Accustomed to seeing this common plant around vacant buildings, roadsides, and ditches, many people consider mugwort a weed. But with its spicy aroma, the herb—also called "poor man's pepper"—has a wide range of uses in the kitchen.
Where to Find It
You can find mugwort anywhere the ground has been disturbed: along roads and hedges, in ditches and gardens, near construction sites, and alongside gravel pits. In grows in any place with nourishing soil and sufficient sunlight, but fares best in dry, somewhat sandy soil.
Salt marshes, streams, towns, hedges, roadsides, grasslands.
When to Find It
You can pick mugwort from May until October.
May, June, July, August, September, October.
How to Spot It
Mugwort normally grows between 60 cm and 1.5 meters high, but a strong plant can reach two meters. It has a rough, reddish-brown stem with many side shoots. Its leaves, which are dark green and shiny on the surface and grayish-green underneath, are deeply notched and similar in shape to seaweed. At the top of the stem, 2-3mm clusters of greyish-brown flowers look like small buds.
How to Pick It
Flower buds cluster along the top of the mugwort—typically a sprig between 20 and 30 cm—and this is the most interesting part for foragers. The plant is most flavorful and aromatic when the buds are ripe instead of green, and have dried out a bit. A knife or pruning shears will help cut through the tough stem. Since mugwort is considered a weed, feel free to pick as much as you want. The plant’s pollen can aggravate allergies, but cooking it neutralizes the allergens.
On the palate
Mugwort tastes fragrantly of pepper and cumin, with notes of rosemary, thyme, and heather. Its flowers are tough; they dry out the tongue and tickle the roof of the mouth. The leaves have an enjoyable, gummy texture.
Mugwort has an aromatic scent of rosemary and hay.
Mugwort is best cooked. It is especially good in braised and simmered dishes, where it adds flavor and aroma. De-stemmed, its small flower buds can be used in baking, where they will impart a rosemary flavor. Mugwort loses its own flavor when fried, but can be nicely used in a marinade for other fried foods. Dried, it makes a fine seasoning. The flower buds can be used in spiced schnapps.
Mugwort can be used in the same way you would aromatic herbs like thyme or rosemary. Its flavors of pepper, cumin, and rosemary make it especially well-suited to hearty, spicy recipes. Added to a bearnaise essence, for example, it will help balance the rich, acidic, and spicy notes. It works well in cuisines that employ a lot of spices such as Middle Eastern or Chinese, and is especially good with potatoes, pork, lamb, poultry, and venison. Try braising fatty pieces of meat like pork neck with mugwort. Sweet fruits such as apples and plums bring out its aromas.
Mugwort can be dried and kept in a glass jar like a spice. Over time, its flavor will fade slightly, but it will still keep. The fresh herb should be stored in a dark, dry place.
No equivalent substitutions.
Risk of misidentifying the plant
Mugwort may be mistaken for sea wormwood and absinthe, which are also edible. It may also be confused with other types of wormwood that are typically too bitter to eat.