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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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I was delighted by this piece. I know a number of abandoned farm steadings with tall stands of tansy. I remember long ago we used to put stems in flower under the straps of the bridles of work horses pestered endlessly by "clegs" aka Horse Flies believing it to help repel the blood sucking pests.
Thank you.

Snapdragon social

It is my birthday today and I intend to spend most of the day in the garden. 
There are a couple of orders to send out and some seedlings to drop off, but then it will just be me and this little menace pottering around the vegetable patch and putting seedlings in the ground (and hopefully not digging them up).
Then I will be away from the main Instagram feed for a couple of weeks. 
I will still pop up from time to time in the Studio Club stories feed, but otherwise I'll be on a social media break.

📷 @katgoldin 

#slowliving #mindfulgardening
My elder daughter Zoë asked for a stripy jumper knitted with wool dyed from the garden.
These are the finished skeins - currently curing in the studio - dyed with sweet cicely, dock, bay, birch and nettle.
In a month they will be ready to knit with.
The slowest of slow fashion.

#slowstitching #slowfashion #naturaldyeing #foragedcolour #foragedcolor #naturaldyersofinstagram #sustainablemaking #sustainablecraft #plantdyedyarn #plantdyes
I find that, unless I have a particular time set aside for doing something I often simply don’t get around to it.

Even when that thing takes half an hour, even when I really want to do it. 

So this weekend, in the Studio Club, we set aside some time to start making a balm from daisies. 
I videoed myself as I went along and was there to answer questions. 

It made me realise that it’s actually quite difficult to see from the outside all the things that go on in the Club week to week. 

So I’ve decided to send an extra email every month , just to the people on the waiting list, giving a access to something that is usually members only. 

If you’ve been wondering whether the Studio Club is for you, you can join the waiting list via my profile. 

The next opening is in August. 

#sustainablemaking #slowliving #seasonalhome #daisybalm #herbalife #startwhereyouare #
Kat Goldin came round for a cup of tea and a natter last week - and took this photo of me for the next edition of A Seasonal Way.
I'm posting it today because it shows off the dress that I am inordinately proud of having knitted! 

The bodice is the Deren cardigan by @jacquelinecieslak and the skirt just flares out from that into a mid calf twirl. 
My pride is in the keeping going with the knitting . . . and in eventually using up some of the cones of wool silk yarn that I bought from a mill closure in 1984.

📷 @katgoldin 

#derensweater #derenpullover #jacquelineceislak #embodycapsulecollection #memademay2022 #memademay #memademayplus #memade2022 #sustainablefashion #seasonalhome
A week in dyes - recycled cotton threads from the dye pots, sorted, labelled and curing in the Studio.
From left to right
Sweet Cicely and iron
Bloody dock
Bay and bloody dock
Bay and iron
Sweet Cicely and bloody dock,
Sweet Cicely

This year I’m exploring layering up colours and creating depth and also trying to work out how the base effects colour. 

#botanicaldye #alchemy #growyourowncolour #gameoftones #plantdyed #naturallydyedwool #plantdyersofinstagram #craftwithconscience
#shadesofnature #extractedfromnature #inspiredbynaturesbeauty
#slowstitching #sustainablemaking #foragedcolour
I picked this Black hero tulip when it fell down in the wind and put it so the evening light could shine through the petals - for unlit it looks a little undefined, a little absent, as many dark flowers do.
Then as I took this photo it reminded me of the art nouveau drawings of Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh - the willowy bend, the swoop of the curved base, the full head.
Now I find myself speaking to it as I pass.

#howihueit #simpleandstill #capturequiet #beautyyouseek #calm_collected #aseasonalway #aseasonalshift #cornersofmyworld #slowlived #slowandsimpledays #quietchaotics #tulipblackhero #windowsillwednesday #ihaveathingwithwindows #ofsimplethings #beautyinsimplicity #floralstories #allthingsbotanical #underthefloralspell #slowfloralstyle #petalsandprops #nestandflourish #livethelittlethings #thehappynow #ihavethisthingwithflowers #moodforfloral #cornersofmyhome #aseasonalway #slowlivingforlife #aflowerfilledlife
It is warm enough to have the doors to the dye deck open again - this week there are dock, sweet cicely, bay and nettle in the dye pots, a shuffling around as they steep and simmer.
Today I shall be writing up my initial results for dyeing with bloody dock (rumex sanguineus) for a Studio Club blog. 

I love having that space to put up progress reports - and the report is  very much in progress as the colours on wool and cotton were radically different - so members can follow along with my experiments.
Doors close to the Studio Club tomorrow - and the next intake of new members will be in August. If you fancy a summer of seasonal inspiration and slow living then you can find out more and join at

📷 @katgoldin 

#mystudio #simpleandstill #capturequiet #beautyyouseek #calm_collected #aseasonalway #aseasonalshift #cornersofmyworld #slowlived #slowandsimpledays #quietchaotics #ofsimplethings #beautyinsimplicity #allthingsbotanical #mindfulsewing #foragedcolour #nestandflourish #livethelittlethings #thehappynow  #plantdyersofinstagram #aseasonalway #slowlivingforlife
I wrote a letter to the new Studio Club members yesterday. 

It was all about Euan’s Granny, and what she said to me when I was a stressed thirty year old. 

It was about what I thought she meant at the time and what I realise she meant now. (The letter actually goes out tomorrow morning so don’t worry if you haven’t got it 😂)

Then I took this photo of tulips at the ends of the vegetable beds and I remembered that at the time I was receiving the grandmotherly advice was also the year that I grew striped tulips for the first time. It was in my back garden in Old Kilpatrick and I took a bunch through for her. 

When we look back there is often such rhythm to our lives. 

#growyourownflowers #slowliving #cornersofmygarden #slowflowers #aseasonalway

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In the Studio Club 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.

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