by Barbara I. Adaikpoh
Adorning the country roadsides as well as waste lands in the northern hemisphere, are the bright yellow flowers of Tansy (Tanacetum vulgare L.), Its common name is derived from the term ‘immortality’ because the flowers do not wilt when dry. There are some controversial traditional medicinal uses for Tansy, including, among others: treating stomach cramps, joint pains and de-worming. In modern times, it is used as an insecticide and as a dye. This article aims to give a critical review of the available information on Tansy, providing transdisciplinary analysis of its biological, possible medicinal and non-medicinal uses importance as well as its toxicity to the general public.
Tanacetum vulgare L., simply called Tansy belongs to the Asteraceae. It is also referred to as “Common Tansy”, “Buttons”, “Parsley fern” and “Daisy” but should not be confused with other plants having similar vernacular names like “Tansy ragwort” (Senecio jacobaea L.) or “Blue tansy” (Tanacetum annuum L.), which both can be distinguished easily based on a range of morphological characteristics (LeCain and Sheley, 2014). Tansy is related to Feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium (L.) Sch.Bip) and also to the species of Chrysanthemum and Chamomile. They all belong to the same family (Asteraceae) having a similar structure of their flowers (the Compositae flowerheads) and chemical constituents.
Although suggested to be indigenous to Europe, Tansy can also be found throughout the temperate zones in the northern hemisphere, growing as wild weed on waste ground, roadsides and close to water (Chevallier, 2000). They are very invasive and are generally avoided by some grazing animals (Van-Vleet, 2009). Tansy is said to be introduced to North and South America, Australia and New Zealand by European travellers perhaps as early as the 16th century (Invasive Species Compendium, 2015).
In North America, there has been great interest in the spread rate and level of invasiveness of Tansy leading to concerns that the aggressive nature of its growth and establishment could affect water flow in irrigation ditches as well as reducing forage value of pasture and rangelands. Investigations on how to control the weed has been a main focus for governmental agencies in certain states in the United States of America (LeCain and Shely, 2014; Chevallier, 2000)
Tansy is one of the herbs found in Mecklenburgh Square garden. Visitors can see it in full bloom in the summer, when it gives its characteristic floral colour. It also attracts bees and hoverflies to your garden.
Tansy can be cultivated from seeds or by root division and requires full or partial sunlight, well-drained soil. It prefers sandy soil that ranges from neutral to slightly basic and loamy soil types and a minimum spacing of 4 feet between each plant (as they grow competitively with other plants). Spring is the best time to plant Tansy, plant division can be done between March and May and transplanting should be done in the summer. The herb usually flowers between August and September. It is a self-pollinating plant, having both the male and female parts (stamens and ovaries) on each plant. Tansy also makes an excellent container plant if watered well in the summer and grown in a large pot. Due to potential allergenic effects it is important to wear gloves, protective clothing and to exercise caution while handling the Tansy herb (Invasive Species Compendium, 2015)
Tansy can be infested by some herbivorous arthropods and slugs which causes significant reduction in their aerial and root parts depending on the type of pest and thus reduces their vitality. They can also be controlled biologically by some fungal pathogens such as Puccinia tanaceti. (Invasive Species Compendium, 2015)
A close observation of these perennial herbs reveals long woody rhizomes and erect stems which are usually 50 – 150cm tall with leaves (in alternate arrangement) up to 20cm long and 3 – 10cm wide. Their leaf shape is bipinnatisect having an elongate-ovate shape with a dentate margin. The inflorescences present as clusters of flat button shaped flower heads each having up to 200 florets. Individual flowers are yellow, 2-3mm long and 5-lobed. The flowers and leaves gives off an aromatic scent which can be strong and unpleasant when crushed (Zaurov et al, 2013).
Historical and Modern uses
The name “Tanacetum” comes from the Greek word “Athanasia” meaning “Immortality”. In Greek mythology, Zeus ordered that Tansy flowers be put into the drink of Ganymede to immortalize him as cupbearer to the gods (Renfrew and Sanderson, 2005). The association of Tansy with immortality could be due to the fact that its flowers do not wilt when dry and which could be why they were used to preserve corpses (as a form of embalmment) in the Middle Ages (LeCain and Sheley, 2014).
