Mary Ellen Wilcox
Jul/Aug '12 Essential Herbal Magazine
Tansy is a hardy perennial with interesting button-like yellow blossoms. Today, it is used mainly as a decorative plant, but it does have an interesting past as a culinary and medicinal herb. The fernlike leaves and yellow blossoms are considered very toxic, especially when used in large amounts.
The danger in the use of tansy internally is due to the presence of thujone, a toxic substance also found in wormwood. Plants vary as to the amount of thujone present, and where they are grown does not seem to affect the amount of the substance. Thujone is probably what also gives the plant its medicinal properties.
In Greek mythology tansy was known for immortality. It supposedly conferred immortality on a boy named Ganymede. He was the eternal cup bearer of the god Zeus. In Gerard’s Herbal, the flowers, which do not easily wilt, represent immortality. Using the herb was said to prolong life.
Tansy was used at funerals because of its strong pine-like smell, and it was placed in coffins to repel insects. The strong smell of tansy made it useful as a strewing herb. It was well used in England in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and would be tossed on floors to be trod upon to release its pungent smell, refresh the air, and mask unpleasant odors. King James II had 6 bushels of tansy and other herbs strewn along the one-half mile pathway to the throne at his coronation.
Culinary history suggests that tansy was used in England to flavor cakes and puddings at Easter time. It was said to be a pleasant addition to salads if used sparingly, and some used it mixed with other greens as a cooked herb. It is also said to be one of the 130 herbs in the secret recipe for Chanteuse liqueur.
Tansy is used today, but sparingly, due to its toxicity. It has a strong peppery taste. The minced leaves have been added to scrambled eggs and to add zip to herb butters, poultry stuffing and omelets.
As in the past tansy is considered a good herbal insect repellent. In colonial times, housewives rubbed fresh tansy leaves into tabletops. Also known as ant fern, sprigs can be placed on the threshold to discourage ants from entering the house. Tansy plants are planted alongside the entrance to the kitchen to keep flies from going in.
As an ornamental, tansy is an excellent choice. The feathery leaves and bright yellow flowers are a nice addition to the perennial bed. Fernlike Tansy has a more delicate appearance, and has the same bright blossoms. The pleasant yellow color (though not as bright as the fresh flowers) is retained when tansy blossoms are dried. The strong erect flower stems make a nice addition to dried bouquets. The flower clusters are also attractive in dried herbal wreaths.
A tansy plant or two in the garden will yield lots of usable materials for insect repellent and decorative use.