Mugwort – an Abundant Medicinal and Culinary Herb


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Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris)
Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris)

Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris), also known as Common Wormwood is a very abundant plant in its growing range.  It grows in the Eastern US and Northwestern US.

Mugwort is adapted to grow in compact rocky soil where other plants might have a hard time.  Mugwort has a long history of use as a medicinal and culinary herb in Europe and Asia where it is native. Although Mugwort is an established culinary herb you should never take Mugwort if you are pregnant, scroll down to our ‘Cautions’ section for details.  There are a few other plants in the genus Artemisia that live in the US  including Western Mugwort (Artemisia ludoviciana) which grows throughout the entire US.  Western Mugwort and others may share some edible and medicinal properties as well as cautions with Mugwort.

Edibility and Culinary Use

Mugwort has a long history of culinary use, it has a unique musty herbal fragrance, the flavor is just as unique and slightly bitter.  It is often used dried as a spice for meats.  The leaves can be eaten fresh in salads, or cooked in soups.  Mugwort has a long history of use in beverages. Mugwort has been added to teas and alcoholic beverages.  The acoholic drink absinthe is made from Artemisia absinthium, a plant in the same genus as Mugwort which  is also referred to as Common Wormwood.  Mugwort was used prior to hops in the making of beer.

Health Benefits

Mugwort has a wide range of health benefits.  It is believed to help in digestion so is often eaten with fatty foods like meat as a dried spice.  It also is known to aid in a number of digestive tract issues such as diarrhea, cramps, vomiting, and constipation.  Mugwort root may help give energy, it is sometimes made into a tea for that purpose. Mugwort has a long history of assisting women with irregular periods and  in reducing menstrual cramp pain.  Mugwort also has a number of uses in the treatment of mood disorders such as anxiety, depression, insomnia, and irritability.  Some people find that Mugwort has dream enhancing properties, there is a long history of use for this purpose, it was taken as a tea or dried and smoked before going to bed.

Key ID Features

Cautions

Mugwort does contain some components that might be harmful under certain circumstances.  Women who are pregnant should never take mugwort, because it tightens the uterus and could potentially cause a miscarriage, especially early in pregnancy.  Over-consumption of Mugwort should be avoided by everyone because it could have some mild toxic effects if taken in large quantities

Conclusion

Mugwort is an abundant weed that many people have little appreciation for, but in reality it is a plant with a long history of use as a medicinal and culinary herb.  Early in my foraging days I never looked twice at Mugwort but now I nibble on it often and use it in teas and spices. With so many health benefits Mugowort is yet another plant that hides secrets to a healthy lifestyle.  Science would learn a lot from thoroughly researching the chemical components of this plant.

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Spruce – Surprisingly Edible Abundant Evergreen Tree


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Norway Spruce (Picea abies)
Norway Spruce (Picea abies). (Photo By: UnreifeKirsche / Wikimedia Commons)

Spruce Trees (Genus:Picea) are a very abundant tree across the globe, especially in northern areas.

In the united states a common non-native species is the Norway Spruce(Picea Abies), and two of our native American species are White Spruce(Picea glauca) and Colorado Spruce(Picea pungens).  Spruce Trees are a needled evergreen tree that range in mature height from only a few feet to over 100′.  The edibility of spruce trees is often unknown and their importance as a food source  often underestimated.   Spruce was a staple food for many Native American tribes.

Edibility and Culinary Use

Spruce has many similarities to Eastern White Pine.  I refer to these as hidden wild edibles because they are so large in size and common, but their edible components are not.  Spruce has no berries, or tubers, or large leaves, so why is it such and important edible plant?  Because it gives foragers something to harvest in the winter.  The needles are edible and most commonly used to make a hot tea. The tea has a surprisingly good flavor, it is bitter, resinous, and slightly sweet but most people end up adding additional sweetener. Don’t boil but steep the tea to retain it’s nutritional value.  Spruce also has edible inner bark, as unpleasant as this sounds a number of Native American tribes ate this inner bark throughout the winter to prevent starvation.  In fact all parts of the tree are non-toxic.  Native Americans were creative in their use of Spruce, eating any parts of the tree that they could prepare to be palatable including young green or reddish pine cones.  I have been eating the young cones, at first the taste was overwhelmingly strong and bitter, but I have been eating a little at a time, my taste buds have changed and now i enjoy and look forward to that time of year.  I also enjoy chewing on the new growth in the spring, it is not too resinous, and it is soft enough to chew.   The male pollen cones can be eaten in the spring, they have a mild taste and texture ranges from dense and moist to light and fluffy depending on what stage of development they are harvested in.

Health Benefits

Spruce and Pine have very high amounts of vitamin C.  That’s one of the primary reasons it’s so important in the Native American diet.  Spruce can be an effective medicinal plant acting especially well on the respiratory system. The reason you don’t boil the needle tea is because the vitamin C is sensitive to heat and may break down into other components.  It is a good idea to boil the water and pour it on top of the needles.

