Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Tansy - meanings & uses

Tanacetum vulgare

Folk name – buttons
Gender – feminine
Planet – Venus
Element – Water
Powers – health, longevity

Tansy grows throughout Britain, Europe and Scandinavia., except in the more mountainous districts, and is found on river banks, grassy verges and in many waste placed. It was introduced to America by the early settlers and now grows freely throughout most of the US.

Tansy grows 2-3ft tall with stiff stems and dark green, fern like pinnate leaves consisting of numerous narrow, deeply toothed leaflets. The flowers have no ray florets, and grow in terminal clusters of small, hard, flat topped ‘buttons’. Each little button like flower has a dimple in the centre and is bright egg yellow. The flowers appear throughout the summer, and stay fresh looking for a long time. William Coles wrote that the Greek name signified that ‘it is immortall because the yellow flowers gathered in due time, will continue very lively a long while’. This endearing quality makes tansy flowers ideal to stand in a jug on the kitchen table or window sill, especially as the strongly aromatic, spicy scent keeps flies away. In the old days tansy was used as a strewing herb, its pungency and fly repelling properties making it doubly valuable.

Most of the early herbalists set great store by tansy as a medicine for getting rid of worms, and the cakes, known as ‘tansies’ and traditionally eaten at Easter, were bound up with this idea, since there seems to have been a widely held belief that fish which was eaten during Lent, somehow encouraged worms in people. The tansy, which went into the cakes, was intended more as a spring medicine than Easter flavouring, although some writers connect Easter with tansy because it was said to be one of the bitter herbs at Passover.

William Coles was quite disparaging about his contemporaries who ‘are so squeamish, that they put little or none of it into them (the cakes) having altogether forgotten the reason for their Originall, which was to purge away from the Stomach and Guts the Phlegme engendered by eating the Fish in the Lent Season, which Lent was kept stricter than it now is, whereof Wormes are soon bread in them that are thereunto disposed.’ 

A little tansy is a good flavouring, but too much can make a ‘nauseous dish’, as one 19th Century writer described a tansy pudding.

Many of the early physicians used tansy as a remedy for gout, and the Scottish highlanders until recently used the dried flowers and seeds for treating gout; they also used to cash in on tansy’s pungent scent and mix it with their winter stocks of corn to keep the mice away. In Ireland tansy was used to flavour locally made sausages known as drisheens and in Sussex there was an old superstition that tansy leaves worn inside the shoes would prevent an attack of the ague. The Finns used tansy as a green dye, the Danes as a substitute flavouring for nutmeg and cinnamon, but in Italy it was considered a deadly insult to be presented with a piece of tansy. William Coles mentioned that tansy ‘applied to the lower part of the Belly…is very profitable for such Women as are apt to miscarry in Child-bearing’ and Culpeper also prescribed tansy for ‘those Women that desire Children….’tis their best Companion’ adding significantly, ‘their Husband excepted’.

Modern herbalists recommend an infusion of tansy as a tonic for a weak heart and to stimulate the kidneys, the infusion may also be used externally for sprains and swellings and as a lotion for varicose veins.

Tansy is easily propagated by dividing the root and planting out the bits in the autumn. It grows in almost any soil, but should be kept well watered until it has established itself. The creeping roots will soon spread and can be a nuisance if left unchecked. Parkinson, Gerard and Coles noted that ‘the roote creepeth underground and shooteth up againe in divers places’ and even Eleanor Sinclair Rhode, a crusader for old fashioned plants and herbs, warns that ‘tansy is a rampant grower and should not be put near any choice plants, for the roots soon fill solidly several square feet of ground’. 

Magickal uses – Since this plant was given to Ganymede to make him immortal, tansy is carried to lengthen the life span. Ants don’t like tansy.

Tansy with cabbage
The pungent flavour of tansy adds a spiciness, like caraway seeds to cabbage. A white drum head cabbage is best, but any firm variety will do.

750g/ 1 ½ lbs firm cabbage
2 teaspoons finely chopped tansy leaves
2 tablespoons butter
Salt and pepper

Shred the cabbage and wash well. Cook the cabbage in a little lightly salted water until just tender, but still crisp. Drain. Melt the butter in a pan, shake in the chopped tansy, add the cabbage and seasoning and stir together to mix.

Tansy omelette
A small amount of tansy does wonders for an omelette, and the same amount – half a tablespoon of chopped tansy leaves to 6 eggs is equally nice with scrambled eggs.

6 eggs
Pinch salt & pepper
½ tablespoon chopped tansy leaves
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
Butter for frying

Break the eggs, season and mix lightly with a fork. Strip the tansy leaves from the mid rib, remove the parsley stalks, then chop both herbs finely and stir them into the ggs. Heat a small nut of butter in a pan, when very hot pour in the egg mixture and stir round with a fork, keeping the mixture moving. Do not overcook the top of the omelette should look like runny scrambled eggs. Leave on the heat for a few secons to set the bottom, then fold the omelette in half with a palette knife and slide on to a well heated serving dish.

Tansy Cake
The old recipes for tansy cakes which I tried out proved to be rather nasty, but as the pungent spicy taste of tansy is not unlike caraway seed, I flavoured a Madeira mixture with chopped tansy leaves and it turned out to be delicious.

150g/ 1 ½ cups/6 oz plain flour
50g/ ½ cup/2oz self raising flour
2 rounded teaspoons finely chopped tansy leaves
175g/scant 1 cup/7oz sugar or melted honey
150g/ ¾ cup/6oz margarine
4 eggs

Sift the two flours into a bowl, stir in the tansy and sugar. Add the butter and lightly mixed eggs, stir then beat well for one minute. Pour the mixture into a lined and greased 6in cake tin and bake in an oven (350F/180C/Gas 4) for 30 minutes. Lower the oven to 325F/170C/Gas 3 and finish baking the cake for 45 minutes to one hour until a skewer comes out cleanly. Stand for 1 minute, then turn the cake out onto a wire rack to cool.

Tansy Pudding
Adapted from a 16th Century recipe
50g/ ½ cup/2 oz ground almonds
100g/1cup/4oz self raising flour
A little grated nutmeg
1 tablespoon brandy or sherry
½ tablespoon chopped citron peel, or mixed chopped peel
½ tablespoon rosewater with ½ tablespoon sugar or honey
1 rounded teaspoon finely chopped tansy leaves
35g/ ¼ cup/ 1 1/2oz melted butter
450ml/scant 2 cups/ ¾ pint milk
Strained juice of ½ lemon
4 eggs

Mix together all the ingredients except the last three (milk, lemon juice and eggs) in a bowl. Boil the milk and pour onto the mixture, stirring with a fork. When the mixture is blood warm, add the lemon juice and the lightly whisked eggs. Pour into a well buttered pie dish and bake for 45 minutes in an oven at 350F/180C/Gas 4 until well risen and lightly browned.

Tansy Skin Tonic
A tonic to invigorate your skin.  Splash on your skin to refresh.

1 large handful tansy leaves
2/3 cup water
2/3 cup milk

Put the leaves, water and milk in a small pan and bring to the boil, simmer for 15 minutes, then allow to cool.

Strain the tonic into a bottle, keep in the fridge.

Apply cold to your skin as a soothing tonic or toner.


Sources – Edible Wild Plants & Herbs by Pamela Michael & Encyclopedia of Magical Herbs by Scott Cunningham, www.betweenclosefriends.com

Note: avoid tansy if you are pregnant, always test homemade lotions careful first to make sure you do not have an allergic reaction.


  1. Having tried adding tansy leaves to my cabbage, I'd suggest increasing the tansy quantity considerably.

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