The cultivation of Tansy plant by the ancient Greeks is the first mention of its possible usage for medicinal purposes. Additionally, it was recorded to have been grown in the herb gardens of Charlemagne and by the Benedictine monks of the Swiss monastery of Saint Gall in the 8th century (Invasive Species Compendium, 2015). Irish folklore from the 19th century claims that taking a bath with a solution of Tansy flowers and salts would cure joint pain (Egan, 1887). In Russian folk medicine, an infusion of the flowers are said to be used for wound healing, improving appetite and as analgesic (Zaurov et al, 2013).
Photograph: Tanacetum vulgare herb (Holopainen 2002)
In the 12th century medieval herbalists such as Sister Hildegard of Bingen used it, while the leaves and shoots were used in England to make pudding, omelettes and/or cakes during lent, acting either as a worm expellant since fish were typically consumed this period, or for religious purposes (Chevallier, 2000). In colonial America, the herb was said to have been used as a preservative for perishable foodstuffs (including meat) (LeCain and Sheley, 2014); and may be linked to the traditional practices of the colonists.
Tansy preparations have also been claimed to be anthelmintic (de-worming) and abortifacient treatments; for stomach cramps and ulcers, burns, dropsy, tooth ache, gout, joint pain, sprains, wound healing, and dysmenorrhea (Herbal Medicines, 4th Ed) in traditional medicine. There are no published justifications for some of these uses and little to no information on the mentioned cultural attachments to these claims.
Presently, many products with questionable quality and safety claiming to contain Tansy for “homeopathic use” (such as Tanac, Homeopathic Tansy and Rainfarn) can be found on the internet, but there are no articles mentioning any Tansy product on the British Homeopathic Association (BHA) website.
In Poland, a 100ml herbal preparation (Artemisol tincture) includes Tansy as one of its active ingredients is indicated for head lice. Similarly Weiss (2001), in his book (Weiss’s herbal medicine) described a few herbal mixtures that included Tansy for the treatment of (but not without caution) tapeworm and thread worm infestation. Tansy can also be found listed in the United States Homeopathic Pharmacopoeia as treatments for colds and fever (LeCain and Sheley, 2014).
Despite this, it is important to know that the Medicines and Healthcare product Regulatory Agency (MHRA) has not registered any traditional herbal medicinal product containing tansy and it is illegal to sell tansy products as a medicinal product in the United Kingdom. In essence, this implies that no medical claims can be made for a product containing tansy
There are records of some current and interesting non – medicinal uses of Tansy and these include:
• As food: Tansy is said to be used as a spice (for meat, fish and meat pies) or as a garnish in salads, omelettes and pudding cheese, as well as drunk as a tea (Invasive Species Compendium, 2015) although there are no confirmations as to what plant part, or its quantities, or whether the right plant species is being used. The Council of Europe (Sundh and Amberg-Muller, 2006) listed Tansy as a natural source of food flavouring (category N3) but Tansy oil is prohibited from use as food flavouring by the food Additives and contaminants Committee (FACC) as a result of its thujone content. A restriction is placed on the concentration of thujone to be no more than 0.01mg/kg.
• Insecticidal activities: Thujone (a chemical substance or natural product found in tansy) has a powerful insecticidal property against fleas, houseflies, some ants, mites and mosquitoes However, it is also of toxicological concern (Chiasson et al, 2001). Camphor has a strong repellent activity against potato beetles (Schearer, 1984). These properties can be seen in the growing plant or dried plant part and Tansy is usually planted around some herbs and trees for this specific purpose.
• As Dyes: The leaves and shoot provides a green dye while a yellow dye can be extracted from the flowers (Buchanan, 1999). Johnson (No date) describes a detailed process of using the flowers to dye fabrics. This property is employed by a non-profit organisation that promotes the growing of Tansy and collection of the dyes in West Louisville. These dyes are then used to design fabrics by the local female, thereby providing employment opportunities, fair wages and economic empowerment helping to save women from being forced to become sex workers in India (Anchal project, 2014). There are also some local artists who use these dyes for their paintings.
Some scientific evidence
Tansy contains a wide range of chemical substance, which are responsible for its effects. These include the volatile oil consisting mostly of thujone and camphor (found in higher concentrations in the flowers than in the leaves), common plant steroids (β-Sitosterol, campesterol, stigmasterol), sesquiterpene lactone and other compounds like flavonoids, resins and tannins (Herbal Medicines, 2013). Certain secondary metabolites are generally known to have therapeutic effects.
