Diving into the wortcunners’ store cupboard again!

Tansy – Tanacetum vulgarae

I have a deep interest in plant folklore and herbal use, mainly driven by a close association with my nan whose family spent many generations working on the land in rural Cheshire. A lot of the stories she would tell us when we were kids were about uncles and other relatives working the land and how the fairy folk helped out. She also talked about herbal medicine and the use of wildflowers  and plants as  food source- way before it became trendy to have survival programmes on the TV!

What is a Wortcunner ?

It is said that a wortcunner is an herbalist that has not only mastered the use of herbs and plants but also one that has been touched by plant spirits and someone that has a deep understanding of herbal lore. Wortcunner takes its name from the word wort meaning ‘root or herb’ and  ‘cunning’ taken from the middle English word ‘cunnen’ meaning to know.

So why Tansy?

I have always had Tansy ( Tanacetum vulgarae ) growing in my garden, the lacy leaves provide a great backdrop for other plants and the shiny buttons of the yellow flowers brighten up any day. We grow a lot of herbal plants, but I must admit that this is one of my favourites.

Tansy is an herbaceous perennial native to Europe and  Asia and has been widely introduced into other areas globally. It has yellow globular flowers produced mid to late summer and finely divided leaves. Other names for Tansy include; bitter buttons, cow bitter, or golden buttons. It thrives in most soils and can propagated by seeds or by dividing the creeping roots in spring or autumn.

The name Tansy is said to derive from the Greek word Athanaton (immortal) as it was said to have been given to Ganymede to make him immortal. It was also widely used by the Greeks for its medicinal properties. The herb was also used in preserving bodies / embalming the dead. Throughout the medieval period it was used to treat Intestinal worms, rheumatism, fevers, sores, digestive problems. It was also one of the strewing herbs used during this period possibly as it was effective at keeping flies away. Writing in the late 16th century, the herbalist John Gerard wrote that tansy was ‘pleasant in taste’ and that sweetmeats made from tansy were good for curing gout.

Tansy is also linked to Easter, when Tansy cakes were awarded as prizes to the winners of a handball game .The cakes consisted of young leaves mixed with eggs and as Mrs Grieve notes ‘were though to purify the humours of body’ after the limited fare of Lent, therefore reducing the amount of flatulence brought on by eating a limited diet of fish and pulses!

In the. 1940s, tansy oil was mixed with other herbs including pennyroyal and fleabane to produce a mosquito repellent that was relatively successful until insecticides such as DEET were produced. Tansy is also used in companion planting and has been used for biological pest control, including the control of Colorado potato beetle.

Tansy is a known herb for use in magical rituals especially in spells, potions and charms for longevity and in rituals of womanhood .

As previously mentioned, it has had a long and varied medical use, largely for expelling worms and as an anti-flatulent and other stomach disorders. However, in large doses it is extremely toxic and a violent irritant. Active ingredients in tansy include; thujone, camphor, sterols, terpenoids and sesquiterpenoid lactones. Its reported that the oil from 10-30g of the flowers can be a lethal dose in humans and that ingestion of a long period of time can be harmful due to the cumulative effects.

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