Key ID Features

Notice the non-flat pointed needles coming out of the branch in all directions
Norway Spruce (Picea abies) Notice the non-flat pointed needles coming out of the branch in all directions (Photo By: Greg Hume)

Way too often the word “pine” is used to refer to all needled evergreen trees or all conifers.  The fact is that Pines are a certain genus and Spruce is a different genus, there are a number of other genuses of needled evergreens.  Spruce are a little difficult to distinguish from Fir Trees but neither is toxic.  First of all, all Spruce are conifers, meaning that they produce cones, but not all conifers are Spruce. Pine, fir and others are also conifers. Spruce cones are very visible throughout the growing season but primarily in the fall and range in size from about 3″-6″ in length.  Young Spruce cones can be green or reddish.  The primary way to tell Spruce trees apart from Pines is that they lack fascicles bunching the  spruce needles together, spruce needles grow directly from the small branches.  The photo shows a close up of the spruce needles, and you will need to look really closely because firs and douglasfirs(not a true fir) have the same conical shape and look very similar. The following features of the spruce needles will distinguish spruce from other conifers: the needles are not flat, they are 3-dimensional and usually pretty stiff, the needles have a point at the end which is painfully sharp on some species like Colorado Spruce (Picea pungens), the spruce needles grow directly from the small new stems, they are not grouped together like pines and true cedars are,  the base of each spruce needle has a very small brown connection to the stem, needle colors range from bluish to dark green.

Cautions

The highly toxic Yew(Genus: Taxus) plant could potentially look like a spruce to the untrained eye and grows side by side in many environments, but in reality it is quite different and is not commonly mistaken for a spruce.  These  are some of the features of the yew plant that can distinguish it from spruce: Needles are flat and bendable with a dark top and a lighter colored bottom side, no cones present(yews produce  red fruit with a single seed), needles grow primarily laterally from the stem(concentrated on the sides of the stem, not top or bottom), mature height of a yew is around 20′ but usually they are less than 10′, overall shape of tree/shrub may or may not be conical naturally and is sometimes pruned into a conical shape. The yew is a common landscape shrub, so ask around and see if you can find one then learn its features. Make sure you are 100% possitive that you are not foraging from a yew thinking it is a spruce.

Colorado Spruce (Picea pungens) young female and mature male cones. also edible young shoots
Colorado Spruce (Picea pungens) young female and mature male cones, also edible young shoots (Photo By: Jrosenberry1)

Conclusion

Just learning to identify spruce trees was very interesting to me because many people don’t know the difference between spruce, pine, and fir.  When I found out about its edible and medicinal properties I started viewing the plant as a much more versatile wild edible.  I often wondered how Native Americans got their vitamin C. Many people believe vitamin C primarily comes from citrus fruits, and most Native Americans did not have citrus fruit. Spruce Tea is delicious and the needles can be harvested any time of year. The soft edible shoots, male and female cones are a great treat to nibble on in the spring.  As your taste buds slowly adjust you’ll enjoy this plant raw or cooked and realize how important it was for Native Americans.

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How Many People Die Foraging Plants and Mushrooms in The US Each Year?


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UPDATE: Newer Information is Available

Updated information can be found in our latest article reviewing statistics of foraging related deaths.

Article Summary

According to the AAPCC (American Association of Poison Control Centers) annual report(which only includes cases in their system): 1 person died from a poisonous mushroom and 2 people died from poisonous plants in 2010.   The numbers increased in 2011 and in 2012 they have on record that 7 people died from poisonous mushrooms and 2 people died from poisonous plants.  These numbers only include cases in their system which requires a call to one of their poison control centers.  Although this is often quoted as the actual number of people who died from plants and mushrooms it is likely higher based on the fact that not all cases of plant or mushroom poisoning in the united states are identified as such and reported to the AAPCC.

How much higher is the actual number from the recorded number? It is impossible to determine for sure. This article contains one way of estimating based on the accuracy of other categories that the AAPCC reports on.

The next article in this series will analyze the available data to determine which plants and mushrooms cause the most recorded deaths.  This article is currently in the process of being written, click HERE to be notified when it and other new articles get published on Eat The Planet.

What This Article Will Cover

The extremely toxic Amanita phalloides (Deathcap Mushroom) can cause death with only 1 byte
The extremely toxic Amanita phalloides (Deathcap Mushroom) can cause death with only one bite

The intent of this article is to explore the question: How many people die from foraging plants and mushrooms in the United States each year? This article also discusses how those figures compare to other causes of death in the United States such as: acute poisoning from pharmaceuticals and illicit drugs. This information should put into perspective any concerns people may have about foraging for wild edibles and medicinal herbs.

