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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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The packing bench in the studio.⁠⠀
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Sometimes I turn around and things just look so pretty together.⁠⠀
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Labelling pale pink socks with the plant they were dyed with and the date they went into the dye pot.⁠⠀
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The perfect almond glue for sticking paper, jute string for tying things up.⁠⠀
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Amazingly I didn't even have to tidy up to take a photo - though it is quite a tight crop and the background is a blur.⁠⠀
For the past year the bedroom windowsill has been neglected. It has had stones and bones and the blue speckled pot of bird food, but no flowers.⁠⠀
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I couldn't really work out why.⁠⠀
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Then, as soon as I got the urge to line up my vases again,I realised what the problem had been. ⁠⠀
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In March last year - as I was shielding and Euan is a front line worker - I moved to the spare room. ⁠⠀
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I was very, very bad at it - despite the room being very nice - and huffed and moped and felt I was being punished. I eventually slunk back to my own bed after two months. ⁠⠀
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The deal was that if Euan thought it was a risk he would phone from work and I would move my things back to the spare bedroom.⁠⠀
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I kept expecting - despite all the precautions, the scrubs, the showering - that I might have to go back. ⁠⠀
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Last week I had my second jab, the numbers look good, and, though Scotland is behind England in opening up, I can see the country beginning to relax. ⁠⠀
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It felt safer, I went and found a jug for the cherry blossom.
I began doing freehand embroidery when my daughters were tiny - a deliberate wiggle and flourish when hemming seemed preferable to my wobbly attempts at keeping the needle straight.⁠⠀
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Then, when I began to sew commercially to have some income in the winter months, it seems like the perfect technique.⁠⠀
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Getting the chance to exhibit at the Country Living Fair in 2005 got me speeded up and it certainly felt like my thousands of hours were put in then.⁠⠀
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Today I start teaching an e-course to Studio Club members which will hopefully enable them to begin drawing with they sewing machines.⁠⠀
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The module that will arrive with them today is all about machines and materials - with the message that the simpler the machine the better.⠀
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It gave me a chance to tidy my sewing desk.
Today is the last day to sign up as a member of the Studio Club.⁠⠀
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So if you are ready for more connection and creativity in your life . . . .⁠⠀
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If you could do with a bit of calm and gentle joyfulness . . . . ⁠⠀
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If you want to find out more about the living things around you . . . to slow down . . . to feel more 'at home' . . .⁠⠀
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Then head over to my website snapdragonlife.com to find out more.⁠⠀
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There is a 'Pay what you can' option -  it is always the most difficult to get people to sign up for, and yet I know if would be perfect for so many.
It has been a joy this week to see the bantam hens all out enjoying their freedom.⁠⠀
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It is the one point in the year when we have an abundance of eggs - they are late starters and then hide them all as soon as the weather warms up.⁠⠀
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I have been spending time sitting watching them peck around the orchard - feathers ruffled by the wind, heads down eyes trained for tasty morsels.⁠⠀
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I decided to make a hen embroidery the last part of the 'freehand machine embroidery' e-course that starts on Tuesday. ⁠⠀
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The aim is to break downtime the processor freehand embroidery into very simple steps - with a different exercise each week, building skills and confidence until you can draw with a sewing machine by week 5.⁠⠀
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The course is included in the Studio Club membership - if you want to take it live, week by week, you have 24 hours to join up.  Details on snapdragonlife.com
This week I have been drawn to white and bright and light.⁠⠀
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In the flowers I picked for the Studio Window.⁠⠀
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In the cool white Scottish linen I've been embroidering.⁠⠀
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It's a clean feeling, a throwing off - probably because I've been stuck with a dragging, draining fatigue for a few weeks.⁠⠀
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It's that wondrous clarity that you get when you realise that you can open your eyes wide again.
If I could persuade people of two things they would be . . .⁠⠀
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1. to seek alternatives for domestic cut flowers until their local field flowers are blooming (which is almost now here in Scotland ).⁠⠀
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and . . . ⁠⠀
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2. to pay attention to the daily changes where you live.⁠⠀
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These are snippets of hawthorn and hornbeam hedge arranged in test tubes - but they could also be in bottles or small vases and they could be any kind of deciduous tree or shrub. ⁠⠀
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Every day they emerge a little more, every hour they catch the light in a different way.  All week they have made me smile.⁠⠀
Last year I dumped a load of finished tulips from pots into a metal box, intending to plant them out in the garden.⁠⠀
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I completely forgot and all summer the box looked as through it was just a heap of used compost.⁠⠀
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Most days I walked past it - always intending to take it to the compost heap - until last month it began to sprout.⁠⠀
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This is some of the 'free' (if rather mangled) tulips from the box.⁠⠀
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I have replanted them into the old terracotta pots and propped up the wayward stems with bits of hedge.⁠⠀
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Then - I promise - I shall plant them out properly when the finish flowering this time.
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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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