Tanacetum vulgare

The first I ever heard of tansy was from my brother-in-law, who was my mentor. He was a well of information which was mostly trivia. He said in the old saloons they would take a tansy plant and rub it all over the bar. The herb smelled good, but it was so bitter it would discourage the flies from walking on the bar. When I got a garden, I wanted to spray the bugs, but I didn’t want poison sprays on the vegetables. I made up a bug spray that included tansy, garlic, sage brush and chaparral. It worked well for squash bugs and tent caterpillars that spoil our trees, and for aphids, worm and garden pests. It didn’t always kill the insects, but they soon liked the neighbors’ gardens more than ours.

The name tansy is said to have come from the Greek word, “athanasia” which means immortal. The flower always looks alive. It seldom wilts or looks dead. In Greek mythology, tansy was used in a potion to make a young boy immortal. His name was Ganymede and he was the cupbearer for the great Greek god Zeus.

The tansy is a perennial plant that blooms from July until October. It has an attractive yellow blossom that is very long-lasting, while in bloom and after it is picked. The button-like flower looks like a bright yellow daisy that has lost all of its petals. The blooms grow in dense clusters that sit on a very stiff stalk. The stalk grows between two and three feet high. The leaves grow alternately up the stalk. They are dark green and feathery, or fern-like. The leaflets are deeply toothed and grow alternately along the stem.

The root is a rhizome or creeping root stalk which is hard to contain. Tansy grows in clumps and is resistant to frost and cold. It has as aromatic scent, but bitter taste. When the leaves are brushed, or bruised, they give off a scent something like camphor or a strong pine.

Since the middle ages, tansy has been used as a strewing herb. At feasts, weddings, or important affairs, tansy herb was chopped up and strewn around on the floor. As people walked on the herb, it became bruised or mashed. It gave off a pleasant scent to the gathering. At the coronation of King James II of England, his official strewer had to have several assistants to help strew six bushels of tansy and other herbs along the half mile approach to the throne.
Tansies, and other strewing herbs, were not reserved for royalty and the wealthy. During medieval times, every home had tansy growing close around the doors and windows. When a person would enter a door, his or her clothing would brush against the tansy plant and release some insects from entering the homes. Many bunches were hung in the house, and some were stored between sheets in linen closets.

For many centuries, tansy was used as a packing around bodies in coffins. This would keep the flies and insects away and help to preserve the body. In those days before embalming, the strong smell of tansy would be a pleasant scent during funeral rites. As part of Lent, they used to make bitter tansy cakes and puddings in memory of the bitter herbs used at the Passover. It was used by women who needed help with their menstrual cycle. It was used for nervous women who had hysteria. A small cup of weak tea twice a day was used to get rid of worms. It was even used in bath water to get rid of aches and pains.

Tansy is a very strong herb; large doses could make you sick. Use tansy sparingly and do not take when pregnant. Tansy is beautiful. Grow some around your home.

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