And where the marjoram once, and sage, and rue,
And balm, and mint, with curl’d-leaf parsley grew,
And double marigolds, and silver thyme,
And pumpkins ‘neath the window climb;
And where I often, when a child, for hours
Tried through the pales to get the tempting flowers,
As lady’s laces, everlasting peas,
True-love-lies-bleeding, with the hearts-at-ease,
And golden rods, and tansy running high,
That o’er the pale-tops smiled on passers-by.
John Clare, Nineteenth Century
Tansy is a workhorse of the witch’s garden, a perennial grown as an aid for everything from embalming to stew. In the sixteenth century Britain is was considered a necessity for gardens, due to its versatility.
The Greeks were the first that we know of to use it for healing. By the eighth century, we have records of the Benedictine monks in Switzerland using tansy, as well as it being a staple of the herb gardens of Charlemagne. By then it was being used for digestive issues, particularly worms, fevers and skin conditions. Monks used it as a substitute for the bitter herbs used by the Israelites during their Lenten meals. Which served a double purpose, for after ten days of eating fish gas was rampant among the clergy, and tansy was thought to control the expulsion.
Perhaps the best known use of the plant was to cause abortions, a common technique by the middle ages, particularly among the cunning or wise women who acted as caregivers to rural communities. High doses of tansy was known to bring on a woman’s menses, whether nature intended them to come or not. Though consequently, it was also used to help women who were having fertility issues conceive.Ironically enough, in many cultures tansy is associated with spells and charms to promote long life, or even immortality. The name comes from tanecetum, the Greek word for immortality. When Zeus fell in love with Ganymede, the object of his affection was given tansy to make him immortal.
And tansy was used extensively in some culture’s funeral rites, as an aid for embalming the dead, as well as covering the smell. Some believed that the scent of tansy helped guide the dead on their journey. In nineteenth century New England, tansy came to be abhorred by the population for its association with funerals, where it was used extensively. Even today, tansy is used in funeral flowers, as well as carvings on tombstones.
Perhaps the main reason Britons found tansy useful was in the kitchen, where it was often planted just outside the kitchen door. Tansy was used often in preparing omelets and other egg dishes, as well as puddings. Biscuits made with caraway seeds and tansy were served at funeral dinners in Yorkshire. And the famous whiskey manufacturer, Jack Daniels stirred crushed tansy and sugar into his own whiskey when having a nip.
And yet too much tansy can cause sever toxicity issues, so as a result, tansy’s place in the kitchen today is almost non-existent. Tansy contains thujone, too much of which can cause spasms, convulsions, hallucinations and eventually death. In small doses however, it is also reputed to make people randy, leading to its use a an aphrodisiac.
Modern day witches still use tansy in limited quantities for the holidays of Imbolc and Ostara.
Tansy still has a place in many gardens due to it’s efficacy as an insect repellant. In colonial American it was used to help retard spoilage of meat, as well as to keep the bugs off it. Tansy is kept on window sill in England to keep flies away, as well as between sheets to keep bedbugs out.
Planting tansy in your witch’s garden, or vegetable or herb garden for that matter, can help to keep pests at bay. And it is effective as a mosquito repellent, for those wanting a safer, if somewhat less effective alternative to Deep Woods Off. A popular formula from the 1940s consisted of tansy oil, fleabane, pennyroyal and diluted alcohol. Some promise has also been shown in tansy’s ability to repel ticks
How to grow Tansy
Originally native to Europe and Asia, tansy has caught on in a big way in North America, and is now considered a weed by many. Tansy has a tendency to thrive and spread, with some complaining that it takes over their gardens.
Tansy grows to a height of two to three foot, and is very hardy, going down to -40F. Tansy loves full sun, can tolerate partial shade, and the sun will reward you with a shower of small, yellow flowers, similar but more compact than dandelions for instance. Leaves are jagged and similar to those on ferns, reaching a length of about six inches.
Seeds are sewn in the spring, covering lightly with about a quarter inch of soil, or for better results, start them indoors 6-8 weeks prior to the last frost. Keep the soil moist to slightly dry, watering maybe once a week. A monthly application of fertilizer helps as well. Tansy is also known as bachelor’s buttons, bitter buttons, buttons, ginger plant, and gold-buttons. I recently picked up three tansy plants mistakenly labelled as yellow phlox.
In the fall you can take cuttings of the plant, though really it’s not necessary to put much effort into making tansy spread. Keep them thinned to about six inches, and you’ll find keeping them hardy requires very little effort.