Names can be misleading, or even belittle the bearer. Referring to different plants, the unflattering “stinkweed” knocks an herb more salubrious than cannabis, with qualities just as intriguing. The northern herbalist’s go-to for countless complaints, it would make Dr. Oz swoon.
Also called “caribou leaves,” “wild sage,” sargiġruaq, cheye’uk, or “Aleutian mugwort,” three Artemisia or “wormwood” species are the Eskimo and Athabaskan equivalents of chicken soup or udder-warm milk.
This cure-all from the sunflower family smells much better than its name suggests. People wipe their hands on the fragrant sprigs to cover butchered-walrus or gutted-fish smells, and stuff crushed ones inside socks or rubber boots to prevent athlete’s foot and mask malodors. Aromatic oils released from wet foliage placed on heated rocks mentholate sweat bath interiors and cut the steam’s sting. They spice up herbal smoking mixtures, Native tobacco substitutes. Leaves burned in smudge pots or rubbed onto skin repel mosquitoes and gnats. Smoldering stinkweed’s acrid punch keeps flies off meat and fish-drying racks.
The list of medical applications reads like a Gilded Age snake-oil ad. Infusions are sipped daily as a tonic. Soaked-leaf poultices soothe and purify after a loved one’s death or during equally taxing times. It stops bleeding, disinfects wounds, and alleviates skin rashes and arthritis, fevers and gum disease, muscle and headaches, bruises and sprains. It clears up congestions and asthma, fights colds and coughs—packed onto a person’s chest it became Vicks VapoRub, but sourced locally. It is said to ease pregnancy and addiction recovery, yields eye and body washes, sore-throat gargles, and sometimes nutrients: raw, peeled shoots, dipped into seal oil, are edible, if rather bitter. It rids guts of intestinal worms. Ingested in large doses or over long periods, however, it’s poisonous, causing paralysis, kidney failure, erratic breathing, numbness of arms or legs, or delirium.
Mary Jane Litchard, a Nome Inupiaq healer, believes midsummer sunlight imbues plants with a special energy. Dried, they are storable for a year without losing potency. The children of the Point Hope gardener Shirley Ipalook, who prepares a stinkweed cleansing tea, “can just feel it working in their body…like a tingling.” Herbal treatments, often practiced by individuals for decades, were passed on along family lines. As in the Old World, herbalists mostly are women, their societies’ traditional foragers. Alaskan elders remember stinkweed helping measles and tuberculosis patients. Elmer Goodwin’s Inupiaq grandmother had a remedy for everything. She taught him to combat headaches by putting stinkweed leaves under his tongue, like “you see cowboys in the movies doing snuff.” And “It’s pretty close to Tylenol.”
Southcentral’s Dena’ina Athabaskans and others flogging themselves with wormwood switches while taking a sweat can taste the herb then, a hint at the active ingredients’ easy absorption into the bloodstream, which has been widely documented.
Though few species have been analyzed thoroughly for pharmacological merits, some, like Tilesius’ wormwood (Artemisia tilesii), contain a restorative substance resembling codeine, which accounts for the plant’s analgesic effects. Artemisia’s chemical cocktail boasts nine essential oils extracted by steam distillation, one of which—absinthin—as a mild narcotic affects the brain region that processes pain and anxiety. Artemisinin has been shown to target certain cancer cells and malaria. Absinthe, a famous fin-de-siècle wormwood bitter, improved digestion by increasing liver and gall bladder secretions. Inducing a dreamy state in the drinker, it spurred artistic creativity and wanton lying about and, like opium, was quickly banned. Stinkweed’s current reputation exceeds Native circles. It is made into incense and into sprays to foil insects invading organic gardens. Tilesius’ wormwood, the Yup’ik caiggluk, loves disturbed soils; cultivars planted on toxic mine spoils assist reclamation and, elsewhere, erosion control.
Herbalists including Mary Jane Litchard and Colleen Yaari Walker from St. Lawrence Island, who works with the Alaska Native Heritage Center, sell teas and salves at local events or online. Walker only harvests leaves and stems, preferably in the fall when they start turning brown—she thinks they are most potent then. And “We don’t touch the roots,” out of respect for the plants, “otherwise you’ll kill them all.”
Where drugstores are rare and links to the past strong, herb remedies keep supplementing modern pharmaceuticals. “Today, if you are out camping and do not have modern medicine, or your medicine is not working, use the stinkweed,” Golovin’s Florence Willoya says. But many people no longer trust in that old-time prescription: “They would rather go to a doctor…” Asthma inhalers’ nebulized albuterol, for instance, largely replaced the burning of stinkweed on embers to calm wheezing coughs. According to Willoya, younger generations disregard the miracle weed, resorting to it only when other medications fail. Unfazed, Julia Brown of Kongiganak administers wormwood to her children and grandchildren. Because she wants them to learn, she insists. “Even if they do not like the taste, they consume it.”