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Tansy (Tanacetum vulgare) is a perennial herbaceous flowering plant of the aster family that is native to temperate Europe and Asia. It has been introduced to other parts of the world and in some cases has become invasive. It is also known as Common Tansy, Bitter Buttons, Cow Bitter, Mugwort, or Golden Buttons.
Tansy is a flowering herb with finely divided compound leaves and yellow, buttonlike flowers. It has a stout, somewhat reddish, erect stem, usually smooth, 50-150 cm tall, and branching near the top. The leaves are alternate, 10-15 cm long and are pinnately lobed, divided almost to the center into about seven pairs of segments or lobes which are again divided into smaller lobes having saw-toothed edges, thus giving the leaf a somewhat fernlike appearance. The roundish, flat-topped, buttonlike, yellow flower heads are produced in terminal clusters from mid to late summer. The scent is similar to that of camphor with hints of rosemary. The leaves and flowers are said to be poisonous if consumed in large quantities. The plant’s volatile oil is high in thujone, a substance found in absinthe that can cause convulsions. Some insects, notably the tansy beetle, have evolved resistance to tansy and live almost exclusively on it.
Tansy is native to Eurasia; it is found in almost all parts of mainland Europe. It is absent from Siberia and some of the Mediterranean islands. The ancient Greeks may have been the first to cultivate it as a medicinal herb. In about 1525, it was listed (by the spelling “Tansey”) as “necessary for a garden” in Britain.
Tansy was formerly used as a flavoring for puddings and omelets, but is almost unknown now. It was certainly relished in days gone by, for Gerarde speaks of them as “pleasant in taste”, and he recommends tansy sweetmeats as “an especial thing against the gout, if every day for a certain space a reasonable quantitie thereof be eaten fasting”. In Yorkshire, tansy and caraway seeds were traditionally used in biscuits served at funerals. According to liquor historian A. J. Baime’s book Big Shots, Tennessee whiskey magnate Jack Daniel enjoyed drinking his own whiskey with sugar and crushed tansy leaf.
For many years, tansy has been used as a medicinal herb. Irish folklore of the mid-1800s suggests bathing in a solution of tansy and salt as a cure for joint pain. Bitter tea made with the blossoms of T. vulgare has been effectively used for centuries as an anthelmintic (vermifuge). Tansy cakes were traditionally served during Lent because of a superstition that eating fish during Lent caused intestinal worms. Note that only T. vulgare is used in medicinal preparations; all species of tansy are toxic, and an overdose can be fatal. The dried flowering herb of Tanacetum is used ethnomedically to treat migraine, neuralgia, and rheumatism, and as an antihelminthic, in conjunction with a competent herbalist to circumvent any possible toxicity. Formerly, tansy was often used for its emmenagogue effects, but rumors have implicated tansy in cases of miscarriage. Pregnant women should avoid this herb.