Bitter Buttons: Tansy and Its Uses Through History

Common Tansy (<em>T. vulgare</em>)
Image from Wildflowers Worth Knowing (1917)

The scent of tansy blows this way,
The aromatic tansy which
The housewives of an elder day
Planted in dooryard coign or niche.
—Donald Lines Jacobus “A Medley of Summer” (1914)

Certain plants our ancestors ate eagerly are now best left alone. Common tansy (Tanacetum vulgare) is one such plant. I often see this winsome member of the aster family growing along roads and in vacant lots. It greenish burgundy stalk stands some three or four feet tall and is adorned with clusters of canary yellow petal-less flowers. When crushed, its finely divided compound leaves smell of camphor and rosemary. It’s a lovely plant in its way — enough, anyway, to tempt me to take some of it home. But then I remind myself of its checkered past.

That checkered past begins with the ancient Greeks, who, as the account goes, first cultivated tansy some 2,500 years ago, believing it to be the food of the gods. This belief survived into the Middle Ages. Kings and clerics, those emissaries of the divine, also valued tansy. Charlemagne, who ruled the Holy Roman Empire of central Europe in the ninth century BCE, had tansy planted in his garden, as did the monks of the Abbey of St. Gall in Switzerland. Such “physic gardens,” as they were known, proliferated as the centuries passed, flowering within the walls of Cambridge University, the University of Pisa, and the University of Leipzig, among others.

The widespread cultivation of tansy in Europe’s universities, cloisters, and palace gardens owed to the number of afflictions the herb was said to remedy. It tempered fevers, expelled worms, soothed sores, and, during Lent, quieted guts grown gassy from meals rich in beans and salt-cod. Indeed, as late as the 17th century, when the Middle Ages were well over, the Englishman Nicholas Culpepper — botanist, astrologer, physician, and author of the Complete Herbal (1652) — noted that tansy “consumes the Flegmatick Humors and the cold and moist constitution of Winter.” This last virtue may explain the fact that many folks celebrated the end of the hibernal months with tansy-rich treats. Tansy accompanied joints of lamb and made an appearance in teas and puddings. In some regions of Europe, the arrival of Easter saw bishops pitted against congregants in spirited bouts of handball, to the victor going a cake of young tansy leaves and egg.

Not all consumption of tansy was so jubilant. Throughout the Middle Ages and well into the 19th century, women used tansy to ease menstrual pains and end pregnancies. (Though, according to the inconstant reasoning of early medicine, they also used it to increase fertility.) For the former complaint, tansy was most often taken as a largely harmless tea. But for the latter, women would sometimes consume large amounts of tansy oil, which was rich in eucalyptol, thujone, camphor, and myrtenol. These compounds produce toxic metabolites as they are broken down in the liver and digestive tract. When they are consumed in excess, the result is often fatal.

Common tansy, also known as athanasia and bitter button
Image from Theatrum Botanicum (1640)

 

An 1852 report from the American Journal of Medicine describes the case of a 21-year-old Boston seamstress found around 11:00 PM “on the floor, by the side of [her] bed, insensible and in violent convulsions.” The attending physician noted her cheeks were of “a bright, red color,” her eyes “open and very brilliant,” her breathing labored, and her breath redolent of tansy. He opened a vein in her right arm to bleed her. Seeing this had little effect, he tried to induce vomiting with some of wine of antimony and a quantity of powered ipecac. He applied six leeches to her forehead and temples and placed mustard plasters on her calves. The leech-bites “bled freely.” But to no avail. For three hours the seamstress suffered. Finally, in the early hours of the morning, she died.

In an effort to discover the cause of her death, the room was searched. In the pocket of the girl’s dress was found a small phial wrapped in a piece of paper labeled “Oil of Tansy.” A nearby mug still held “a drop or two” of the tansy oil and water mixture “at the bottom.” It was determined she had taken some 11 drams (about 1.5 ounces) of the stuff. Given tansy’s reputation at the time, everyone present would have known why she had taken it. (“She had been, for some months, receiving the attentions of a young man who was reputed to be engaged to her,” the report said.)

If you died from tansy, you were also likely to be buried with it. In the American colonies, tansy was known to ward off worms and flies, and this made it popular for inhumation. Thick wreaths of tansy adorned the necks and filled the coffins of the dearly departed. In 1654, Henry Dunster, the first president of Harvard, was buried in tansy before being buried in the ground. When some two hundred years later his grave was moved the wreaths and bouquets of tansy were found to have retained their color and scent. (Of how Dunster’s mortal remains had fared no mention was made.) By the end of the 19th century, tansy became so closely associated with death, folks could no longer stand the sight or smell of it.

Still, it continued to be used in insect repellents, and sprigs of it were placed in windowsills and on beds. Gardeners welcomed it into their vegetable plots, for it kept away beetles. And every so often a brave soul would continue the tradition of the tansy cake or pudding to welcome the spring.

I myself plan to admire tansy’s bitter buttons from afar, saving my appetite for more wholesome herbs. But should you be of more adventurous spirit, here are directions for a “‘plain tansy,’” which I’ve taken from The Receipt Book of Elizabeth Cleland (1759).

TO MAKE A PLAIN TANSY

Take a fine stale Penny Loaf and cut the Crumb in thin Shaves; put it in a bowl, then boil a Mutchkin of Cream, and when boiled, pour it over the Bread, then cover the bowl with a Plate, and let it lie a quarter of an hour; then mix it with eight Eggs well beaten, two Gills of the juice of Spinage, two Spoonfuls of the Juice of Tansy, and sweeten it with Sugar, Nutmeg, and a little Brandy; rub your pan with Butter, and put it in it, then keep it stirring on the Fire till it is pretty thick; then put it in a Buttered Dish; you may either bake it, or do it in the Driping Pan under Roasted Meat.

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