Common Names: Moonwort, Western Mugwort, Estafiate
Botanical Name: Artemisia ludoviciana and allied spp.
Taste: Bitter, aromatic, and sometimes slightly sweet
Energetics: Cool/Warm, dry
Actions: carminative, hepatoprotective, relaxant nervine, antimicrobial, hepatic relaxant, antispasmodic, emmenagogue
Moonwort, while frequently overlooked, is nonetheless a powerful herb. A trickster plant taking many forms, those new to this shapeshifting desert native should forgive themselves any confusion in its identification. One of the first to come back in the Spring, it pushes up fat, feathery green leaves that provide welcome change to a landscape of predominantly cacti and yucca. As it matures, it grows into a lanky, silver-leafed shrub that’s almost lost among the bright flowers of May. It begins flowering around June, bearing inconspicuous yellow-green flowers on slim stalks. As Summer comes to its end, Moonwort begins to stoop, flower-heads often bent nearly to the ground. By this time, the plant has taken on an uneven, waifish appearance and its leaves have mostly changed from several pronged hands to single pointed lances. If not watched closely, it can be hard to tell these three stages as the same herb. Yet once we get to know this sometimes elegant, sometimes ragged little plant, we’ll always recognize our Grandmother Sage.
Largely ignored by modern herbalists, Moonwort (especially the wild, non-imported spp.) has long been a favorite among native peoples, gypsy healers, curanderas, yerberas and old-time “root doctors” for its broad range of uses and dependable availability. Its effects include the reproductive, digestive, urinary and and nervous systems. A stubborn emblem of folk medicine in the West, Moonwort’s shimmering silver-green foliage persists under the hot New Mexico summer sun long after all other greenery has withered and crisped. Cooling and bitter, this plant is rich in vitamins and minerals including vitamin B complex, necessary for a healthy nervous system and emotional stability, and also contains copious amounts of vitamin C, vitamin A, calcium, potassium, phosphorous and iron. It’s closely related to the ubiquitous Sagebrush as well as the infamous Wormwood, whose potent leaves were used to give Absinthe its characteristic deep green color.
A plant with hundreds of names, I’ve used Moonwort because of my personal experiences with the herb, its silver color and its traditional association with dreaming and the moon. A common Southwestern name, Estafiate is probably a Spanish corruption of the Aztec Iztáuhyatl, which translates to some approximation of: silver, fragrant plant of water. By “of water,” the Aztecs meant that this plant cured what they thought of as illnesses caused by too much water in the body such as epilepsy, leprosy and gout. It is also sometimes referred to in Spanish as Ajenjo, Romerrillo, Istafiate and Altamisa, its many names evidence of its renown in both Mexico and the Southwest. Well used and beloved among the Mayan, they call it Zizm and have their own cornucopia of uses for its leaves, flowers and root. It’s also known as Silver Sage, little Sagebrush, Prairie Sagewort and Western Mugwort– “plant for the mug”– a reference to its historical use in Europe as a flavoring in beer prior to the popularity of hops. Moonwort’s latin name Artemisia identifies it as an herb traditionally associated with the greek moon goddess, Artemis. The patroness of all things wild and free, it’s said she gave the plant her own name in thanks for the healing it provided her and the wild creatures in her care.
A plant traditionally associated with dreaming and magic by Europeans and indigenous Americans alike, a crown of its flowering tops was at one time worn by maidens on Midsummer’s Eve to call the fairies to their Solstice celebrations. Even now, it is quite common for small pillows to be stuffed with Moonwort to encourage vivid dreams. Held sacred since ancient times, it is burned as a pungent smudge or ceremonial smoke and is often used in the sweat lodge to purify and heal.
Moonwort is perhaps my personal favorite of the bitters, its aromatic intensity teaming up with a profoundly bitter taste for an effect on the gut that is both protective and stimulating. Especially good for when the digestive juices dry up due to stress and the belly shuts down, leaving all your food fermenting and churning in your gut. Also very useful for those with hepatitis and other manifestations of hot liveredness (yes, I made that word up) or gallbladder congestion that manifests as an inability to digest food, bloating, looking a bit greenish yellow around the gills and a frontal headache.
Most of us know bitters stimulate the digestion, increasing gastric juices to assist in the breaking down of food process. And aromatic bitters such as the Artemisias excel at not only stimulating digestion but moving along stuck energy, fluids, waste materials and other stagnant elements. Because the intensity of bitterness tends to vary from spp to spp., it’s useful to keep in mind that the more bitter the plant, the stronger a digestive stimulant it will be and the more strongly aromatic the plant the more active an energy mover it will be.
