Wild Healing: The Medicine of Moonwort
It’s not even February yet, but you wouldn’t know it by the weather. It’s been unseasonably warm outside lately. The ground is muddy, the sky clear and the plants responding by growing more rapidly each day. The vibrant moonworts (Artemisia ludoviciana and related spp to you plant people) are especially happy, and their silver green sprouts grace the ground everywhere I turn. Rubbed between gentle fingers, their leaves release the pungent aroma of wildness itself. In fact, this plant is one of the Canyon’s most intense and insistent inhabitants and one that I spend a great deal of time focusing on when leading plant walks during workshops and classes. Much can be learned of this special place and land through its flora and fauna, through the individual microcosms that make up the whole — and this particular herb is a unique and powerful expression of the Canyon.
More than any other single plant, the Artemisias attract the attention and affection of our guests here in the canyon. People who have otherwise never paid any attention to flora are enchanted by its soft touch and seductive fragrance. They catch themselves stroking its feathery leaves and brushing its small flowers against their faces. “What IS this?” they ask me in awed, eager voices as they continue sniffing and touching it. At first, I wondered why this specific plant attracted so much attention when there is such a diversity of flora here in the Gila, but I’ve finally come to understand that its vibrant and wild, fierce yet gentle personality is the medicine many of us need.
Although the moonworts are widespread and populate almost every part of N. America, they are especially prolific here in the Southwest, and the scent of sagebrush is certainly one of the signatures of mesas and steppes of the Wild West. So common here as to be practically invisible to many peoples’ eyes, they are easily one of the most prolific species of the canyon and surrounding areas. Their prevalence may allow us to pass them over more easily but actually makes them that much more important to us due to their sustainability and accessibility.
Moonwort is often an indicator of disturbed soil, happily thriving where grazing and concurrent erosion has stripped away most plants. They help to heal the ground by preventing more dirt from being washed away and by providing essential nutrients to the often starved topsoil. They are stubborn and strong willed, often growing in the harsh light of direct sun without any signs of wilting or being burned. As long as they occasionally get some water to cool their roots, they’re happy just about anywhere. While many people consider them to be weeds, I feel a rush of gratitude every time I see a colony of Artemisias staking down the sand and providing a welcome surge of green in an otherwise barren landscape. They survive floods, droughts, grazing and even pavement in many cases, providing a powerful role model for us humans trying to adapt and heal in an increasingly unsure and changeable era.
What many people simply call sage, is actually our moonworts, who have been known for as long as people have used plants as an herb of prayer. Twisted into tight bundles and dried, they are commonly burned as a fragrant smudge during ceremony, prayer, the sweat lodge and other sacred uses. They clear the air and the mind with amazing efficiency and Wolf and I often sprinkle a pinch of crushed dried leaves on the woodstove during the day to take advantage of their refreshing effect. I love these plants for their tenacious, healing touch on the land and on us humans. I don’t leave home without a fresh sprig tucked into my pocket or a bottle of the tincture in my bag.
Often thought of as a dream herb, it can certainly provoke vivid (and sometimes disturbing) nights, but they are equally skilled at waking us up by providing a bitter tasting dose of medicine that both enlivens and relaxes the nervous system. I consider them to be one of our most important indigenous herbal remedies. For the gut, for the liver, for the nervous system, for wounds and damaged muscles and beyond. When I feel depressed or down, I chew a pinch of the flowers or leaves and the strong, bracing taste brings me back into myself and leaves me more grounded than ever. I’ve been working with moonwort for years, and I still feel as if I have barely skimmed the surface of its capacity for healing.
If you’d like to read more about the specifics of healing with this powerful and prolific plant, check out the Artemisia entry on The Medicine Woman Tradition site or search for Artemisia on the Medicine Woman’s Roots Herbal blog.
Photography and Artwork (c) 2009 Jesse Wolf Hardin & Kiva Rose