The Studio is closed for holidays - the next dispatch date is 25th September

Journal

Tansy - its history and use

bunch of tansy on studio table

Tansy (Tanecetum vulgare) grows in the Studio Meadow - flowering through July and August, bright buttons of mustard flowers amidst the grass. It is in two large clumps, one at the top edge of the path, one down by the studio door. I think it must have been part of the original wild flower mix that we threw down on the bare soil right at the beginning. Here, in the damp cool Scottish climate, in our heavy soil, it spreads gently, it is gradually moving down the slope. In hotter countries though it multiplies faster - self seeding in light soils, bulking up fast. In many States in the US it is on the lists of noxious weeds.

Here in Scotland though it was an important useful plant in past centuries - one of the home herbal plants that were grown in gardens. It often stands as a marker of a dwelling in the landscape, persisting through the nettles and docks, the ghost of a croft.

The Ancient Greeks were the first that mention Tansy as a medicine. Its common name is derived from the Greek word for immortality Athanasia - in Greek mythology Zeus gave the shepherd Ganymede a drink of tansy to make him immortal.

But the main uses for tansy over the years have largely been due to its toxicity - it produces the toxic ketone thujone, which is also in wormwood. Thujone is an insecticide, it can kill parasites, cause hallucinations and, perhaps not surprisingly, can also be fatal. The amount of thujone differs wildly from plant to plant, which must have made its use medically a bit hit and miss.

The main use of tansy in medieval times was as an insect repellent - the stems were collected and dried in August. They were then used as strewing herbs on the floor (along with meadowsweet), put between mattresses and sheets to deter lice, and made into a rub for raw meat to stop flies.

The dried flowers were worn in shoes and on belts for a wide range of ailments - but particularly for rheumatism and infertility in women.

The latter is ironic as tansy tea, basically what I have been boiling up in my dye pot this month, was one of the main methods of abortion from the thirteenth to nineteenth century. Illicit printed guides of the time suggested drinking tansy tea daily for a week to 'bring on delayed menses'. The infamous C19th New York abortionist Anne Lohman (Madame Restell) gave out concoctions of tansy and turpentine to her patients from her 5th Avenue consulting room. Relying on toxicity to work, these methods probably caused liver, kidney and brain damage, possibly even death, in many of women who resorted to them.

This natural toxicity also works in the garden - it will deter ants (if you really want to do that) and scientists looking for organic ways to deter the Colorado potato beetle in the US found tansy to be the most effective - planting it in strips surrounding the potatoes kept them beetle free. Ladybirds love it though.

Slightly peculiarly, given that it is well known to be poisonous, tansy has traditionally been used in cooking - it is associated with lenten cooking in the Christian church, and was cooked into Easter Day cakes as a reminder of the bitter herbs of the Jewish Passover.

I really wouldn't recommend eating it though as the toxic compounds vary from plant to plant and there is no way of telling.

I grow tansy as a dye material - weld, which is a traditional dye plant giving yellows, struggles in the Scottish climate so tansy has long been an alternative source of yellow dye. It gives a clear bright yellow which can then be over dyed with other colours like blue from indigo to give bright green.

I dyed some alpaca house socks for sale and a selection of wool for a striped jumper that I'm gradually knitting. It is a simple dye - simmer the flowers and/or stems for an hour and leave to cool then strain. I found that leaving it for a long time in the pan caused a saddening of the colour to a gold.

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Seraphina's eleven babies have grown so fast.⁠⠀
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Now when she tries to gather them under her - usually if she hears the buzzard overhead - they all head under her feathers but their heads and tails stick out the side.⁠⠀
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She seems unperturbed and a little like an overstuffed tea cosy.
I think that the last time I had this wooden clothes horse out was when we needed to dry cloth nappies c. 2001.⁠⠀
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The plant dyed alpaca house socks have all cured now, the dye is well sunk into the fibres, so over the past couple of days I've been washing and pressing and packaging them.⁠⠀
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The link to the shop page for them will go out in Friday's newsletter first - the actual newsletter is all about the dye deck and if you want to get it straight into your inbox you can sign up on the website www.snapdragonlife.com or through my profile.⁠⠀
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These were all dyed with tansy - the very yellow ones from the plant at the top of the Studio meadow, the slightly more orange ones from the plant down by the Studio door.
Last year, in the spring,  I got a tiny amount of seed of a grey Shirley poppy. ⁠⠀
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I sowed half and gave half to @gracealexanderflowers .⁠⠀
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None came up, in my garden at least.⁠⠀
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This year two plants have appeared - a little fey and wan as Shirley poppies go, but with definitely grey flowers. ⁠⠀
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Well kind of a purply grey . . . and if I'm honest I prefer the rich plums of Pandora . . . but It is eminently instagrammable.
Yesterday Seth Godin wrote that instead of getting our ideas spread like wildfire (uncontrolled, destructive, leaving nothing) we should get them to spread like wildflowers instead.⁠⠀
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I loved this idea.  Ideas that self seed and spread in groups, ideas that place themselves where they are happiest, where they can thrive.⁠⠀
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Ideas that take root in unpromising places and bring joy.

These daisies moved into the top of the Studio Meadow last year- spreading from the garden rather than the fields- but wilding themselves none the less.
A bright new morning starting a bright new week. ⁠⠀
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A row of dog daisies and love in a mist, fresh and light and optimistic.⁠⠀
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I feel like I'm hovering on the edge of planning things outside my studio this week. It is tentative.⁠⠀
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Today I have a meeting about something that will involve me leaving the premises. I'm part excited, part terrified - I think they are probably the same things in many ways.⁠⠀
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I'm building up to going on holiday in a few weeks. It feels vertiginous.  I definitely need to build my social muscles back up.⁠⠀
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The globe thistles shouldn't be there. ⁠⠀
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It was meant to be a temporary nursery bed.⁠⠀
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They were a root cutting from my parents' garden - memories of pulling off the heads as missiles.⁠⠀
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It is the perfect place for them.⁠⠀
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Low sun barrels along the path as the gloaming comes. ⁠⠀
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They glow in the golden hour.⁠⠀
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I leave the heads alone.
Of all the half hardy annuals that are beginning to flower here, I think that cosmos purity is my favourite. ⁠⠀
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Happy and light and generous with its flowers.⁠⠀
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As you pick it, the foliage smells that dense herby/incense way that is perfect for the late summer/early autumn time.
Yesterday I was chatting to Eileen, who volunteers in the garden on Wednesday mornings, about how the Studio meadow changes in the light.  In particular how the warmer light in August - especially the soft evening light - makes everything glow.⁠⠀
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Walking back from checking things at work I snapped these big daisies with a speckle of purple loosestrife behind them.  Softly glowing.⁠⠀
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About Snapdragon Life

At Snapdragon Life I gently guide you through bringing the changing seasons into your daily life, helping you slow down, so that you can experience increased well being, calm and creativity.

Through my communities, both free and paid for, through my writing on the blog, through carefully hand crafted activity kits, and through my online and in-person workshops I aim to bring people back in touch with the rhythms of a seasonal life.

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