The knowledge of these secondary metabolites, and in most cases, coupled with the claimed traditional uses of Tansy have encouraged a number of research publications on extracts from this species. However, the methodology of some of these studies are often questionable as the results cannot easily be correlated to the effects seen in the human system.
In summary, some publications have shown that parthenolide (Bork et al 1997) which is a type of sesquiterpene could have anti-ulcer (Kumar and Tyagi, 2013) and anti-inflammatory effects (Kumar and Tyagi, 2013; Schinella et al, 1998) , while others have showed that thujone and other essential oils could have antimicrobial (Hethelyi et al, 1981) and anthelmintic (de-worming) effects (Godinho et al, 2014). There have also been some reports on the immunity enhancing effects from present acid polysaccharides (Xie, Schepetkin and Quinn, 2007). In the search for novel anti-cancer drugs, a few in-vitro tests showed some activity (Gospodinova et al, 2014; Rosselli et al, 2012) and animal studies were carried out reporting that there could be an antitumor activity (Herbal Medicines, 2013) However, all thi sis in essence uncorroborated.
There is currently no data on completed human clinical trials for each of these “possible medicinal properties” or where these properties have been compared against already available medications to see if any significantly relevant differences occur.
Caution and risks interactions
Thujone is very toxic and is responsible for the neurotoxicity (damages to the nervous system) experienced after ingesting Tansy. This usually leads to convulsions and hallucinations since thujone is also poisonous to brain cells (Bruneton, 1999). There is also some evidence of toxicity of the thujone compound in published works on animal studies (Sundh and Amberg-Muller, 2006). As always, this is a questions of the dose consumed.
Photograph: Tansy flower heads (Braxmeier, 2012)
Symptoms of poisoning include vomiting, stomach cramps, bloody diarrhoea, severe reddening of the face, fixed pupil, spasms, rapid and weak pulse, uterine bleeding, kidney damage, liver damage and death (usually 1 – 3½hours after ingestion of a large quantity of the plant) (PDR for Herbal medicines, 2007). Repeated ingestion of Tansy could lead to a cumulative toxic effect (Bruneton, 1999). Warnings has been issued against the use of this herb in medicinal doses for external or internal uses.
The sesquiterpene lactones can also cause an allergic reaction exhibiting as contact dermatitis (itching or burning sensation leading to localized red, swollen, and blistered skin) (Herbal Medicines, 2013) and this normally occurs when there is an absorption of these toxic chemicals through the skin via contact with the plant or its oil. Pregnant and lactating mothers could risk aborting or deforming their babies if they use Tansy for any purpose (PDR for Herbal medicines, 2007).
Presently in the United Kingdom, based on the available information, tansy is of no pharmaceutical / medical importance. Although the most common mentions of tansy being traditionally used is for de-worming, it is not relevant because many other cheap, effective and safer medications are available.
A more in-depth study of the cultural uses and the chemistry of Tansy can be useful in the drug discovery and development industry. Since Tansy flowers were used to embalm the dead in the Middle Ages, studies could be done to assess its preservative potential and how well it can be safely applied in modern lifestyles. The use of Tansy as a biological insecticide for specific insect parasites encourages and supports the environmental sustainability campaign, reducing use of environmentally un-friendly chemicals and an increase in herb planting.
Disclaimer: In this essay, we do not advise or recommend herbs for medicinal or health use. This information is intended for educational purposes only and should not be considered as a recommendation or an endorsement of any particular medical or health treatment. The use of any such product should be based on the appropriate advise of a health care professional or based on the information available in the patient information leaflets (i.e. for THR products).
© Barbara I. Adaikpoh
Barbara Iyare Adaikpoh
Research Cluster Biodiversity and Medicines
Centre for Pharmacognosy and Phytotherapy
UCL School of Pharmacy, Univ. London
29 – 39 Brunswick Sq
London WC1N 1AX
About the author:
Currently (May 2015) Barbara is a postgraduate student pursing an MSc in Pharmacognosy at the UCL School of Pharmacy. Her interests in Natural Product Research stimulated her choice of this program and in an academic career.
If you would like to contact the author, please use the form on the contacts page
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