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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

A few people have asked for a list of the restaurants in Hvar that we loved best. To be honest we didn’t have a single bad meal - the food is beautifully sourced and cooked, informal, seasonal delicious. But there were a few places that were particularly good. 

First if you are flying into Zadar airport and have time to spend in the town then @konobastomoricazadar is worth a visit. The cuttlefish and chickpea soup/stew was the best thing I’ve eaten this year. 

In Hvar itself @konobamenego is a cosy restaurant with a great menu of traditional food, including vegetarian options, we shared a plate of marinated fish (eel I think) and then I had courgettes and aubergines in a sweet and sour sauce prepared to a family recipe. Go early as once they are full that’s  it, there is no squashing in extra sittings, the kitchen staff need time off. I loved this. 

Our nearest town was Stari Grad and we lived @antikastarigrad - tables set outside so we could people watch, great food. Celery and smoked mussel soup with pine nuts 👌🏻

The dog is the photo was snapped at #konobahumac - a deserted hilltop village which featured in last week’s Friday film. There is a small restaurant with a wood fired kitchen - you can either order 24 hours in advance for traditional dishes cooked under a dome or have simple grilled meats and salads. Simplicity is wonderful. 

I’ll continue this in the comments.
Back from holiday, looking a little less frazzled than my pre-holiday photo and I'm trying to keep it like that (which is why Instagram posts are now in the afternoon - I'm reading in the morning).
In this week's Friday film I talk about the difficulty that I've always had in not working while on holiday and why that is a great mistake and what changed this year.
For me getting proper rest is important for living my best life.  It isn't a sneaky productivity trick - I don't want to rest on holiday so that I can work more efficiently when I get home.  I want to rest so that I can feel more alive, stand taller, be more vibrant.
I've also added in a film of the sea, a courtyard garden and a deserted hilltop village to show you why Hvar is one of the best places to go if you need a little relaxation.  The link is in stories.

#hvar #mudridolac #smallbusiness
This is a woman who is about to head off on holiday but has packed absolutely nothing.

Today’s Friday film is out - I’ll post the link in stories - and it’s all about why I’m deleting social media apps while I’m away, what is the kind of ‘work’ that I find revitalising on holiday and what stops me relaxing. And a tour of what I actually do day to day (minus the boring bits). 

Here till 5pm today and then away for a couple of weeks. 

Knitting is #heirloomquiltcardigan by @katrynseeburger
I seem to have spent this year writing about plants that have turned out to not be what they were meant to be . .  but that I have grown to love more than whatever it was I thought I wanted.

There were meant to be Hopi black dye sunflowers, Tceqa' Qu' Si, (Helianthus annuus macrocarpus). They clearly are not.

I've never actually grown giant sunflowers - and these tower over the sweet pea tunnel, gawky, heads bowed.

I love them.  The birds will love them even more.
I'm not really a person who is very good at theory.  I'm not enthused by swatches.  I was never good at experiments in science class.

I mean I appreciate the science in botanical dyeing, and I really, really appreciate the people whose brains work that way, but it just isn't me.

I love the process but even more I love the result.

I think that the most obvious example of this is the ongoing knitted blanket - three stripes from every plant that I try dyeing with in the garden.  A record of sorts. The best I can do.

At the moment a lot of the dyeing and making and embroidering that I do is centered around clothes - bought second hand and made more beautiful. I'm inspired by @prophet_of_bloom and @thedogwooddyer and they way they wear their creativity.

I've bought this silk camisole from Vinted (it was described as vintage but I refuse to believe that the 1990s are vintage). I've now dyed it with fresh indigo for my younger daughter, a mermaid blue, gently mottled teal.

The photos of the process are up on my blog - last night I gave it another coat of leaves so I am now waiting for it to dry to check the colour before I post it to Katie.

#botanicaldye #naturaldyeing #prelovedclothes
In the early summer this rose - nicknamed the
This week's all about managing my energy - I go on holiday in a week and traditionally I've been terrible at pacing myself in the run up to a break.
Everything seems to get out of hand and pile up on my desk, leaving me exhausted and crabby. 
This year I'm determined not to let that happen so I'm building in plenty of the things that I know buoy me up into my days - rest, creativity, nature.
The rest and the making are being combined in making squares for the Heirloom Quilt Cardigan - a wonderful pattern by @katrynseeburger - which I'm knitting in a linen/bamboo yarn that I botanically dyed a couple of years ago and have been hoarding ever since.
You can see what I'm on about in stories . . . .
Often people tell me that they would love to learn to dye with plants but they don't have a garden, or they worry about foraging for plants or that they run out of time and never get around to it.
I completely get that. I am the same.  Life is busy and unless things are easy I often let the desire slide.
It is why I am spending time each day drying out the dye plants that I grow here and packing them up into sealable envelopes - each decorated with a drawing.
I want to make it easier for people to try out botanical dyeing with a wider range of plants than is generally available.  So far I've been packing up willowherb and dahlia flowers alongside the more traditional marigold and dyer's chamomile.
I'm not completely sure what form this will all eventually take - kits that make everything easy perhaps, possibly a 'workshop in a box' kind of thing.  I'm currently trying to work out all the practicalities while prioritising making sure the flowers and leaves are packaged properly so that they won't spoil while I work out the details.
At some point, if you are on my newsletter list, you will no doubt get an email with some questions in it! 
But in the meantime let me know what you think - what would you value in a botanical dyeing kit? Help me make something that will inspire people to create something beautiful.

#dyersofinstagram #botanicaldye #botanicaldyersofinstagram #tagetesdye

About Snapdragon Life

At Snapdragon Life I help bring 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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