Tansy is the common name for the flowering plant species known as Tanacetum vulgare L. If you live in the U.S., Canada, or Europe, there’s a pretty good chance you can find this plant in local environments such as pastures, rural roadsides, stream banks and fence lines. Tansy has a long history of use as a medicinal herb, pesticide, ornamental flower, and preservative. However, the plant is also toxic to human beings and livestock, and as a result, it has been largely excluded from modern herbal and medicinal guides.
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In addition to tansy, T. vulgare L. is known by a variety of other names, including golden buttons, garden tansy, scented fern, parsley fern, and, my personal favorite, stinking Willie. It belongs to the aster family, and also has the alternate scientific name Chrysanthemum vulgare L.
Although the plant was originally found only in Europe, its long history of use led to its cultivation and intentional spread to the U.S. and Canada. The only states in the U.S. that don’t have a significant tansy population are Texas, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, and Alabama.
In late summer, you can identify tansies by the camphor-like scent of their leaves, as well by their button-shaped yellow flowers, which grow in flattened clusters from a straight, leafy stalk that’s roughly two to three feet tall. The plants differ in several ways from a similarly named species, called tansy ragwort (Senecio jacobea), which is also toxic and found in pasture-like environments. In a garden setting, tansy grows relatively easily in any temperate environment. It’s also fairly drought-resistant and can flourish in soils with a fairly wide range of pH values.
Historical Medicinal Uses
Medicinal use of tansy goes back at least as far as the ancient Greeks. Since that time, internal preparations of the plant’s leaves and tops have been used for purposes that include:
- Purging parasitic intestinal worms from children
- Increasing female fertility
- Reducing the chances for a miscarriage
- Reducing intestinal gas
- Easing stomach distress and intestinal spasms
- Reducing the frequency of epileptic seizures
- Relieving anxiety, “hysteria” or nervousness
- Reducing low-grade fevers
- Easing the effects of the arthritic condition called gout
External preparations of the plant have been used for purposes that include:
- Relief of rheumatoid arthritis
- Relief of skin eruptions
- Treatment of sprained joints
Tansy’s Use in the Garden
Most gardeners now grow tansy for ornamental purposes as a border plant or more casual planting. However, tansy has a variety of additional uses that can be adapted to your home garden/farming environment. One of the best things the plant can do for your garden is improve the viability of your soil by increasing its potassium content. The plant can also improve the viability of specific plants growing in your garden or on your farm. For instance, when planted together with potato plants, tansies can significantly reduce or entirely eliminate the presence of a damaging beetle species called the Colorado potato beetle. Tansy achieves this effect because Colorado potato beetles don’t like certain aromatic substances found in the oil in the plant’s interior.
Other plants that are helped in one way or another by the close presence of tansy include corn, squash, roses, beans and peppers, as well as raspberries and various other kinds of fruit. Other insect species that are deterred by the presence of tansy include squash bugs, striped cucumber beetles, Japanese beetles, sugar ants, moths, Ichmeumoid wasps, and fleas. Mice also tend to stay away from areas planted with tansy. In addition, certain insects are deterred by tansy oil extracts, including mosquitoes, greenhouse whiteflies, cabbage aphids, flour beetles, and spider mites.
Additional Modern and Historical Uses
Cut tansy has relatively strong benefits as a preservative, and it was commonly used in the original U.S. colonies to prevent spoilage in meat and other goods that decayed easily. Modern researchers have verified the effectiveness of this usage, and have identified tansy’s ability to kill or inhibit various types of bacteria and fungi, including Escherichia coli (E. coli), Candida krusei, and Bacillus subtilis.
The use of tansy as an ornamental flower quite possibly dates all the way back to funeral services held by the ancient Greeks. Colonial Americans also sometimes used tansies when making funeral wreaths and funeral shrouds. The plant is still commonly used in dried form for ornamental purposes. In addition, you can use tansy as a source of dye for non-synthetic clothing or other textile products.
Lastly, Medieval Europeans used tansy in their diets as:
- A substitute for cinnamon or nutmeg in certain recipes
- An ingredient in certain baked goods
- A main ingredient in a pudding served during Lent
- The main ingredient in a form of tea
Potential Problems With Medicinal Use
Tansy contains chemicals known to be toxic to humans and grazing livestock. If you eat whole fresh or dried preparations of the plant, you will probably not be in any immediate physical danger unless you consume it in very high amounts. However, the toxic effects of tansy build up in your system over time, and if you regularly use large amounts the plant, you can eventually go into convulsions and/or die. You can also die if you drink significant amounts of tansy tea or consume ten or more drops of concentrated tansy oil.
In addition to convulsions, potential symptoms of tansy poisoning include:
- Abnormal or uncontrolled bleeding from your uterus
- Intense forms of a stomach inflammation called gastritis
- Spasms that cause major uncontrolled muscle movements
- A pulse that’s unusually fast and/or unusually faint
If tansy comes into regular or extended contact with your skin, it can produce an allergic condition called contact dermatitis. Potential symptoms of this condition include moderate to severe itching in the affected skin, pain, a burning sensation, and the formation of a rash that features scaly or thickened skin, raised red bumps that sometimes turn into blisters, drainage of fluid from those blisters, and unusual skin tenderness or warmth.
Common areas for the onset of tansy-related contact dermatitis include your hands, fingers, forearms, and face. In addition to direct contact with tansy, you can develop contact dermatitis if you use natural products that contain tansy as one of their ingredients, including shampoos, soaps, or cosmetics. You may have heightened risks for developing a tansy allergy if you have an allergy to chrysanthemums or other members of the Aster family of plants.
Because of the problems associated with ingesting or touching tansy, the plant is no longer commonly used as an herbal medicinal remedy. Also, because of its limited medicinal use in modern times, there is no current reliable dosing information on tansy, and doctors don’t know much about its interactions with other herbal preparations, or with supplements or medications. In addition, while we have plenty of anecdotal information on the ways in which tansy was used medicinally in the past, researchers have not conducted many clinical trials to verify the plant’s effects in our bodies. All in all, it’s best to stay away from medicinal preparations of the plant, especially if you’re pregnant or nursing.
Potential Problems With Garden Use
While the species has clear aesthetic and practical value in your garden, it’s also quite prolific, and can easily grow out of control. In fact, many government agricultural agencies view the plant primarily as an invasive weed species and go to considerable lengths to keep its presence under control. If you use tansy in your garden, make sure to plant it carefully and monitor its spread. It roots itself very easily in any disturbed or broken ground, so be especially cautious when planting near this type of environment. Also make sure to keep any pets or grazing animals away from the plant.
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