(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on September 22, 2009. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to respond to your questions.)
I brought back a couple sprigs of tansy the last time I visited my great grandmother's house in Bardstown sometime around 2006. It was some she planted many years ago, and was such a huge clump of sunny yellow blossoms I thought I might try it here in the flatlands of western Kentucky. It reminded me of my childhood when I used to follow Aunt Bett around the edge of her garden while she stripped the leaves off her tansy so she could dry them for her home remedies.
Little did I know it was one of those plants that must be mollycoddled, and not for reasons you might think. It will simply take over your gardens if you don't make efforts every year to control it.
Tansy, Tanacetum vulgare, is very strong smelling. If you rub against it, the slightly nasty scent will attach itself to your clothes. I had forgotten that when I planted it in my front yard beside the driveway. It resists frost and cold, and its attractive yellow flower heads are very long lasting, both when they bloom and when they are dried. They can survive in the same spot for decades, though the clump gets larger every year. Herbalists say that the name tansy is a corruption of the Greek word for immortality: athanasia. That might be true because no amount of destruction has ever driven it from my front yard.
Last year I put some in my back yard, near the deck. The strong smell makes it a natural insect repellent. Aunt Bett, who used it for various purposes, told me that many years ago dried tansy was one of the strewing herbs, scattered across floors to keep pests away. She said that some women hung it from rafters, placed it in bedding, and even rubbed it on meat that was drying in their smoke houses, in order to keep the flies and vermin away. More recently it has been used to hang in closets and to place in cedar chests to help repel moths and fleas. I thought by planting it in the back garden, it might keep mosquitoes and gnats away from my deck. Little did I know it would spread as quickly as it did.
Tansy also has a long history as a seasoning and a medicinal plant. I have a friend who told me it was once used to flavor small tansy cakes that were eaten during Lent, their bitter taste symbolizing Christ's suffering. Aunt Bett sometimes made a tea from the leaves to use as a remedy for colds and stomach aches. There were also those who firmly believed that a poultice made from the leaves was a sure cure for bruises and cuts. I gathered the leaves a time or two during my childhood just for the tea that Aunt Bett made for herself. I am not sure she had any particular ailment, because often she drank several tonics just to keep herself healthy. They must have worked because I only ever saw her sick once or twice when she had a cold. I know that I could never swallow any of that tea, because surely it tasted as bad as it smelled.
I also can't imagine using tansy for seasoning anything. I would think its disgusting smell would remain disgusting when tasted. The same reasoning applies to using it in closets or on bed linens. The smell would send me running. I fell into a clump of it one time when I was small, so that might be why I resist its scent. It is simply a difficult plant to control, even though the blooms and the foliage are beautiful. It never minds the weather, coldest temperatures don't faze it. When the winds blow, it just flattens all 2 or 3 feet of itself along the ground, and lays there poking its yellow head up toward the sun. It never dies.
Tansy grows easily along roadsides and abandoned land. It was introduced from Europe, but it has already escaped from its earliest gardens in much of the United States. It is an extremely hardy perennial with stiff, erect stems up to 3 feet high. Feathery, dark green, narrow, lance shaped leaves grow alternately along the tall stem. At the top there will be many dense clusters of small buttonlike yellow flowerheads. It blooms from July through October, but by about mid August mine are so tall they cannot bear their own weight and they must be staked. I never like to stake anything except gladiolias, so recently I have been simply cutting my tansy back- about the middle of August. It doesn't seem to bother it, because even now a month later, the new tansy clump is already a foot tall and the foliage is more dense than it was in spring.
Pharmacologists today who study the plant for its medicinal value find some evidence for its use as an antispasmodic, but no evidence that it is good for anything else. I sure am glad Aunt Bett is no longer around to hear that, because she took a spoonful of tansy tonic every day of her long life.
I know I will continue to fight the growth of my tansy for the rest of my life. You see, it is a reminder of my childhood, Aunt Bett who taught me so much about plants, my great grandmother who surrounded herself with lovely blooms, and my mother, whose tansy patch suffered greatly when I fell headfirst into it. I need tansy for the same reason I need my memories, it's a part of who I am. So I will continue to curb its growth, and it will continue to laugh at me while it keeps returning in bigger clumps year after year after year.
All photos are from Plant Files. Thanks to these photographers: happenstance for the cluster of new growth around the stone, poppysue for the close view of the blooms, pinky100 for the full plant in front of the wooden trellis, and Kennedyh for the nice contrast image at the end of the article.
A word of caution from my friend Lance who lives in Virginia, I feel it is well worth mentioning:
I vaguely remembered reading about tansy as being toxic and not recommended for consumption anymore, so I looked it up on Wikipedia. The article includes a section on toxicity, and lists 4 identified compounds with various effects on people and other critters. Peterson's Field Guide to Edible Plants and an herb book both recommend limiting consumption, as it may have toxic effects in larger amounts. A more thorough search would probably turn up more information, but I read enough to recommend caution when using it.
Thank you, Lance.