Friday, November 12, 2010

Feverfew

Tanacetum parthenium with label Tanacetum parthenium The Unicorn Defends Itself (feverfew detail)

The common name of feverfew is derived from the Latin febrifuge. Botanists now place this member of the aster family in the genus Tanacetum, but feverfew was formerly known both as Chrysanthemum parthenium and Pyrethrum parthenium and may be listed as such in older sources. Above, left and center: Feverfew growing in Bonnefont garden in November; right: the only feverfew plant depicted in the Unicorn Tapestries appears between the feet of the hunter poised to spear the quarry in The Unicorn Defends Itself.

Feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium) is a strongly aromatic herb in the aster family; it is closely related to costmary (Tanacetum balsamita) and to tansy (Tanacetum officinale), both of which also grow in Bonnefont garden. While tansy has been employed as a medicine, a food, and an insect repellent, feverfew is strictly a medicinal herb. The medieval name of this antipyretic species is derived from the Latin febrifuge and refers to its usefulness in driving off fever. The plant listed as febrifugiam in Chapter 70 of the famous Capitulare de Villis, a Carolingian edict declaring which useful plants were to be grown on the imperial estates, may be feverfew or it may be a species of centaury (Centaurium erythraea). Frank Anderson, an authority on medieval herbals, notes that there is some confusion attached to the use of the name in medieval sources. More than one plant was known as febrifugiam. (Feverfew is not mentioned in another important ninth-century source, the Hortulus of Walahfrid Strabo, although its relatives costmary and tansy are both included.)

Feverfew occurs only once in the flora of the Unicorn Tapestries. In the fourth tapestry of the series, The Unicorn Defends Itself, a single plant of feverfew appears between the feet of the hunter who is about to spear his bleeding and vulnerable quarry; the unicorn lances one of the dogs with his horn, opening a long tear in the hound’s side. It may have been feverfew’s reputation as a vulnerary or wound herb that warranted its inclusion in this scene. Feverfew was also good against poison, and the fifteenth-century Herbarius Latinus recommends feverfew to counter sterility and to halt vertigo.

Maude Grieve notes that the whole plant has a strong and bitter smell and is particularly disliked by bees. I find it pleasantly pungent.

—Deirdre Larkin

Sources:

Anderson, Frank J., ed. “Herbals through 1500,” The Illustrated Bartsch, Vol. 90. New York: Abaris, 1984.

Freeman, Margaret B. The Unicorn Tapestries. New York: E. P. Dutton, Inc., 1956.

Grieve, Maude. A Modern Herbal. 1931. Reprint: New York: Dover Publications, 1971.

Harvey, John. Medieval Gardens. Beaverton, Oregon: Timber Press, 1981.

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