Here’s a herb you might not think about too often: tansy, Tanacetum vulgare. No, I don’t think about it terribly often, either. I have some in the garden, of course, but I don’t use it much. Mainly it’s there to be decorative with its lovely ferny leaves, and the promise of bright buttony yellow flowers – although it didn’t produce any of those last summer, possibly because it was in too small a pot and didn’t have enough room to do its full thing. Also, caterpillars kept eating it. I transplanted it to a larger pot in a sunnier spot and it’s thriving now. See, here it is:
The cutting I took at the time is also doing well, it seems to be one of those plants that is eager to grow just about anywhere. ‘Just put one root into the most difficult spot in your garden, the spot where nothing will grow, and watch it thrive’ says Dorothy Hall in The Book of Herbs.
Tansy used to be eaten in the spring, the leaves being a bitter tonic; made into cakes called ‘tansies’ which according to Mrs Grieve were absolutely chock full of eggs and sugar, so I’m not 100% sure how therapeutic those would have been, but I bet they tasted interesting. The scent of tansy is camphoraceous and strong and the smell will reputedly repel many varieties of insect and pest; crush the leaves to release the volatile oils. The flowers and leaves can also be used to produce yellow (and sis boy also green) dye.
It’s not a herb to be used internally in quantity, although I’m sure the taste alone would ensure that anyway; in small doses it is a useful emmenagogue to help with painful periods. In less cautious, more heroic days tansy was often given to help expel worms, and it is still a useful treatment, but should not be used for more than a couple of weeks. Mrs Grieve reports that it is useful for ‘hysteria’, that interesting and loaded term: to me, it seems that it would be the bitterness that makes tansy suitable for calming down someone in hysterics, the bitter flavour being the herbal equivalent of a slap in the face, putting the sympathetic nervous system back in its place and giving the parasympathetic the opportunity to take charge.
I have also read somewhere (of course, now I can’t find the reference) that tansy has a strong connection to the Divine Feminine, embodied in Christian times as the Virgin Mary, but dating from much earlier: this ties in with the concept of tansy as a remedy for hysteria, and its use as an emmenagogue – some kind of deep connection with the womb, which I think it would worthwhile to explore further.
Do you have tansy in your garden, have you ever crafted with it or explored its uses? I’d love to hear!