When I try to explain my job as a forager it typically conjures up images of strolling through the woods with a wicker basket collecting fragrant leaves and flowers. But the role usually looks more like a cross between a lumberjack and a cowboy, using a chainsaw to collect boughs from bushes and trees, and sleeping in the dirt next to a campfire. The process for collecting mugwort (Artemisia douglasiana), however, is much closer to what folks imagine. On our recent harvest our team was crawling through the brush in the warm hills east of the Salinas Valley plucking verdant stalks of mugwort by hand and bundling them into great spicy armfuls. We knelt in the shade of the chaparral as we labored, surrounded by buzzing insects hard at work pollinating the multitude of wildflowers. There the mugwort grows in abundance in the disturbed loose soil on the shaded edges of the dirt farm roads that are carved into the steep and otherwise impassable hills.
We pluck the mugwort by breaking the stems at the base with a quick twist of the wrist to leave the root undamaged.
While the act of picking the mugwort is very peaceful, it’s not without its dangers. The brush is thick with poison oak which carries oils on its surface that will leave the unwary with a painful, itchy rash that can last weeks after they brush by the plant. The poison oak seems to almost preferentially grow interwoven with the mugwort, as if it’s guarding it. In fact, the most prolific field of mugwort in this area is hidden from the road in a sea of poison oak bushes that tower overhead. We only discovered it from a distance by identifying a thick cluster of the tall dry stalks that still remain in the center of each mugwort plant, left over from last year’s bloom. To reach this epicenter we had to roll down our sleeves, put up our hoods, tie bandanas across our faces, and stoop through narrow tunnels worn by deer and smaller game through the labyrinth of poison oak, knowing that there was no real way to avoid the hazard.
Our anxiety was compounded by the thriving population of Western Rattlesnakes (Crotalus viridis) that steward that land. Pablo found a young one curled in a drainage ditch along the road immediately upon our arrival. From a bush, another rattled at Austin, one of our harvesters, as he was reaching for a clump of mugwort. We found two more sheltering in a wide hole just waiting to be stepped on. The snakes made sure that we knew that we were the guests on their land, and so we stepped and collected with care and humility.
With the clawing coarse brush too thick to allow passage, the toxic plants and venomous animals, and the baking sun, the landscape in these hills can feel hostile. But intermixed in the brush is such a variety of beautiful fragrant foliage, with the sweet smells of Hummingbird Sage (Salvia spathacea) and California Sagebrush (Artemisia californica) thick in the air along with the mugwort. The tension in this place was alleviated by the rich green agricultural quilt of vineyards and fields of vegetables filling the nearby Salinas Valley. Even while sweating, crouched in the dry scratchy chaparral, we could almost feel that great irrigated expanse of growing food stretched behind us as our backdrop.
Like most of the places where Juniper Ridge harvests, we’ve been working on this land for years in partnership with the landowners who operate an array of vineyards and citrus orchards. We have developed a relationship with this place, the land, and the plants that grow on it. We’ve watched the mugwort grow back each year, rising around the stalks of last year’s bloom. It grows fast and strong in great bushes as winter eases and the days start to grow longer. When we come to harvest in May the mugwort stretches tall and boisterous, with noble posture and expressive leaves, deeply lobed like fingers.
We pluck the mugwort by breaking the stems at the base with a quick twist of the wrist to leave the root undamaged. By handling the plant we become coated in its scent, and the smell is mysterious. It smells of the dark secrets of spring, sweet and bitter, very alive, and yet somehow abstract as a dream. I have been picking mugwort since I was a child, so that smell is rooted in memories of my first moments exploring the woods alone. After a full day of collecting in the hot sun, we set up camp beside the ruins of an old house that was built on the line that divides the cultivated fields below from the wild uncurated land that stretches over the ridge above. We started our campfire just as the sun was setting and watched as the fading light revealed the distant towns glowing on the valley floor and the stars shimmering above mountains to the east. After sharing a salad of foraged greens, a bottle of whisky, and our thoughts about UFOs, we settled into sleep there under the oak trees, at the edge of human thought, serenaded by lonesome-sounding cows.
The following day, as we drove away from that quiet place with our trailer full of mugwort, I was already imagining what our workshop would smell like as we processed the plants through our still. I was envisioning what beautiful things we would get to make from this harvest, and I was already looking forward to next May when we’ll get to bask in this wonderful landscape again.
Simon Hill, Juniper Ridge Production Manager