldn't be ingested by nursing mothers either.

A less worrying application of mugwort is for the skin. Just as it rids the body of intestinal parasites it can fight skin parasites that few modern medications are effective against. It also alleviates itching and reduces the inflammation of bug bites. It is a particularly effective bug repellent, so salves and oils infused with mugwort leaves or a few drops of mugwort essential oil can keep the bugs off of you in the first place. 

Compounds contained in mugwort have been found to combat cancer in a Chinese study and other studies point to possible uses for joint pain associated with arthritis. But these uses will require further research to be fully realized.

What is clearly scientifically demonstrated is the antibiotic and antimicrobial properties of mugwort. As well as preventing infections as a skin wash, the dried plant can be used as a smudge to kill airborne bacteria and prevent the spread of disease both at home and in places of business where incense is burned, such as massage parlors, where the pleasant smell of a mugwort smudge will blend right in.

Both mugwort tea and mugwort smoke have a history, dating back to Aztec religious ceremonies, of being used for lucid dreaming and astral travel. Compounds in mugwort are psychoactive but the effect is not one of dramatic hallucinations. There are many reports of predictive dreaming connected to mugwort and experiments with dreams might benefit from its use.

As with all posts on medicinal herbs, this is not intended as specific medical advice for any particular person. Allergies to mugwort do exist and those with serious symptoms of disease should seek medical attention.

Fresh Aloe Vera for skin and mouth healing: Home Medicine Cycle 34

Aloe vera was my first medicinal herb. When I was a child, my mother always kept an aloe vera plant on the window sill and I can't remember a time when I didn't know how to use it. Whenever I had a small scrape or burn I would go to the plant and cut off a small length of a squishy, thick leaf. I slit the leaf to expose the wet gel within and smeared it on the burn or injury. The relief from pain was usually instantaneous, especially with sunburns. 

Now I've had many years of experience with aloe vera and seen the mixed evidence from clinical trials. It's clear that aloe vera has some powerful medicinal properties, especially for skin issues and mouth diseases. However, the mixed results point to one important difference when compared to other herbs. Aloe vera loses nearly all of its potency when it is processed and/or stored for more than a day or two. The vast majority of supplements and cosmetics that claim to contain aloe vera are medicinally ineffective and have little impact other than that of their carrier agents. 

Aloe vera is the quintessential homecrafter's herb. It works very well fresh from the plant and not at all once processed or stored. Pharmaceutical and cosmetics companies have tried for decades to bottle, can and market the soothing, healing and anti-aging powers of aloe vera. They put it in toothpaste, skin cream, makeup, shampoo and even food and pills because the name alone evokes a sense of healing. But you only need one product to use the power of aloe vera and it will never make anyone rich. You need an aloe vera plant on your window sill. Period.

Creative Commons image by ER and Jenny of

Creative Commons image by ER and Jenny of

Fresh aloe vera gel is one of the best treatments for sunburns and it has been shown in controlled studies to improve wrinkles and even reverse the effects of aging skin. But it isn't just a gentle and healthy balm for skin. It can also be effective at healing some of the most difficult-to-treat skin ailments.

One study found that it is effective in the treatment of skin cancerA 1996 study showed that even a weakened, processed aloe vera extract in a cream was better than a placebo in treating psoriasis. The study also documented the safety of its use. The fresh gel directly fro the plant has many times the healing power of such a cream.

In addition, multiple studies have shown aloe vera to be effective in treating mouth diseases such as oral lichen planus and periodontal disease. Aloe vera is even proving to be useful in dressing wounds, as well as combating some bacterial infections

I look forward to your comments, stories and ideas about herbs and homecrafting. Drop a line below and join the discussion.

Superhero of the natural healing, propolis takes down viruses, bacteria and possibly cancer: Home Medicine Cycle 29

It isn't an herb but it comes from the sap of conifers and poplar trees. It's so effective that the name essentially meant "defense of the city" in ancient Greek. And unlike many natural healing substances it was specifically designed for the purposes we use it for. It just wasn't designed by humans.

That's propolis, the superhero of natural healing.

Public domain image of propolis in a hive

Public domain image of propolis in a hive

It's concocted by bees specifically to be antimicrobial and anti-fungal. To them it's literally the "defense of the city." They form a kind of gunk from sap and other specially selected plant materials and use it to patch their hives and cover up anything gross or infectious in the hive. Sometimes called "bee glue," it's sticky and eminently unwashable but for all that it can be used for serious medicinal power.