Moonwort in particular also has a protective and cooling effect upon the gut and liver which can be useful for that evil, constipated green in the face kind of malaise that plagues travelers. This common ailment is especially troublesome for those tense from airplanes, fast cars and other unnatural circumstances. I don’t know how many times guests have asked me for laxatives or something to just help things get moving. But then they don’t really want laxatives because lord only knows when it’s going to take effect. The simple answer for many people lies in the sweet simplicity of a good bitters formula. Gets the process going, without overstimulating peristalsis. And Moongwort specifically, is excellent for decongesting a backed up, nervous liver that just sits and twitches rather than flowing with enzymes and bile. It’ll help get rid of that frontal headache and pukey feeling you’ve had for two days, and if you take it before and after meals it’ll also help move the food right along.
As a side benefit, the Artemisias are also great at taking care of weird stomach bugs, diarrhea and the discomfort caused by unfamiliar water bacteria. I always always carry a bottle of Western Mugwort tincture with me whenever I leave the Canyon, it keeps my oversensitive belly from becoming a dysfunctional basket-case.
Start with a third of a dropperful before meals and bed and work you way up or down from there. Better to take small doses frequently than large doses less often.
Moonwort is broadly antibacterial against many unpleasant little microbes, including most fungus and some viruses (both Herpes I and II). It’s also very noticeably anti-inflammatory, and topical use can penetrate all the way through to muscles, tendons, ligaments and so on. I’ve used it many times on various kinds of injuries, pulled muscles (best with Goldenrod), insect stings (best with Plantain, Yarrow or Peach), contusions (nice with Cottonwood), cuts, infections, nerve pain (with Larrea and/or Sweet Clover) and especially in anything itchy and irritated like contact dermatitis and poison ivy (use the diluted tincture or a fomentation, not the oil). It’s absolutely my first choice for anyone who thinks they’ve just gotten into some poison ivy. Wash the area well first, then douse well with diluted tincture (or vinegar) or a strong tea, this can also be used in combination with Grindelia (failing that, Yarrow will work well too).
Just as when taken internally, Moonwort has a talent for moving energy which also means that it helps allay pain, quicken recovery time and prevent pooling of blood (bruising) or energy that could result in chronic pain from a poorly healed injury. It’s incredibly multi-purpose and combines well with many other herbs. I don’t see it that often in salves, but it’s a wonderful choice for any all-purpose salve. It’s also my most common spit poultice for nearly anything, not simply because it’s so amazingly effective but also because it’s everywhere here. In fact, it may be the single most common plant in the canyon.
For some women, the infused oil also makes a great uterine massage oil for cramps, achiness and general uterine or ovarian discomfort with tightness or cramping. This plant has a certain affinity for the reproductive system, and can sometimes even help focus and center labor pains when rubbed over the womb area.
A client hurt her foot and damaged the muscles in the center of the instep. The injury hurt bad enough to cause a slight limp and even after a week or so didn’t really improve. I suggested she soak it in a strong infusion of Moonwort several times a day. Two days of this and the foot was fifty percent better, so of course she promptly stopped doing it, thinking it would finish up on it’s own. But week later her foot hadn’t healed any further at all. When she resumed the soaks, the foot recovered completely. I have repeated this treatment about a dozen times now on mild to moderate muscle injuries or strains with great results. If the damage is deeper or more severe, Goldenrod (Solidago spp.) and Cottonwood may be added for better results.
Preparations: Fresh plant tincture or vinegar at any stage, more aromatic in spring and more bitter after and during flowering. Dried flowering tops or young leaves make a good tea or standard infusion. The volatile oil content drops dramatically during flowering, and that may be desirable for tincture use in some cases, but I don’t find it ideal for infused oil at all. So usually I make oil from fresh smelly green bits in mid spring, and then I make oil from flowering tops later in the summer. Then I combine the oils to use in my favorites salves, liniments and massage oils. It seems to work extra nice, and has a certain rich scent you can’t get from either on their own.
Dosage: A few drops to a few dropperfuls of tincture depending on the situation, less for nervine properties in sensitive people and more for more physiologically based digestive issues. Tea by the cup as needed, it is very bitter though and it can be difficult to get anyone to drink it. The vinegar (or infused oil) may be used in foods (salad dressings are good) to taste.
Cautions and Contradictions: Has the tendency to cause vivid dreaming and better dream recall, but there are no promises your dreams will be pleasant or worth remembering. Use with caution in individuals with a history of nightmares or insomnia due to fear or trauma. Generally a safe and gentle herb but due to emmenagogue actions probably should not be used internally during pregnancy despite traditional use as a uterine protectant during the early stage of pregnancy.