Unlike many of its relatives in the Asteraceae, or daisy family, the golden disk flower of tansy is not surrounded by ray petals. Although both the flowers and leaves are intensely bitter, tansy has a long history as a culinary herb.
Tansy (reynfan) is hot and a bit moist, and is effective against all over-abundant humors which flow out. Whosoever has catarrh, and coughs because of it, should eat tansy, taken either in broth or small tarts, or with meat, or any other way. It checks the increase of the humors, and they vanish . . . .
—Hildegard of Bingen, Physica, Chapter CXI
The old German name reynfan used by Hildegard refers to the effect of tansy (Tanacetum vulgare) on the “reins,” or kidneys. The fifteenth-century herbal Der Gart der Gesundheit differs from Hildegard in classifying tansy as hot and dry in the first degree, rather than moist; it recommends tansy as a diuretic and vermifuge, as well as a treatment for gout and fever. (For more on Hildegard of Bingen, see “Mutter Natur,” October 15, 2010. For more on the humoral theory on which her prescription is based, see “Cool, Cooler, Coolest,” July 27, 2012.)
Like the English “tansy,” many of the common names in Romance languages—tanaceto or atanasia in Spanish, tanasia or tanaceto in Italian, and tanaisie in French—can be traced back to the Latin athanasia, or immortality, from the Greek athanatos, meaning deathless, perhaps because the herb has been used to preserve bodies. Other authorities, such as the sixteenth-century herbalist John Gerard, derive the name from the flowers’ long-lasting nature. Tansy is among the plants listed in the ninth-century Capitulare de Viliis, under the name “tanazetum.” It was known to Walahfrid Strabo as “ambrosia,” which likewise means “immortal” or “immortalizing.”
Botanists formerly classified Tanacetum as a chrysanthemum, and both the leaves and the golden button flowers have a pungent astringency reminiscent of their cousins. Tansy was used to flavor puddings, cakes, and eggs, and gave its name to a pancake flavored with bitter herbs known as a “tansie,” which was traditionally eaten in spring and associated with Easter. (One sixteenth-century authority noted that tansy was beneficial in purging the body of the excessive phlegm engendered by a Lenten diet of fish.)
Tansy was more often added to sweet than savory dishes, although it is the flavoring agent in a traditional Irish blood pudding known as drisheen. Alan Davidson, in The Oxford Companion to Food, speculates that the amount of tansy used was relatively small, given its strong taste. This was just as well, since tansy—which is generally avoided by livestock—contains pyrrolizidine alkaloids, which can be toxic to humans when eaten in large quantities. (These alkaloids are common to many plants and are part of their defense against insect attack. Tansy’s pungent leaves and flowers have been used to repel mice as well as ants and other insects.)
For images of wild tansy and a discussion of its properties, see the UK Wildflower Finder website. Tansy is widely naturalized in the United States. For more information and a map of its distribution, visit the USDA Plant Database.
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Bedevian, Armenag K. Illustrated Polyglottic Dictionary of Plant Names in Latin, Arabic, Armenian, English, French, German, Italian and Turkish Languages. Cairo: Argus & Papazian Presses, 1936.
Davidson, Alan. The Oxford Companion to Food. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Grigson, Geoffrey. The Englishman’s Flora. 1955. Reprint: London: J. M. Dent & Sons, 1987.
Gunther, Robert T., ed. The Greek Herbal of Dioscorides, translated by John Goodyer 1655. 1934. Reprint: New York: Hafner Publishing, 1968.
Hildegard, and Priscilla Throop. Hildegard Von Bingen’s Physica: The Complete English Translation of Her Classic Work on Health and Healing. Rochester, VT: Healing Arts, 1998.
Strabo, Walahfrid. Hortulus, translated by Raef Payne with a commentary by Wilfrid Blunt. Pittsburgh: The Hunt Botanical Library, 1966.