Tansy: A Bitter Mint Alternative

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Tansy’s use was first recorded by the Greeks who used it mainly as a medicine and for preserving bodies before burial. The herb was still in use in the 8th century where it was planted in Charlemagne’s herb gardens, and Benedictine monks in Switzerland also used it. The ailments treated with tansy include fevers, rheumatism and intestinal worms.

Throughout the Middle Ages, tansy was strewn on the floors of homes, possibly because the herb was great for repelling mice and insects. Like costmary, tansy was sometimes called Bible leaf and was used to mark Bible pages.

Tansy became associated with meals during lent during the 1400s. It was used to represent the bitter herbs consumed by the Israelites in Egypt.

In the 1800s, Irish folk medicine often prescribed tansy baths as a treatment for rheumatism. The Irish also used it as a culinary herb, to season their traditional blood pudding.

The herb was well known in early American history and was most likely brought over to the Americas by European settlers. It was a popular element in funeral wreaths. In the 17th century, the Massachusetts governor recommended that tansy be grown in the state’s herb gardens.

While tansy is no longer considered effective by the standards of modern medicine, it has not been thrown out altogether. Herbalists still sometimes prescribe it for treating fevers and jaundice.

The name may have any of several origins. Just like the herb’s common names in the romance languages, the English name is traceable to the Latin word athanasia. Athanasia translates to immortality. The name may have come about because of the herb’s use in preparing bodies for burial.

Tansy is not widely cultivated, but is typically foraged instead.

Tansy flavor profile

Tansy has a reputation for bitterness. It is intensely bitter, which is one of the reasons that it has fallen out of favor as a culinary herb. Its aroma is similar to that of mint.

Health benefits of tansy

You should approach with caution, and it is strongly suggested that you not take the herb internally without the guidance of an experienced herbalist. However, it is known to have some important health benefits that come from the fact that it contains compounds like:

  • Thujone: Tansy contains a high concentration of the monoterpene thujone, which is what makes it effective against intestinal worms.
  • Bitter glycosides: The bitter glycosides in tansy can help it to ease fevers and to treat stomach disorders.

You can use tansy for its ability to treat or prevent conditions like:

  • Foodborne illness: One of tansy’s oldest applications is for preserving meat. Studies have shown that it is effective against E. coli bacteria and other microbes that can make you sick.
  • Digestive problems: Tansy is an effective carminative and can help to relieve indigestion.

Health concerns

Tansy contains high levels of pyrrolizidine alkaloids, which can cause serious health problems. Pregnant women should not consume tansy as it can induce miscarriages. While the thujone in tansy does offer some benefits, it can also cause hallucinations and convulsions.

Common uses

One of the traditional uses of tansy is as an alternative to mint in a mint sauce for lamb. However, mint sauce is a historical application and not one that you will see much anymore. You can use it to make a tea or add it in small amounts to salads for a spicy note. Tansy is rarely consumed internally.