By Kathleen Hale, Member, The Herb Society of America
Tansy, Tanacetum vulgare, has traveled widely with humans. This relative of asters and ragweed started in Europe and Asia. It was used medicinally by the Greeks, was included in Charlemagne’s famous collection of herbs, and is now having a modern, if imaginary, moment in TV phenomenon Game of Thrones.
What has this tenacious, fernlike plant offered people that they should make it a perennial companion?
It involves love and death.
Tansy is pretty much considered toxic, since it is a source of thujone, a convulsant and neurotoxin, in greatly varying concentrations. Still, to the extent that tansy is having a moment in the spotlight, it is because of the lore associating it with the intentional ending of a pregnancy. Perhaps by association, it has been considered an aid to avoiding pregnancy.
In Game of Thrones, “tansy tea” — a concoction of tansy with pennyroyal and honey — is consumed by several fictional characters, with plot driven consequences. Drinking it is a bad idea. Quite possibly, lethally bad. Consider the reason it was used as a strewing herb in the Middle Ages. It killed things, like insects. It was used to repel flies. Something that repels flies isn’t something anyone wants to ingest.
St. Hildegard of Bingen, considered the founder of scientific natural history in Germany, has many medicinal uses for tansy … everything from coughs to indigestion and kidney stones. She recommended an elaborate procedure to aid a woman suffering from “obstructed menses.” This involved heating stones to create a sauna bath with a concoction of tansy, feverfew and mullein. During the sauna, a patient is advised to sit on the now-stewed herbs. She should then drink a quantity of the best wine. (It might be best to have a sauna, drink wine and forget about the rest.)
Still, this pretty plant, with common names like “Buttons,” “Golden Buttons,” and, well, “Stinking Willie,” has another association dealing with death: It is a preservative. Coffins were often filled with it, to slow decomposition. Because this became such a feature of funerals, many folks developed an aversion to the scent of tansy.
It is best described as smelling like camphor. The Greek name, “tansy” means “immortality.” In Greek myth, Zeus’ favorite, Ganymede, was made immortal by drinking tansy juice. Of course, he probably died first.
These days, it is best grown as a pleasant addition to floral arrangements, like Tussy Mussies. While lovely, its floral message – a declaration of war – may be undesirable. Tansy is also useful in a dye garden, producing a lovely shade of orangey yellow.
Perhaps the modern usage is more complimentary to the tansy. The Urban Dictionary defines the attributes of a person who is a “tansy:” a woman or girl who is unassuming, but uplifts all who meet her. And that may be better than an immortality serving wine to Zeus.