A History of Western Artemisias

“Munmuním dibospem, wedadom kaenkesi.” – Farrell Cunningham (yatem) [1]


The thunder was behind me, catching up.  All afternoon the stormcloud assembled itself over the dusty red hills of southwestern Wyoming.  I’d felt it passing rumbles over the highway, and snuck looks through rock clefts in the uneven country to the west.  Past the penitentiary and into the open desert, the storm and I met.  Waves of sweet black water and gusts to calm the highway for a time.  On dark wings latticed with sinewy lightning the storm parted and turned northwards, bound in its way on a schedule unknown to me.  Fresh droplets flashed in the red last light of day.  The red earth heaved underfoot, suddenly soft, the desert varnish exhaling softly over stones.  Everywhere an invisible wind held the desert together- the wind of peace after struggle in the downpour, the wind of new life from old wood: the heady, never-to-be-forgotten smell of sagebrush after the rain.

Sagebrush, our sacred name for which is Artemisia tridentatum (three-toothed herb of Artemis, feminine spirit of wilderness, beasts, and prowess in woodcraft) has been the backdrop of the West ever since the glaciers receded.  Related to more familiar garden herbs like wormwood (A. absinthium) and tarragon (A. dracunculus) sagebrush shares many of the same properties as its fellow Artemisias.  Like them, it thrives in poor soils and steady sunlight, but being a desert plant it prefers dry air and withers quickly if the weather turns still and humid.  All Artemisias are effective vermifuges (hence the name ‘wormwood’) as their strong aroma would suggest.  That distinctive sharp-sweet odor indicates the presence of potent turpenoids, a class of chemical compounds that have a deterrent effect on browsing insects and mammals.  The flavor of Artemisia is bitter, but these bitter turpenoids convey some of the more potent, easily accessible medicine provided by the plant community.  In small amounts, the toxic turpenoid compounds can drive worms from the guts, malarial plasmids from the blood, and ill favor from a dwelling.  Many times traveling in the desert scrub I have used a spring of sagebrush to sweeten the water from a low seep or fouled well.  I credit that plant with my good health even in country of scarce and dubious water.  Artemisia is a purifying genus, for bodies and other things besides.

The neurochemical effects of Artemisias are well documented.  Mugwort (A. vulgaris, called ‘mug’ for its early use as a preservative flavoring in beer as hops are today) has a long and storied history as an herb for sleep and dreaming.  In addition to its pronounced soporific effect, mugwort is said to enhance one’s dreams by one stage, as follows:  If you cannot recall your dreams, mugwort will improve your dream memory.  If you remember your dreams, the plant makes them more vivid.  If you already dream vividly (or have taken much mugwort) it can improve lucid awareness within the dreaming state.  If lucid dreaming has been mastered, perceptions even more unusual than the already strange constructions of dreams may occur- in particular one gains an altogether different perspective on the passage of time than is evident in the waking world.  Speaking as one with a vivid dream-life to begin with, and with some history of experiment and relationship with the plant, I can attest to the veracity of these claims.

My own interest in the house of Artemesia began with a species I do not know the English or Latin for.  The Maidu name is munmuním sawi[2], and as this name comes from the limited native range of the plant itself, and was the name the plant was introduced to me bearing, it seemed the best to use- at least in that place.  Now I rather wish I learned the Latin name, so that I might gain a starting point to understand how that plant is related to others in its genus- so do my own people reckon plant lineages.  Many Maidu cultural practices changed when the Spanish came into the home country of munmuním.  While the Spanish were not as aggressive as the later wave of Anglo-American invaders, they brought plagues, bibles, and strange practices with them.  Maidu culture was far from static before the arrival of Europeans, but much changed and much was suppressed and forgotten even at the outset of the invasion.  From the Spanish the Maidu got a word for ‘work’ (tawal, from the Spanish trabajar, a concept that had been alien before the aliens arrived) and the practice of drinking leaves steeped in hot water (the word for which is ti’i).  I do not know how people prepared munmuním sawi in the days before steeping was common, but some indication may be given by alternative practices, and the use of other Artemisias elsewhere on the continent.

