(Tanacetum vulgare) The clue to the meaning of 'tansy' lies in the claim that it was dedicated to St Athanasius (Dyer). Actually, it was the plant itself that was called, in medieval Latin, athanasia, from the Greek word for immortality (athanatos means undying). Athanasia became in Old French tanesil, and thus to tansy in English. The immortality name might come from the fact that the flowers take a long time to wither (Brownlow), but more likely because it was used to preserve dead bodies from corruption (Grieve. 1933). Ann Leighton had this quotation: "Samuel Sewall has recorded observing the body of a friend long dead but well preserved in his coffin packed full of tansy". Not unrelated to this is the claim that rubbing the surface of raw meat with tansy leaves will protect it from flies (Genders. 1977); that, too, is why bunches of it were put on the windows of farm kitchens. Sprigs were put in bedding, to discourage vermin (Drury. 1992), and in Elizabethan times it was a favourite strewing herb (Macleod). Another belief, from Maryland, is that you should never sow tansy seed. If you do, there will be a death in the family (Whitney & Bullock).
Tansy leaves are perfectly edible, though very bitter (a piece about a quarter of an inch square is enough to flavour a salad) (Rohde. 1936). So eating a tansy salad as a means to procure a baby, as was certainly done by childless women wanting a child, must have been no mean undertaking. No less an authority than Culpeper advised it: "Let those Women that desire Children love this herb, 'tis their best Companion, their Husband excepted". He recommended it either bruised and laid on the navel, or boiled in beer, and drunk to stay miscarriages. But the real authority as far as Fenland couples were concerned was rabbits. They used to say that where there were wild rabbits, there was sure to be tansy. And everybody knows what large families they produce, so the plant must have the same effect on humans. On the other hand, many unmarried pregnant girls would chew tansy leaves to procure an abortion (Porter. 1969). Indeed, tansy's poisonous oil has long been taken to induce abortions (Grigson). Nevertheless, it was still being used in the mid-20th century for women's illnesses, presumably because of its stimulant and tonic effects (Henkel, Fernie).
Tansy puddings at Easter were traditional, and were probably a Christian adaptation of the bitter herbs eaten at Passover (Newall. 1973). In many districts they were actually played for on Easter Monday (Opie & Opie. 1985), but they were actually made to be eaten with the meat course at dinner. One recipe speaks of finely shredded leaves, beaten up with eggs and fried (Genders. 1977). Pepys provided a "tansy" for a dinner, but this was a sweet dish flavoured with tansy juice. By the 16th century, tansies were a kind of scrambled egg made with cream and the juice of wheat blades, violet and strawberry leaves, spinach and walnut tree buds, plus grated bread, cinnamon, nutmeg and salt, all sprinkled with sugar before serving. Tansy was no longer an ingredient, walnut buds being preferred (Burton), although most recipes that have survived insist on the proper herb ingredient. Tansies seem to be some kind of milk pudding, with local variations on whether or not tansy is included, though it usually is. Sometimes, as in Oxfordshire, it was the flowers that were used, in custards as well as other sorts of puddings, or the leaves could be steeped in milk to make cheese and cakes.
When laid to soak in buttermilk, tansy had the reputation of "making the complexion very fair" (Sanford); in other words, it was used as a cosmetic wash to remove sunburn. One other non-medicinal use - it apparently gives a brilliant yellow dye, but with the disadvantage that it is very difficult to fix (Wiltshire).
In spite of the fact that the plant is used as a poison (Fluck), it has been used through the centuries for a large number of medicinal purposes. It is an aromatic strong bitter, long esteemed, for instance, as an anthelmintic. It is the young tops and the seed that are used. Gypsies have always used the infusion to expel worms (Vesey-Fitzgerald). Martin mentions this use in the Isle of Skye, and so does Leask in Orkney, while it is certainly used that way in Ireland (Moloney); it was common enough in America, too (Bergen. 1899) (they even wore a tansy bag round the neck in New England for children's worms (Beck) ). Perhaps this is the place in which to mention that rubbing a dog's coat with tansy helps to get rid of fleas (Hemphill).
Gout was another ailment for which tansy was a favourite medicine. Gypsies use a hot fomentation or an infusion for it (Vesey-Fitzgerald). In Scotland it was the dried flowers that were used (Fernie). Gerard confirms its use in his day, and two hundred years before his time tansy was already being used for gout (Henslow). Tansy flower tea was given for colds (Palmer. 1976) and fevers, for which the leaf tea was also used in America (Hyatt), and for nervous afflictions (Brownlow). In Wiltshire it was taken as a general tonic in all heart weaknesses, and for coughs and chest complaints (Wiltshire).
If you wear a sprig of tansy inside your boots, you will never get the ague, so runs a gypsy belief (Vesey-Fitzgerald), probably New Forest gypsies, for Hampshire farm labourers believed this too (Boase). There may be something in it, for the oil produced from the flower heads is still in use for application to the skin to treat rheumatism (Schauenberg & Paris), and in Newfoundland tansy flowers are used to make poultices and to bathe sprains. In Ohio, they say that a poultice made by moistening bruised tansy with vinegar will take the soreness out of a dog-bite (Bergen), and it is used in Ireland, boiled in unsalted butter, strained and kept for later use, to put on wounds (Maloney).
There have been a few veterinary uses of tansy. On South Uist, for example, they treat red water in cows by boiling the entire plant, putting the juice in a bottle, then pouring it down the cow's throat (Shaw). 17th century Yorkshire shepherds used tansy, finely chopped and mixed with fresh butter, to heal the wound on castrated lambs. As the butter healed the wound, the tansy would keep the flies away (Drury. 1985). East Anglian horsemen knew its worth for making horses' coats shine. They would sprinkle a little of the dried, powdered leaves now and then into the horses' feed (G E Evans. 1960).
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