An Initial Review of The Recorded Data
We chose to feature data from the year 2010 because there seems to be a sufficient amount of data for that year to make good comparisons. It is worth noting that in 2012 the number of recorded fatalities according to AAPCC (American Association of Poison Control Centers) from plants and mushrooms were 3 times what they were in 2010. The summarized data for 2010,  2011 and 2012 can be seen by clicking HERE.

The  AAPCC (American Association of Poison Control Centers) issues a report annually that contains information on the outcome of all cases of poisoning that have gone through their system, but only cases that have gone through their system which requires a call to one of their poison control centers. Their system does not include all actual cases in the United States. It is impossible to determine the number of actual cases of poisoning from plants or mushrooms because no public source holds that information. We know that for other categories such as deaths from acute pharmaceutical poisoning in 2010 the AAPCC only has cases on about 2% of the estimated number of actual deaths which are presented on DrugWarFacts.org . Figure 1 shows the number of cases and their outcomes that have gone through the AAPCC system for 2010.

Summarized AAPCC information on poison cases in 2010
Figure 1: Summarized AAPCC information on poison cases in 2010

Best Estimate for Actual Instances of Death Due to Poisoning From Plants and Mushrooms Annually
The AAPCC information states that in total their system only recorded 3 deaths from plant and mushroom poisoning in 2010. That is probably not the total number of actual deaths from plants and mushrooms. It is only the number of cases in their system that lead to death, the number of actual cases would be somewhat higher. Since the AAPCC only contains about 2% of fatalities from acute pharmaceutical poisoning. We can assume that it contains a fraction of the actual fatalities from Plant and Mushroom Poisoning as well. It is possible that the AAPCC system is more likely to get contacted in the case of plants and mushrooms because other sources such as doctors and hospitals may not have as much expertise dealing specifically with plant and mushroom poisoning. So lets bump up the estimated percent of cases that the AAPCC recorded and assume that the AAPCC report contains 5% of the total number of actual instances of plant and mushroom poisoning in the United States. Figure 2 shows an estimate of the actual number of fatalities from plant and mushroom poisoning based on the assumption that the previous chart from AAPCC is only 5% of the actual numbers.

Figure 2: Estimate of actual number of deaths annually based on the assumption that the AAPCC data contained only 5% of the actual deaths
Figure 2: Estimate of number of deaths annually based on the assumption that the AAPCC data contained only 5% of the actual deaths

Figure 2 above shows estimated numbers around 60 deaths in 2010 from plant and mushroom poisoning. This is purely speculation and many people feel that the number is closer to the AAPCC’s number of less than 10 each year.  In 2012 the AAPCC report showed 3 times the numbers that it did in 2010(CLICK HERE to see these numbers), this is probably due to better reporting to the AAPCC but possibly it is due to more poisonings because of an increase in foraging. With all these variables in mind we come to the conclusion that there are somewhere between 10 and 60 total fatalities due to plant and mushroom poisoning annually in the United States. Exactly where the number lies is impossible to determine.  If the AAPCC is indeed recording close to 100% of all cases than it will be closer to 10, but if the AAPCC is only recording a fraction of the real number of cases like it is for many of its other categories then the number would be higher.

Comparison of Deaths From Other Causes
Wild edibles and medicinals are harvested primarily for those two reason: food, and medicine, but sometimes as recreational drugs. Now we will compare the number of deaths from plants and mushrooms to the number of deaths from acute poisoning from pharmaceuticals and illicit drugs. Figure 3 shows a comparison of numbers that fit within our estimated deaths due to plant and mushroom poisoning compared to round numbers of deaths from illicit drugs and pharmaceuticals annually which is posted on DrugWarFacts.org and similar numbers are confirmed by the CDC in other years.

Figure 3: Comparison of estimated number of deaths annually due to pharmaceuticals, Illicit drugs, plants, and mushrooms
Figure 3: Comparison of estimated number of deaths annually due to pharmaceuticals, Illicit drugs, plants, and mushrooms

Is Foraging for Wild Edibles Dangerous?
As the Figure above shows acute poisoning from pharmaceuticals is more than 400 times more likely than deaths from plants and mushrooms. A very important factor has not been discussed yet in this article and that is that nearly all the recorded deaths from plants and mushrooms are from species known to be lethal in even small doses.  All edible plants and mushrooms are visually distinguishable from poisonous ones if you know what to look for. Sometimes there are small nuances that distinguish them but the characteristics are there. Fatalities from plants and mushrooms can be lowered by educating people on proper identification.  Mankind has been safely foraging for plants and mushrooms since the beginning of our existence, so it’s clear that we have the ability to differentiate plant and mushroom species when we correctly learn what to look for, and spend time honing our identification skills. Is foraging for wild edibles dangerous? NO, not as long as your sure your eating a wild EDIBLE and not a POISONOUS look-a-like.

Which Species Cause the Most Deaths and Why?
The next article in this series will analyze the available data primarily from the AAPCC to determine which plants and mushrooms cause the most recorded deaths and which ones have the potential to.  This article is can be found HERE.


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