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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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When I was at University it was the time of the Poll Tax, an unpopular tax made even more unpopular by being implemented in Scotland a year before the rest of the UK - 'Thatcher's guinea pigs'.⁠⠀
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It was a time of demonstration and violence with 50,000 marching in Glasgow, 1 million Scots refusing to pay. ⁠⠀
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It was a time Sheriff's Officers and poind sales of possessions. ⁠⠀
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Coalition student groups were formed - Socialist and Feminist and Anarchist and so on - there were big meetings in the Union, debates about a name and a logo and a manifesto. I remember lots of young, middle class, white men talked at length.  I remember that very, very little got done - a bus was organised to take students to Glasgow for the protests. ⁠⠀
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In the meantime, up the hill from the campus, three women (I thought of them as old at the time but I'm sure they were the age I am now) simply stood outside the auctions and asked nobody to attend.  They stood by the front doors, they explained their reasons, they prevailed.  They possibly looked randomly menacing in that way middle aged women can.⁠⠀
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People calmly bought back their possessions for 50p and their debts were squared. Action, meaningful results, a recognition that the personal is political - all while the student groups still debated their slogans.⁠⠀
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I've been thinking about those women a lot recently. If they were the age I think they were, they will be queuing up for their vaccines this month.
In my happy place.⁠⠀
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In the winter months The Studio is the centre of my working life. ⁠⠀
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This was yesterday.  Trimming pieces of vintage velvet fabric for the Studio Club shop; alpaca socks drying in the dispatch room behind me (we now have size 8-10 in stock too); a roll @scottishlinen seconds to experiment with hogging the cutting table.⁠⠀
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Bright and light and inspiring.
Starting the week with a photo from last year (simply because I lost a lot of this weekend to fatigue, so didn't take a new photo.)⁠⠀
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Budgie, my beautiful and psychotic cat, with a windowsill of white amaryllis. ⁠⠀
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Worth a second outing.
The proposed airstream conversion is in for planning permission approval at the moment, so that we change change its use from (neglected) artist's workshop into beautiful holiday accommodation.⁠⠀
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In my vision for this we get to use the paid holidaymaking element to subsidise some artist's residencies - painters, writers, musicians, makers coming here to soak up the landscape and be inspired.⁠⠀
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At the moment though I'm still at the stage of answering environmental health questions about quite how loud I am in my Studio and how we will light the path to the compost loo.
Yesterday my elder daughter, who lives in London, messaged me to say that our local DPD driver Slav was being given an award by @official.dpd.uk for his outstanding service. 

It was because of the hundreds of messages that they had been sent commenting on his helpfulness, incredible good cheer, and parcel based problem solving.⁠⠀

Slav has been an important part of my lockdown life here. ⁠⠀
When roads look like this, good delivery drivers are a vital (and hopefully appreciated) part of life.⁠⠀
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As my younger daughter chimed in “Go Slav!
This photo is from last week - but I see through the gloom that it has snowed overnight .⁠⠀
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This part of the garden is outside our bedroom, the beech hedge borders the road, it used to be a drive when our bedroom was a garage.⁠⠀
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Now it has a birch tree (symbolic for me of my miscarried babies, as I had to leave their actual birch trees behind when we moved here) surrounded by lots of box grown from small plants and cuttings.⁠⠀
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We buried Jasmine, my scruffy miniature schnauzer, here in the summer, so in some ways it is becoming a garden for sitting on the bench and remembering and watching the birds.  I shall ask my ever generous  friend Nadja for some snowdrops to plant in the grass.⁠⠀
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In my mind, eventually, the box balls will become like the ones on the front of @arnemaynardgardendesign book Garden Design Details - but this year they remain unclipped. ⁠⠀
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I suspect box blight in the back garden and @jekkamcvicar points out that unclipped box does not get blight.⁠⠀
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I love old gates - particularly old gates that stand in the middle of old unused spaces, leading to nowhere, keeping nothing in.⁠⠀
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A memory of another time.
Last year - while I was dyeing socks out on my Studio deck, I was also dyeing wool yarn. ⁠⠀
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Wool dyed with docks and nettle, gorse and meadowsweet, onions and plum bark all from the garden and lane.⁠⠀
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Over the winter I gathered the wool skeins together - all the soft bright colours - and knitted myself an oversized stripy jumper. ⁠⠀
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@rhiannonconnelly described it as wearing 'a hug from my garden' and I think she was spot on. ⁠⠀
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The pattern is the 'After the Rain' sweater by @heidikdesigns but with random stripes as I wasn't sure how much of each colour I had. #aftertherainsweater
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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.

 

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