Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Mugging the Mugwort

Mugwort plants in blackberry patch

Some weeds are just misplaced flowers, and some are just plain impossible.

One of the impossible weeds at Meadow Glenn is mugwort (Artemisa vulgaris).

Some of mugwort’s common names range from the descriptive to truthful. 

“Chrysanthemum weed” is descriptive. Mugwort’s leaf shape and aroma somewhat resemble those of garden chrysanthemums. “Felon weed,” however, tells the real story. What this weed does to gardens is nothing short of criminal because once it’s established in a garden, it is next to impossible to remove or kill completely.

Mugwort was well established at the south end of our house when we moved here 14 years ago. Knowing nothing about the weed, I cut, hoed, dug, and pulled mugwort during the spring and summer months for several years. In an additional fit of ignorance, I planted a blackberry bed where I had just dug out mugwort. Now, years later I still fight mugwort in our blackberry bed every spring and summer. It’s the weed that just keeps growing.

Mugwort's 'persistent' underground stems
Weeds of the Northeast (1997 edition), the handy reference work by Uva, Neal, and DiTomaso, hints why my past battle plans have failed: “Rhizome fragments [underground stems] can be transported by cultivation or with infested balled and burlapped nursery stock, topsoil, or composted organic matter. … Its persistent rhizomes make mugwort difficult to control in perennial crops. It is also well adapted to mowing and cultivation and is relatively tolerant of most herbicides.”

In the past, every time I tried to dig or hoe mugwort, I broke up the weed’s underground stems or rhizomes. If a plant had four rhizomes and I broke each into three pieces, I likely ended up with 12 new plants.

That’s why a premium crop of mugwort grows in our blackberry patch. But enough is enough, and I’ve decided to get serious about eradicating this plant pest. Mugwort often survives selective, broadleaf herbicides such as 2,4-D. It’s time to use the ultimate weapon, glyphosate, a non-selective herbicide that kills most plants.

The University of Maryland Master Gardener Handbook explains that glyphosate “stops growth by interfering with amino acid synthesis. Growing plants slowly turn yellow and stop growing, and the entire plant eventually turns brown and dies. Glyphosate is quickly bound to organic matter and has no residual activity in the soil….”

Yes, I’m going to use glyphosate on the mugwort, but I’m not going to spray with abandon. One reason is that I don’t want to risk having the herbicide drift onto my blackberry plants. Another is that I try to use a minimal amount of pesticides of any sort.

Weeded bed awaits new mugwort sprouts
On Monday I took my Cape Cod weeder and uprooted all the mugwort I could in our blackberry patch. On the surface, the bed’s looking good now. But as I weeded, I could hear underground stems snapping, so I know that in a week or two, new mugwort plants will be sprouting from each of those fragments. I plan once a week to check for mugwort sprouts and then spray the emerging leaves with glyphosate.

After all these years of battling mugwort, will I finally win the battle in 2011?

That’s my plan.


  1. did it work for you?
    I am losing the battle over here. Linda

  2. Anonymous: Earlier this week I weeded our blackberry patch. I was pleasantly surprised that last year's glyphosate spray had greatly reduced the mugwort. I'd say the first application was 95% effective--and maybe the 5% survivors resulted from "application error"--that I missed spraying some plants. This year's crop was not deeply rooted, so there's the possibility they were a new generation from seed from nearby fields. I've uprooted them and will spray once more if new leaves emerge. Bottom line: mugwort is about eliminated from that bed.

  3. Glad I found your blog. I have mugwort issues. We just moved and I'm not sure if the owners planted the stuff on purpose or not. Not knowing what it was, I took about 2 hours to remove a huge root ball I came across when doing general "fix up" of the mulch bed early in the spring. Since then, it sprouted up full force! It's the most annoying weed I've come across. It took over my lilies. And the roots! Man, those are crazy big roots.

    Thanks for sharing your story.

  4. Hi Bob, I too battle with this miserable weed. I just finished spraying round-up on it, figuring to dig up and pull out what I can after the tops are all dead. I will definitely try glyphosate next. I despise this weed like no others! I have since my days working at a nursery back in the's the bane of all gardeners!!

  5. Oh wait! Just found that's what round-up is!! Silly me...hope it works, I'll try to stay on top of it going forward....

  6. When you learn something in the garden, Anonymous, consider it a great day! I suppose I didn't know that glyphosate was the generic name of Round-Up 10 years ago, but I do now. Now that patent rights have expired on the herbicide, you can buy the generic concentrate about half price of the name brand.

  7. I am relatively new to the Midwest after living most of my life in Oregon and North Carolina. While helping out a friend, I was baffled by the "mum-like" non-flowering plant that was virtually everywhere on the property. I kept waiting for it to flower. After awhile even I could see it was invasive, but no one even my fellow master gardener friends could identify it. Thank you, Ancient G.!! Now I know why I have failed to eradicate this through organic methods like newspaper with lots of "hot" organic matter on top. My friend has a "field" of this stuff and calls it her meadow. Any thoughts?

  8. Is there any alternative to Roundup which I am unwilling to risk?

  9. I've been fighting the mugwort for about 15 yrs so tired of digging hate to contaminate soil with chemicals but enough is enough thanks for the info.

  10. I'm so glad I found this post! I've been struggling with an invasion of mugwort but didn't even know what it was until today. I've spent years building up my soil, too, and am desperate to preserve it. The invasion is in one of my raised vegetable beds, and so I'd hate to have to use roundup in that bed since we'll be eating the food we grow there. Any other tips or experience would be welcome!

  11. Thank you for this information. I have been battling mugwort and oriental bittersweet in my flower beds for several years and was beginning to think there was no way to get rid of it. Every year there just seems to be more of it. I will try glyphosphate and hope to be able to reclaim my garden eventually.

  12. Building on Melanie's question - if I use glyphosphate on it, can I ever plant vegetables in that space?

    My yard guy said the old owner planted mums and they keep coming back - but I thought it odd that they never flowered. Now I know why. I am digging the everliving hell out of this stuff (I bought a hacksaw for some of the roots!) and hoping that helps.

  13. Plants with rhizomes should not disturbed below ground. When you pull, hoe, dig you create a hundred separate plants that will then need to be killed individually. Poison the plant without disturbing the roots will allow the poison to kill the entire plant. Easier said than done but mechanical methods just don't work with rhizomes.

  14. Your comment is certainly true about mugwort--every fragment left in the soil probably will grown into another plant. I don't like to use herbicides, but mugwort sometimes gets a spray of glyphostate here.

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