In my garden the tansy is “riding high”, to use the words of the nineteenth-century “peasant poet” John Clare. An old medicinal and culinary herb native to Eurasia, tanacetum is part of the large aster family and so looks right at home in the late summer garden. Its vulgar variety looks like a weed, but I have a variegated form that turns slightly silver in September. The low-maintenance leaves are a good foil for my other plants all summer long–but it does take over if you don’t watch it, and I’ve been too busy to watch it. It’s a wild tangle, ready to bloom.
Now I could cut off sprigs and make fly-repellent bouquets for the house, but I don’t really have that many flies. If I were really ambitious, I could let it bloom, and dry its little yellow button-like flowers to produce a dye for fabrics. In the medieval and early modern past, Tansy bordered on a “woman’s herb”: a really potent potion could apparently induce abortions/miscarriages, while a diluted distillation could aid conception along with other “women’s troubles”, including hysteria. At Easter, its tender fern-like leaves were put in an omelet to produce a “tansy”, and it was also used to make tea, flavor ale, and, according to some of the nineteenth-century American “dispensaries” I consulted, infuse rum. All the herbals up to the nineteenth century reference it as a curative for indigestion, fevers, and jaundice. So there are a lot of diverse claims for tansy, but I’ll probably let mine continue to flop around the garden until fall.
Its perceived utility guaranteed Tansy a place in all of the major pre-modern herbals, and even the florilegia (“flower books”) of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. One of the best examples of the latter, the Hortus Floridus compiled and engraved (with some family help) by Crispijn van de Passe junior (1589-1670) definitely focuses on bulbs in general and tulips in particular (during this time of “Tulipmania”) but also manages to include the humble Tansy.
Tansy (near right) in the Tractatus de herbis, BL MS. Egerton 747, Italy, c. 1300; Plates from Crispijn van de Passe, including Tansy (far right),1614—you can see the entire book here. Ernest Townsend, still life of tansy and agrimony in a vase, c.1915-23, Derby Museums and Art Gallery.
I did find a lovely blog which offers instructions for a tansy dyebath as well as examples of the finished project—this looks like something that even I could do! I really would like to find some use for this abundant plant, although I must admit that previous batches of dried herbs turned first into dust magnets and then into fuel for the winter fire.