There are two words of caution about propolis. First of all, it can be an issue for people with allergies,. particularly bee allergies. It is never entirely free of bee products and enzymes, no matter how purified it is. So, be cautious with it if you have any sort of bee allergies or other serious allergies. 

The second issue is simply the practical considerations of use. Propolis doesn't dissolve in water much at all. It dissolves reasonably well in alcohol and some in glycerin. As such, it's most effective when used as a tincture. Some people also just chew a piece for mouth infections and colds. But tincture is the most common form and the resulting mixture is very potent and usually bright yellow. It will coat anything it touches with an unwashable layer of bright yellow, including your teeth.

Mind you, it's very good for your teeth and would be great for preventing cavities, but your teeth would look horrible for a couple of days. So, most people try to knock it back to the back of the throat and swallow it without letting it touch their teeth. This is tricky and even the glass you use will be impossible to clean with anything but strong alcohol. (Paper cups are a good option with proplis.)

Yes, there are sanitized versions of propolis you can buy that aren't sticky and don't turn everything they touch bright yellow. But I suspect those preparations have so little propolis in them that they don't contain enough of the medicinal qualities. I have a toothpaste that supposedly contains propolis and it's okay but nothing spectacular. It also is only very mildly yellow. 

I like the taste of many bitter herbal remedies but I'm not personally fond of propolis, even though many people describe the taste as pleasant. I do take it, however, because there is nothing that will deal with fungal infections or a sore throat like propolis. It can compete well with many synthetic antibiotics and fungicides and is far better for you. 

You can usually obtain propolis from bee keepers. The best way to process it is:

Propolis chunks - Creative Commons image by Rade Nagraislovic

Propolis chunks - Creative Commons image by Rade Nagraislovic

  1. Freeze the pieces.
  2. Then crush them with a hammer or mortar and pestle while they're still frozen and brittle. 
  3. Put the resulting powder into a jar you are prepared to devote to propolis tincture forever.
  4. Pour 80 to 100 percent alcohol over it. About one part propolis to two parts alcohol is recommended.
  5. Shake well and let it sit for a couple of weeks.
  6. I've been told that some people strain the stuff but I have never found anything that will strain the liquid without becoming immediately plugged by the propolis itself. Instead, I let it settle and skim the more liquid tincture off the top of the jar for use. 

Here are some of the ways natural healers are using propolis extracts, according to the latest research.

  • Gargle with propolis tincture diluted in water for sore throats, thrus, cancer sores and other mouth infections. The tincture applied topically in the mouth and throat is very effective. Swallowing it also has systemic immune boosting and antimicrobial results.
  • A study found that propolis is superior to the drug acyclovir in fighting genital herpes. It is also used for cold sores around the mouth for the same reason.
  • Propolis shows significant antimicrobial activity in the treatment of peridontitis, a stubborn mouth infection.
  • Propolis is used for sores and bacterial infections (including tuberculosis). It is also active against many viruses (including influenza, H1N1 swine flue and common colds)
  • Propolis fights fungus and infections of single-celled organisms called protozoans. 
  • People sometimes apply propolis directly to the skin for wound cleansing abd as an oral rinse for speeding healing following surgery around the mouth, nose and throat.
  • Propolis is used to treat chronic ear infections in children with a history of ear infections and no known cure.
  • A study from the 1990s showed the usefulness of propolis extracts in preventing viral respiratory infections or colds in children in preschools and schools.
  • Studies are ongoing with exciting findings about how propolis and its flavonoid constituents protect human white blood cells from radiation sicknesses.
  • New research is showing incredible anti-cancer potential in propolis compounds. It is already being used to treat cancers of the nose and throat; for boosting the immune system; and for treating gastrointestinal problems. 
  • Caffeic Acid phenethyl ester (or CAPE) is a molecular compound found in propolis and almost nowhere else. CAPE has grabbed the interest of researchers for its medicinal properties, but its anti-cancer capacity is the most stunning. A study from the "Journal of Radiation Research" shows that only two days after being exposed to a medicinal compound with CAPE, "46% of lung cancer cells had been destroyed and the cancer growth was reduced by 60%. Three days after the treatment 67% of cancer cells were dead." Other studies have found that CAPE prevents the growth of colon cancer cells and induces cell death of the malignant cells without harming healthy cells. Other types of cancer cells also respond to treatment with the CAPE in propolis, including breast, gastric, skin and pancreatic cancer and glioma cells, a form of inoperable brain cancer. When propolis is used as a whole the effects are even better than with isolated CAPE compounds.

