Feverfew (tanacetum parthenium)

Feverfew’s common English name refers to its earliest use to treat fevers, along with headaches. The ancient Greek physician Dioscorides (ca. 40–90 CE) valued the herb for its effect on the uterus. It was often used in childbirth to help with the delivery of the afterbirth, if contractions were not regular. In more recent times, it has been taken as a tonic, and a Cuban variety has been used as an ingredient in confectionaries and wines, as an aromatic to ward off disease, and as an insect repellent.


Plant profile

Common Name: Feverfew

Description: Vigorous, hardy biennial or perennial, 2 to 3 feet tall; small, white, daisylike flowers in tight, flat-topped clusters; strongly scented alternate leaves up to 4 inches long

Hardiness: To Zone 6

Family: Asteraceae

Flowering: Midsummer to late summer

Parts Used: Flowers and leaves

Range/Habitat: Native to Europe, naturalized in temperate regions, including North America

Culinary use

Feverfew has an extremely bitter taste. In Italy, it is sometimes used as a seasoning (in small amounts) to stimulate the appetite.

Medicinal use

Feverfew has long been used to treat fevers and headaches. In the 1970s, it was discovered that consuming the fresh leaves could ward off migraines along with the nausea, vomiting, and sensitivity to light that accompany them. This discovery, made by a Welsh physician’s wife, spawned a great deal of clinical research on the bioactivity and clinical efficacy of this plant.

The herb contains the compound parthenolide, a sesquiterpene lactone that inhibits the release of prostaglandins and histamine, preventing the blood vessel spasms in the head that cause migraine attacks. For best effect, the herb, often in pill form, is taken regularly and at the onset of a migraine.

Feverfew also has antispasmodic activity, making it useful in the treatment of indigestion and menstrual problems such as cramps and amenorrhea. Feverfew leaves can be applied externally to soothe the pain and itching of insect bites.

Caution: Feverfew should not be used during pregnancy. Those who take blood-thinning medications should consult with their health-care provider before using this herb. Some people are allergic to feverfew and other members of this plant family.

Ornamental use

The herb has many outstanding cultivars. Plant low-growing varieties as annuals in rock gardens, window boxes, or containers for summer and fall blooming.

Other uses

The pulverized flowers can be used to make an insect repellent spray or dust.

How to grow it

Feverfew grows in well-drained, dry soil in full sun or partial shade. Plant seeds or root divisions in spring or fall. Deadhead the flowers to prevent self-seeding. Harvest leaves and flowers as needed throughout the growing season.