Like its cousin, feverfew, tansy is native to Europe and naturalized throughout North America. According to Greek mythology, the plant gave immortality to Ganymede, the cup-bearer of the gods. Both its common and genus names come from the Greek word for immortality, athanasia. Because of its strong odor, tansy is a natural insect repellent.
In the Middle Ages, dried tansy was strewn on floors, hung from rafters, and packed between bed sheets and mattresses to discourage lice, flies, and other vermin from attacking people as they slept. It has also been used in embalming, packed in coffins, and wrapped in funereal garments to keep away insects, as well as rubbed on meats as a preservative.
Common Name: Tansy
Description: Vigorous perennial, up to 4 feet tall; spreads by underground rhizomes; dark green, fernlike foliage; loose clusters of yellow flower heads, 1⁄3 to ½ inch across
Hardiness: To Zone 4
Flowering: Midsummer to late summer
Parts Used: Leaves and flowers
Range/Habitat: Native to Europe, naturalized throughout North America; found along roadsides
In the past, tansy was used to relieve indigestion, rid the body of intestinal worms, and induce abortion; however, the plant contains varying levels of toxic thujone, a compound also found in wormwood and used to make absinthe.
Caution: Even in small amounts, tansy is highly poisonous and not recommended for medicinal use.
Tansy’s lush foliage and golden, buttonlike blooms add interest to garden beds and everlasting arrangements. Try fernleaf tansy (Tanacetum vulgare ‘Crispum’) — a shorter form with more delicate foliage — in a container or along a pathway, where passersby will brush against the leaves to release their fragrance.
As a dye, the young leaves and flowering tops produce yellows and greens in wool. Tansy was also traditionally used as an insect repellent, although modern housekeepers and gardeners report mixed results. Consider experimenting with the old-time practices of planting tansy near a doorway to deter flies, or tucking sprigs into kitchen cabinets to repel ants.
How to grow it
Considered a weedy plant, tansy is extremely easy to grow and can become invasive if not contained. If you wish to grow it in a border or garden bed, plant it in a pot with drainage holes, and sink the pot into the ground. Plant tansy in spring or fall in average soil and full sun to partial shade. Harvest the leaves and flowering stems as needed throughout the growing season.