I am very pro-choice when it comes to plants. However, I do draw the line at invasive species.   

Mugwort — which hails from Europe, Asia and Africa — has recently infiltrated my neighborhood. It borders the roadside edge of my property and it is not invited nor welcome. This aggressive species likely came to my land in materials spread to maintain our dirt road and is rapidly spreading, even with my dedication to removing it.  

And perhaps losing the battle might be a sad, yet necessary failure. Mugwort, artemisia vulgaris, is one of more than 500 herbs recognized for their abortifacient qualities. It has long been known as a plant for woman’s health, being called mater herberum or “mother of herbs.”  

With a scientific name that comes from Artemis — the Greek goddess of the wilderness, nature, the moon and childbirth — mugwort’s reputation included its use as a remedy for women’s complaints, specifically menstrual pain and cramps. Mugwort is also revered as a helping herb to be partnered with other plants to facilitate herbal abortions.  

This is only one of its many qualities. The leaves and young shoots are said to be edible if bitter and, as a leafy green, mugwort has been used for food in many cultures. The “mug” in the name refers to its addition as a flavoring for drinks and for making beer. That fact may also explain a few other aliases, including felon herb and naughty man.  

Believed to cause vivid dreams, folks have experimented in the past with mugwort tea to encourage those dreams and promote a more “meditative state.” Due to the presence of thujone, a toxic compound more well known for its prevalence in the liquor absinthe, mugwort can be toxic in large amounts. A warning, to be sure.  

With this fatal flaw, the plant has been employed as a natural insect repellent. Other medicinal uses include treatment for intestinal worms and as a tobacco substitute, since it is rumored to curb nicotine addiction. Mugwort is even used in acupuncture practice locally with one healer advertising moxibustion, a heat therapy that includes burning the plant on the acupuncture needles or applying it to the skin.  

Mugwort is a latecomer to the Island. The Flora of Martha’s Vineyard, published in 1999, doesn’t list this portentous plant — though by 2012, Lynne Irons, author of the neighboring Vineyard Gardener column, was calling it a “migrant run rampant.”  A few years later, chef and farmer Chris Fischer wrote of feeding his pigs “mats of mugwort.”  

Even if it has become common on the Island, we are lucky to live in a state that won’t require us to use it as a last resort for private health matters. We don’t need to go back to a time when we only had herbs and little hope for our own self-determination. So whether you have mugwort on your property or not, if you are not outraged, you simply aren’t paying attention.   

Suzan Bellincampi is Islands director for Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown and the Nantucket Wildlife Sanctuaries. She is also the author of Martha’s Vineyard: A Field Guide to Island Nature and The Nature of Martha’s Vineyard.