Elizabeth Blachrie Blackwell (1707-1758) was a Scottish botanical illustrator and the author of A Curious Herbal, published in 1737 and 1739. Blackwell was the first woman to have singularly published an herbal, an encyclopedia detailing the medicinal properties of plants.
This illustration of mugwort is one of 500 botanical species Blackwell painted from living specimens at the Chelsea Physic Garden, a garden developed to educate apothecaries on plant identification. Once a week for two years, Blackwell published four plates that she had drawn, engraved, and hand-coloured herself. Blackwell also engraved the text of the work, an unusual practice in botanical manuscripts. Traditionally the production of such an herbal would have employed three separate artists, but Blackwell completed all three tasks herself. The College of Physicians, when presented with Blackwell’s creation, issued a glowing endorsement. Previous herbals sorely lacked the comprehensiveness of Blackwell’s atlas of medicinal plants, and Blackwell enjoyed financial success from her work. The proceeds from her herbal liberated her husband from debtor’s prison.
Mugwort belongs to the genus Artemisia, as do common wormwood Artemisia absinthium, used to make absinthe, and medicinal sweet wormwood (Artemisia annua). On Mugwort’s appearance and virtues, Blackwell writes, “The Stalks grow about three Foot high; the Leaves are a deep Green above and hoary underneath, and the Flowers a purplish Yellow… The Leaves are chiefly used, especially against Distempery incident to the Female Sex, being of great service in promoting the menstrual Evacuations… Some Recommend this Plant as good to strengthen the Head & Nerves, & help hysteric Fits or Vapours.”