Propolis is one of the more advanced medicinals I have featured here. I do so simply because of the fantastic results, though I do caution that it is more difficult to use than many herbs and it's good to get a licensed herbalist's or doctor's individualized advice with a lot of these health concerns. 

I love to hear from you and I'd especially like to hear of the experience of other homecrafting herbalists with propolis. Drop a note and be sure to share this post in order to spread up-to-date information. 

The useful, golden weed of mullein: Home Medicine Cycle 18

Upper stalk of great mullein - Creative Commons image by Ian Cunliffe

Upper stalk of great mullein - Creative Commons image by Ian Cunliffe

Where I grew up in the mountains of Northeastern Oregon every child knew about mullein. It was one of the first plants we learned to identify for a very good reason. If you were out in the woods and needed to "go number two," mullein was your best friend. 

Even the name is soft, comforting and humble. Mullein sounds like something warm and gentle. It often grows in weedy, forgotten places, but it offers practical uses far beyond providing natural toilet paper. 

Mullein is a striking plant. It grows for two years. The first year you see only the soft, gray-green leaves covered with tiny hairs. The second year a thick pithy stalk shoots up from the middle and bright yellow flowers pop out of it through July and August. Both the leaves and the flowers are medicinally helpful.

The leaves contain compounds that help to sooth and tighten tissue. This leads to several excellent uses for mullein leaf teas and tinctures:  

  • To alleviate coughs and other respiratory complains where there is irritation or bleeding of in the lungs and respiratory passages. (Some people dry the leaves and smoke them to alleviate particularly irritating coughs but tea or tincture is also helpful.)
  • To sooth irritated stomachs or bowels. 
  • For adding to soothing and cleansing salves. 
Mullein plants - Creative Commons image by Lairich Rig

Mullein plants - Creative Commons image by Lairich Rig

Mullein flowers are often mixed in with the prickly hairs of the plant stalk and must be well strained to be as soothing as the leaves. However, the flowers are possibly more anti-bacterial than the leaves. Historically people wrapped food in mullein leaves to keep it from spoiling and modern science has born this out with findings about the anti-bacterial properties of the leaves and the flowers. 

One of the most important uses of mullein flowers is in an infused oil that is extraordinarily effective in treating ear infections. The compounds of mullein flowers have the wonderful combination of simultaneously killing bacteria, reducing pain and soothing the tissues inside the ear. In many countries mullein oil is sold as a regular remedy for ear infections and in Isreal a controlled study found that a combination of mullein, garlic, calendula and St. John's Wart oils had a marked effect in treating ear infections. Some scientific articles argue that herbal preparations like this are as effective or more effective than antibiotics for ear infections today, not to mention safer.

It's handy that this oil is not at all difficult to make at home. Use the first half of my salve recipe, which results in infused olive oil (you can infuse mullein only as I do or try the Israeli combination of mullein, calendula and St. John's Wart. The garlic will be added later). 

Once you have infused mullein oil keep it in the refrigerator in a small bottle. Then when an earache strikes, crush a clove of fresh garlic and mix it with a tablespoon of the mullein oil. Let it sit for a half an hour. Then strain the pieces of garlic out. Put the oil in a glass and place the glass in a little warm water to slightly heat the it to about body temperature. This is a powerful antibiotic and painkilling concoction that you can pour into a painfully infected ear for nearly immediate relief. It makes you smell a bit like a pizza parlor, but since I discovered this my children have never had to have another dose of antibiotics for ear infections again.

I love your comments on these posts. What are your experiences with herbs this summer? What plants made an impression on you as a child, even if a silly one? Write using the icon on the lower left. 

The painkiller, anti-inflammatory and first-aid herb: Home Medicine Cycle 17

I must have been thirteen when I was away at summer camp and I was first assailed by crippling cramps. Then every month for twenty years I spent a few hours in excruciating pain, while waiting for my heavy doses of Ibuprofen to kick in. I had to take the maximum dose for two or three days just avoid writhing on the floor in pain. It wasn't a matter of being pain free, but of having less pain.

