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.

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What Dreams May Come (Musings on Mugwort)

If they would drink nettles in March
And eat mugwort in May,
So many fine maidens
Wouldn’t go to the clay.

—Proverb

The days drag when unrelieved by summer festivals, backyard parties and weekend getaways. My Google Calendar, which in years past teemed with events during the warm months, sits as empty as beauty salons did late last March. On rainy days I fill the hours with the important-looking books I always intended to read but never found reason to — all eleven volumes of Will and Ariel Durant’s The Story of Civilization, say, or John Cowper Powys’s A Glastonbury Romance. And when the sun shines I head outdoors to read the natural world.

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Lovage Soup Base

Lovage has long been used in Southern European cuisine. Sometimes known as Maggikraut because its taste resembles the popular soup seasoning by the same name, lovage imparts a delicately sweet flavor reminiscent of celery to foods. It can be used to make tea, intensely flavored vinegars, cordials or pastes intended for soup stock.

Medicinally it is frequently used as an antiseptic or a tonic to stimulate appetite. And should you wish to plant it in your garden, it will improve the health of all plants near it, much like borage drives away pests.

Eleanour Sinclair Rohde, in her delightful 1922 book A Garden of Herbs: Being a Practical Handbook to the Making of an Old English Herb Garden, tells us that “lovage was one of the herbs introduced by the Romans, and until the middle of the last century it was always grown in English herb gardens.” She reports that, according to an authority on the subject by the name of Parkinson, “the whole plant and every part of it smelleth somewhat strongly and aromatically and of a hot, sharpe, biting taste. The Germans and other Nations in times past used both the roote and seede instead of Pepper to season their meates and brothes and found them as comfortable and warming.”

Below is a German recipe for a soup stock base made from lovage (the original can be found at chefkoch.de). Use a spoonful or two in stews and soup to add a depth and complexity of flavor to your meals. It will last in the refrigerator for several weeks or, if you can the paste, it will last a year or so.

Lovage Soup Stock Base (translated from the German)

1/2 celery root, peeled and cut in pieces
10 carrots, cleaned and cut in pieces
3 leeks, cleaned and cut in pieces
2 onions, skinned and cut in pieces
3 cloves of garlic, peeled and pressed
2 tomatoes, cut in pieces
1 bunch of lovage, cut finely
1 bunch of parsley
1 tbsp. salt
10 pieces of pimento

Put about 1/2 cup of water in a large pot and cook all of the above ingredients until soft. Add salt to taste (it should not overwhelm the delicate flavor of the herbs and vegetables). Put the cooked mass into a food processor and chop until the whole forms a firm mixture (it shouldn’t be too runny). Keep in refrigerator for a few weeks or proceed as for canning.