Dear Readers, I have been looking for tansy, with its tiny yellow pom-poms, for several years. It is common, but not in the back streets of East Finchley, and so I have had to go a little further afield, to Walthamstow Wetlands, where it grows in abundance. Many of its vernacular names refer to the shape of the flowers – bachelor’s buttons in Somerset, yellow buttons in some parts of Scotland, and bitter buttons in Morayshire, where the ‘bitter’ is said to refer to the taste of the plant.
Tansy is considered by some to be native to the UK, and by others to be an ancient introduction. It has been used for a wide variety of medicinal uses: Vickery’s Folk Flora recounts how a wineglass full of tansy infusion every morning was said to be a cure for worms, and the leaves were a cure for ‘the pip’, a parasite of chickens and young turkeys that lodged in the windpipe of the animals. Richard Mabey’s Flora Britannica relates how tansy was once eaten in a kind of omelette to kill off the ‘phlegm and worms’ which were a result of the fish diet eaten during the forty days of Lent. From the fifteenth to nineteenth centuries a ‘tansye’ was any kind of pancake or omelette flavoured with bitter herbs. One of my favourite foraging websites, Eat Weeds, has a recipe for a tansy and spinach pancake here which is adapted from a book written in 1788. You can also find a more modern recipe for Rose and Almond Tansy Pudding with Butternut Squash Icecream here.
The leaves were used as an aid to fertility by young couples in Cambridgeshire eager to start a family: because tansy was much eaten by rabbits, those symbols of fecundity, there may have been a kind of sympathetic magic going on. On the other hand, young women who lived on the Fens would chew tansy to procure a miscarriage, and the oil is said to be an efficient abortifacient.
The aromatic leaves were also used as a strewing herb on the stone floors of houses in the Shropshire countryside, and their smell is said to deter the infamous Colorado potato beetle, and so it is sometimes used as a companion planting in North American potato fields. Tansy oil is an effective insect repellent, but not as effective as DEET, though I doubt that tansy oil will burn a big hole in your camera case.
The Tansy Green pub in Bolton was named by local people after the large number of tansies which grew in the field before the housing development was built there. I think it is crying out for a pub sign with a painting of the plant, but it seems to be very popular with the community.
Tansy is also the main foodplant of the Nationally Rare tansy beetle (Chrysolina graminis), a leaf beetle with iridescent coppery-green wingcases so pretty that the Victorians are said to have used them as sequins. Sadly, the poor old tansy beetle is now limited to a 30km stretch of the River Ouse in York: it spends all its time on or around tansy, and as it isn’t known to fly, if a patch disappears it has to walk to the next one (so not much chance of it turning up at Walthamstow Wetlands under its own steam). The amount of tansy in the UK is in decline due to a variety of factors, not least of which is the rise of Himalayan balsam, which crowds out many other species. The Tansy Beetle Action Group are hot on the case however, doing everything from removing the aforementioned Himalayan balsam to making sure that landowners who are clearing ragwort because of its perceived danger to grazing animals know the difference between this plant and tansy. And I have just noticed that the acronym for the group is TBAG. Well done!
The larvae of the tansy beetle pupate underground, and this presents a number of problems: the area where they now live floods regularly in the winter, but there seems to be a very low mortality during hibernation, and so the pupa must be able to survive substantial periods of complete inundation, with no access to oxygen at all. When they emerge as adult beetles, they are prey to everything from birds to spiders, but they may also contain the volatile oils from the tansy plants that they eat, making them an unpleasant mouthful. I like the photo below, showing the pinch-marks on the wingcases of the beetle where a bird has picked it up and then thought better of it.
The work of TBAG reminds me of an article that I read by Oliver Burkeman in The Guardian this week. He talks about how overwhelming the problems of the world can be, and how difficult it is to feel as if you’re making any kind of difference. The antidote to this, in his view, is to pick something local that you feel strongly about and that you can get involved in. This feels true to me: we can spread ourselves so thinly over all the things that are wrong that we end up raising our anxiety levels to fever pitch and making no difference at all. It’s something to think about for sure. We do not, individually, have unlimited resources, but if everyone got involved in something that they cared about and worked together to make it better, who knows what we could achieve?
Tansy has also been used historically as a dye-plant, yielding a very pretty bright yellow result as you can see in the blogpost from Gage Hill Crafts in Vermont here. Tansy is widely naturalised in North America, and was used in the burial of the first president of Harvard University, Henry Dunster, in 1659 – he was laid to rest wearing a tansy wreath, and the coffin was packed with the plant. When the burial ground was moved over two hundred years later, in 1846, Dunster’s remains were easily identified because the plants had retained their shape and scent.
The name ‘tansy’ is thought to derive from the Greek word Athanathon, meaning ‘immortal’, possibly because the flowers do not wilt when dried, or because the leaves have been used (among their myriad other uses) to preserve meat. On the other hand, it is also one of the many plants that are said to induce a death in the family if planted in the garden. However, in Greek mythology, tansy is said to have been given to the youth Ganymede, who was abducted by Zeus in the form of an eagle – the herb made the human boy immortal, so that he could become cup-bearer to the Gods. Ganymede’s father was paid off with some ‘heavenly horses’ and the only creatures to have really missed him seem to have been the hounds who were with him when he was carried away – they are often depicted howling at the sky. Mythology tries to make sense of the randomness of fate, and to explain the inexplicable. I wonder if there ever was a prototype for Ganymede, and what actually happened to him?
And here is a poem. I love how Blunden evokes those long summer evenings, and conjures up those men of few words who did so much to shape the world around them, and who passed unremarked except by those who loved them. If looked at with attention, is there any such thing as an ordinary life?
Here they went with smock and crook,
Toiled in the sun, lolled in the shade,
Here they mudded out the brook
And here their hatchet cleared the glade:
Harvest-supper woke their wit,
Huntsmen’s moon their wooings lit.
From this church they led their brides,
From this church themselves were led
Shoulder-high; on these waysides
Sat to take their beer and bread.
Names are gone – what men they were
These their cottages declare.
Names are vanished, save the few
In the old brown Bible scrawled;
These were men of pith and thew,
Whom the city never called;
Scarce could read or hold a quill,
Built the barn, the forge, the mill.
On the green they watched their sons
Playing till too dark to see,
As their fathers watched them once,
As my father once watched me;
While the bat and beetle flew
On the warm air webbed with dew.
Men from whom my ways begin,
Here I know you by your ground
But I know you not within –
There is silence, there survives
Not a moment of your lives.
Like the bee that now is blown
Honey-heavy on my hand,
From his toppling tansy-throne
In the green tempestuous land –
I’m in clover now, nor know
Who made honey long ago.
Photo One from https://whatpub.com/pubs/BOL/087/tansy-green-bolton
Photo Two by By Geoff Oxford – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=13290854
Photo Three by By Zakhx150 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=61186472
Photo Four from CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=264055