An Ode to Mugwort-Enhanced Sleep
Most people where I live (on Lenape land in Queens) are familiar with mugwort, if they are familiar with it at all, as a weed that crops up where you least want it: in sidewalk cracks, on roadside shoulders, overtaking flower beds. Imported from Europe, it flourishes here, threatening in the woods near my house to crowd out native plants important for forest health. Some fellow allergy sufferers may be aware that it’s related to ragweed and can cause the same intense hay fever I dread in late summers. Luckily I didn’t know this in December 2019 when I wandered into the apothecary in the event space where I was attending a weekend retreat and randomly pulled a mugwort tincture off of a shelf. The bottle faced wrongside-out so that, once it was in my hand, I read the description first. It promised, in language I can’t remember, deeper, less anxious dreams. Also something about the divine feminine.
I was in a phase at the time of indulging seemingly random choices, and also sleeping poorly, rarely remembering what I’d dreamt, and often worrying what this meant for my imagination and my writing. The name mugwort sounded magical in itself. Hoping but not really believing that it would cure my sleep doldrums, I took the tincture home. I didn’t know then that people across the world and across time, from the Saxons to the Aztecs, and as legend has it even John the Baptist, have considered various species of mugwort sacred.
The variety now common to the northeastern United States, artemisia vulgaris, was used in traditional Chinese, Hindu, and European medicine for gastrointestinal and other ailments. Many herbalists nowadays consider it to be a lucid dreaming helper, mildly psychoactive and good for anxiety. Over the two-plus years I have been consuming mugwort, it’s sorted out my dreams and my digestion, and predisposed me to trusting my intuition even more than I did that day in the apothecary.
At the time I started taking the tincture, I was finishing a book that was part memoir of reckoning with multigenerational family dysfunction and partly a history of and argument about the significance of ancestors more broadly, and I was also working my longtime job in legal publishing. I often had banal dreams about endlessly researching some arcane point for work, so that my nights and waking life blurred into indistinct and exhausting tedium.
Mugwort stopped this pattern. I begin to wake feeling more open to possibility, and more rested. One night early-on, I dreamed of being in my childhood home and finding an enormous and beautiful wing of it in what used to be the garage, a sort of gleaming cathedral with a library and many nooks stuffed with bright, beautiful tufted sofas. I dreamed of wandering in forests and entering underground lairs. Sometimes I still dreamed of tedious chores or assignments, but in a way that underscored some problem with how I was handling duties in my waking life.
Nowadays I usually drink mugwort as a tea, covered for at least five minutes while steeping. At times during the pandemic, I have forgotten to consume it and then started again. Immediately my richly symbolic dreams return.
My spiritual practices around my ancestors extended into my dream life when my Mississippi grandmother came to me in a dream not long after I finished the final draft of my book. In life we’d had a complicated relationship, in part because I was too blunt for her taste, not prone to euphemism or reflexive allegiance to family. I told her in the dream that I was sharing stories about our ancestors who’d enslaved Black people, that I was wrestling with those histories. Radiant and beaming, but also very much the Grandma I remembered, she said, in her emphatic, enthusiastic Delta accent, that she was glad I was throwing off an allegiance to this history. I woke with a jolt, with tears in my eyes.
I became so enamored of mugwort that began to fantasize about writing a story from the perspective of the plant itself. Then I started trying to imagine the Garden of Eden from the viewpoint of the forbidden tree. That’s how mugwort is. It doesn’t instill a deep sense of connection so much as it unearths one.
(Please do note that mugwort is not safe for pregnant people, and that some people are allergic.