Friday, January 28, 2011

Tansy, Tanacetum vulgare

Icon of St. Athanasius
Pope of Alexandria, Egypt
Born C293, Died 2nd May C373

The herb Tansy is dedicated to St. Anthanasius

Tanacetum vulgare, Tansy

When I took over my plot at the community garden, I had to deal with several square metres of Tansy which had run wild. It took months to get it under control and even now I regularly chop it back and curse it, with apologies to St. Athanasius. It is a herb which is often included in organic gardens as the leaves, which are strongly bitter and aromatic, have some insecticidal uses and are said to be beneficial when added to compost heaps . In mid-summer the plant reaches well over 1.5 metres tall and produces masses of yellow button flowers which are very decorative. As a medicinal or culinary herb it has fallen from grace and is considered too dangerous to use, though many recipes still exist, especially in association with the Easter festival. An Easter pudding (a sort of custard pie) or Easter cake was simply called a tansy and was thought to be a wholesome antidote to all the salt fish that was consumed during Lent. The winner at stoolball, a game played at Easter time and basically the medieval forerunner of cricket or baseball, was presented with a tansy cake and hopefully a tankard or two of ale for their efforts.
Though native to Europe, tansy was one of the first plants brought to North America by the settlers. In the days before refrigeration, it was an important herb to keep food fresh and detrimental insects at bay. It also had uses as an embalming herb, either placed around a corpse or used to line a coffin. By the mid 18th century, tansy was growing wild along the hedgerows of Pennsylvania and it quickly became part of the American country scene. Tansy bitters, made by steeping leaves in a bottle of New England rum was a popular spring tonic and in the old mining area of South Dakota a similar brew was made using whiskey. Tansy is a survivor in abandoned gardens around farm houses, oblivious to competition from grass and other weeds. Plant it in your garden for its interesting historical significance but with care, that it does not overtake more desirable plants. There are some interesting cultivars which are worth looking out for as they are likely to be less invasive, including the variegated 'Silver Lace' and 'Isla Gold" and the fern leafed variety 'Crispum'.

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