In Gallup, New Mexico, multicultural border town on the doorsteps of the Navajo Nation, Zuniland, and Hopiland, most public events open with a few words said over sprigs of fresh sagebrush.  Diné doctors do a good business blessing civic association meetings in that town.  During a coffee break at one of these events, I asked a doctor about it.  Back East and among Anglos in Calfornia, I explained, the times an event is blessed with an aromatic plant (usually white sage, Salvia -, with some vague connection to “Lakota” traditions) people burn great bundles of the stuff called, in an innocently derogatory way, “smudge sticks”.  Here in Gallup, each participant is given a single small leaf to hold- no more than a sprig is spent on an auditorium.  The doctor explained that the medicine exists within the living plant, and may to a lesser effect be referred to through a dead part of the same plant.  The medicinal effect of the sagebrush is not in the chemical action of the volatile turpenoids, but in the presence and actions of the tangible spirit of the plant.  That spirit must be at least approached in a good way before the plant can be used reliably in a medicinal fashion (although sagebrushes do have a reputation for being generous with their gifts).  For that reason, only the necessary quantity of material is gathered from the living body of the plant, and that done in the proper fashion by the one conducting the medical procedure, or their trusted confederate.  Sometimes sagebrush might be burned, as this frames a different set of actions for the spirits of the humans and the spirits of the plants in question, but for the purposes of most civic association meetings, that procedure is not necessary.  Perhaps it’s different for white sage, but I would guess that the medicinal effect produced when an aromatic plant is invoked probably relies on a similar sort of spirit negotiation, no matter the species.

The most potent effects I’ve experienced from munmuní and mugwort have been from placing a sprig under my pillow.  To those who doubt the efficacy of herbal medicine, I have little to say other than enjoy your wine, pot, and poison ivy, and pay closer attention to things.  For those aware that herbs affect the body, but are literal in their chemical understanding, I recommend taking a cup of mild mugwort tea, sweetened with honey and milk to cut the bitterness, before bedtime every night for a week.  And in addition, place a sprig of the fresh herb under the pillow for “aromatherapy”.  For folks with an adventurous interest in experimental pharmacology, I would mention that the leaves can be dried and cured to make a superior smoke.  Some find the effect more potent than Cannabis, though it is also more fleeting.  Tea and smoke have a similar effect on dreams, but the tea results in a stronger memory of them.  For the rest of y’all, find a growing plant.  Bring it something it might like.  If you don’t know what that might be, bring tobacco- for some reason most everybody on this continent seems to like those leaves.  Ask permission, and be prepared to go home empty-handed if it doesn’t ‘feel’ right.  Cut the sprigs that seem proper to cut, using sharp shears so as not to strip the bark or bruise the cambium.  Take only what you need, or what the plant indicates should be removed to refresh growth.  Leaves can be used fresh, dried for tea, or cured for smoking.  I would be reluctant to place anything other than a freshly picked sprig under my own pillow.

At the time I was introduced to munmuní I was working my first real teaching job at a residential high school in the California Sierra.  Without thinking of the inevitable consequences, I enthusiastically shared all my recently acquired herb lore with my students.  “Hey kids, this plant will give you wild dreams!  You can put some under your pillow, or make a tea of it, or smoke it…”  To their credit, the students who took an interest were thorough about it, cultivating a wild patch of the plant and gathering it in what seemed to me a good way.  When the first harvest was cured, I learned about it in a staff meeting called at the frantic insistence of a school employee concerned about the clouds of pungent smoke rolling out of the windows of the boy’s dorm.  It was a good exercise in improvisation for me, talking down a room full of puritan religious educators and explaining that this close relative of Artemisia absinthium, the Green Fairy absinthe herself, had no psychotropic effects to speak of, no, none whatsoever, perish the thought!  As it happened, I had another purpose beyond saving my own hide in convincing my colleagues of the weed’s innocuousness.  One of the boys had been working to kick a fierce Cannabis habit, and the cold turkey atmosphere of the school had been weighing on his ability to concentrate on anything else.  The munmuním sawi helped to reduce the cravings, and eventually to dispel them altogether.  Until that treatment ran its course, I cautioned my students to take this as a lesson in discretion and in the uproar that certain plants may cause among innocent grown-ups.

In my home in the Blue Ridge Mountains, the year’s final mugwort harvest approaches.  The leaves are strongest before the plant goes to flower, but there is a quality to the insect-bit, half-dried leavings at the end of the season that cannot be matched.  I maintain a wormwood, trading the stunting effect it has on the surrounding vegetation for its deterrence of Japanese beetles from that part of the garden.  My efforts to transplant munmuní to this side of the continent met with failure some years ago.  Likewise my attempts to grow sagebrush, though a farmer friend two hollows down had some success with it.  If she is able to maintain that population of A. tridentatum a little longer, it may prove a useful refuge for the species.  Soils and weathers are changing in the West, and the time of the rain-fresh fields of aromatic grey-green foliage may be drawing to a close.  Fire comes, and cheatgrass comes after.  About that there is much more to be said.


[1] “When the munmuním is full-grown, we will celebrate.”

[2] Sawim can refer to any herbaceous plant with abundant greens, and more often to the greens themselves.  The suffix –m or –im may be left on, sometimes to clarify a plural, or casually left off.  Handom munmuním sawim ukoidom kasi, ‘I am going to gather munmuní greens,’ is more likely to be spoken, “Munmuní handom ukoikas’.”  This should help make sense of the different forms I use in the text. 

Ben Kessler