Creative commons image by Randi Hausken

Creative commons image by Randi Hausken

Doctors told me it was just something I had to live with. I knew the pills weren't good for my liver, but there was no hope in sight.

So, you can bet that I was ready to try just about anything. I tried various home remedies (heat packs, special diets and so forth), but nothing worked appreciably, until I discovered yarrow.

This was at the very beginning of my experimentation with herbs, so I had no real belief that it would work. I originally started studying herbs out of a romantic enthusiasm for fantasy books with herbalists in them. For real life, I had been taught that herbs are mild, gentle and only slightly effective. They might smooth out rough skin, but they couldn't touch extreme pain. .

When I read that yarrow could help with menstrual cramps, I hoped that it might mean I could cut back a few of the ten toxic, maximum strength Ibuprofen I was taking every month. That would be well worth the effort. 

Creative Commons image by  O. Pichard of Wikipedia

Creative Commons image by  O. Pichard of Wikipedia

An herbalist friend taught me to make tincture (like this). I already knew very well that yarrow isn't poisonous and that I'm not allergic to it, because my brothers and I used to use yarrow leaves to pretend we were smoking when we were kids. I had chewed up quite a few of yarrow leaves pretending to be a farmhand with tobacco in my cheek. I'm not sure why we chose the excruciatingly bitter yarrow plant for this, but that was the rule of the rural kid-mafia back then.

In any case, I knew the plant was safe, so I made my first tincture and swallowed some before my next attack of menstrual cramps. I was too chicken not to take Ibuprofen as soon as I felt the first twinge. I knew that if I left it too long, I would be acting like a worm on a fishhook for the next few hours. Usually about four hours after I took the Ibuprofen it would start to wear off and the dull ache would give way serious cramps again. Then it would be time to hastily take another pill. 

Warnings: You don't get heavy-duty healing effects without heavy-duty medicine. Herbs are real medicine and it is a good idea to consult with doctors about your health and about taking herbs. 

People who are allergic to plants in the Aster family (including ragweed) may have allergic reactions to yarrow. Pregnant women should not take yarrow because the relaxing effects on the uterus could theoretically contribute to miscarriage. Yarrow can conflict with medications meant to thin the blood or drugs that reduce production of stomach acid. 

But this time, I forgot to take the Ibuprofen again for the simple reason that I didn't feel the cramps returning. I didn't even feel the dull ache for a few hours. When I did remember, I took more tincture cautiously. That month I only needed two Ibuprofen. Within a year, I had figured out the dosage so that I only needed one Ibuprofen every month and then often none at all.

Now that is herb power!

Here's how yarrow tincture works to quell menstrual cramps. It's an anti-inflammatory, it slows bleeding, it stimulates the uterus and estrogen in the body, and it relaxes the large flat muscles. That means that it may not work this well for some types of cramps. It will work best for cramps in large flat muscles (including strained muscles in the back). It's worth a try for any type of menstrual cramps and it can  help to regulate overly heavy menstruation (and prevent anemia). 

Creative Commons image by Curtis Clark

Creative Commons image by Curtis Clark

In order to control cramps as bad as mine, I have to take half a teaspoon of tincture every two hours, starting as soon as I know the cramps are coming (before they've actually started.) If I don't take it within the first few hours and the cramps get going, I'm in for a bad few hours. I don't have to wake up at night to take the yarrow tincture every two hours but I do have to have it by my bed and take it immediately before rising during the night or in the morning. 

Yarrow tincture works so well for this that it has quickly become indispensable. If I was to be banished to a city wasteland and I could only take one herb with me, it would be yarrow, and not just for issue of menstrual cramps. It is one of the most versatile and powerful herbs in general. 

Here are just a few uses:

  • I have seen yarrow ease painfully strained back muscles a number of times, converting several skeptical backpackers to herbalism.
  • It is one of the best herbs for slowing bleeding, both in wounds and internal bleeding.
  • It has strong anti-microbial and disinfectant qualities. The tincture can be used to disinfect cuts and the salve will help to keep dirty scrapes or cuts from getting infected (while helping to staunch bleeding).
  • Yarrow has been used for gastrointestinal problems that involve inflammation.

Happy herb gathering! It's the height of the wildcrafting season. Remember to be careful of correct identification and note that an herbal guide isn't the same as a prescription from a doctor or professional herbalist who has seen you personally.

I love to compare notes. Leave your observations, questions and stories in a comment below and share this post with your friends.