It started with making and eating the Tansy cakes. I had to ask myself ‘Why would anyone eat anything that tastes so weird’? What developed from this strand was a strong argument for preventative self-medication. This has traditionally been part of our Western culture until removed by the separation of ‘physic and spirit’ and deference to the authority of doctors.
Chrysanthemum vulgare is a common perennial in the British Isles, often thought of as an invasive and useless weed. It has dark green foliage and small, button-like, yellow flowers like mini Chrysanthemums. The name Tansy is derived from the Greek ‘athansia’, meaning ‘immortal’. Reasons suggested for this include the fact that the dried flower ‘lasts forever’ or that it has a medicinal quality contributing to long life. Looking back to Greek literature, Tansy was given by the Gods to Ganymede to make him immortal. Such mythology is always a sign of some kind of secret function hiding in the plant. Tansy certainly had a reputation as a vermifuge in the middle ages. John Gerard wrote in his 17th century Herball:
“In the Spring time are made with the leaves here of newly sprung up, and with eggs, cakes of Tansies, which be pleasant to taste, and good for the stomacke. For if any bad humours cleave there unto, it doth perfectly concoct them and scoure them downewards”.
Tansy is a common kitchen garden herb for medicinal and culinary use, traditionally used in place of expensive foreign spices such as nutmeg and cinnamon. It was used to flavour custard, cakes, milk puddings, omelettes and freshwater fish. In Ireland it was included in sausages called Drisheens. I put some tansy leaves into small cakes that tasted just like mothballs – not really a taste I would re-visit!
History shows that this herb was traditionally used at Easter to purify the blood after lent. Its use as a springtime internal cleanser became ritualised into a part of the Christian religious Easter traditions:
“On Easter Sunday be the pudding seen,
To which the Tansy lends her sober green.”
This absorption of the use of tansy, a purifying herb, into religious practice is an interesting example of ‘approved’ home herbalism by a controlling religious patriarchy during the early middle ages. Unapproved herbs were simply named ‘Devil’s Plaything’ or the like and their use attributed to witchcraft, a bit like a medieval FDA (Federal Drugs Authority).
Contemporary observation of wild and domesticated animals shows that they regularly self-medicate with wild plants. Sick chimpanzees chew bitter leaves from a bush not normally part of their diet, and then recover. Research by Michael Hoffman shows that a particular nematode worm is common in the monkeys’ guts during the rainy season and that their chewing of the leaves coincided with the prevalence of this parasite, which it destroyed. The same bush is used by indigenous human tribes use to get rid of stomach parasites.
Dogs and cats self medicate by eating couch grass or cleavers. Parrots, chickens, camels, snow geese, starlings – all have been observed consuming substances normally alien to their diet to remedial effect. Bears particularly are venerated by North American Indian culture because they symbolise the powers of ‘regeneration’. North American Indians discovered the use of a root called Osha (Ligusticum wallichii) from watching bears. It is so effective as an all round painkiller and antiviral, that it is now on the endangered species list from being over harvested. Similarly they found uses for Echinacea angustifolia by observing elk seeking out the plants and consuming them when sick or wounded.
The Woolly Bear caterpillar has also been observed to change its diet according to whether it is infected by a particular parasite. Normally a Lupin eater, the caterpillar increases its chance of surviving a particular fly parasite by changing to a diet of Poison Hemlock.
Self-medication is not therefore a ‘rational choice’ in other species, but a carefully integrated part of a survival mechanism against an invisible predator – disease. Humans seem to have lost this sense of their own health and are not usually informed as to the uses of plants growing around them. Legislation that prevents information on herbal and supplement products being printed on their containers does not help this situation. The lack of investment into research on ‘simples’ keeps us all in the dark regarding the use of wild plants and self-medication. As far as ‘big pharma’ is concerned, the potential that we could ‘heal ourselves’ from a host of ailments using naturally occurring wild plants and foodstuffs is completely against their motive to profit from our diseases. Our natural trait towards healthy self-medicating has been subsumed by the interests of consumerism.
Humans often self-medicate with readily available poisons, playing right into big-pharma’s hands. Examples are binge drinking, tobacco, over-processed foods, sugar, street drugs or pharmaceutical drugs – all of which have negative side effects. Information on the more subtle ‘alterative’ effects of much of our food, herbs and plants is still little-known or hard to come by. The removal of our culture from a land-based existence has its part to play in easy exploitation by the profit motives of big pharma.
A desire to self-medicate may well be at the basis of many of our unconscious ‘eating choices’. For example potatoes contain a form of opiate. Our bodies may desire this and reach for a plate of chips. All foods to some extent act as ‘alteratives’ to our unique physiologies. We all have our comfort foods and reward ourselves with treats to eat. Sometimes we have a favourite food that can help if we feel ill. An example is scrambled egg, which is a unique food because it contains all of the amino acids we need to digest it. Another popular comfort food is chocolate, a cocktail of delicious and stimulating chemicals which is actually called a ‘love substitute’.
An extreme example of what we do is shown in desiring unusual foods, called ‘Pica’, where a person gets uncontrollable desires to eat certain edible (and inedible) substances. This condition most often occurs in pregnant women and is thought to be the body expressing the need for particular minerals such as those in coal. My own mother told me she had a desire to eat oil paints when pregnant with me. Pay attention to these ‘irrational’ desires if you get them – they are proof that your body knows, to some extent, what it needs and is a powerful self-healing mechanism.
Because our food sources are often limited to processed food and what we can find in the shops, and because of the destruction of herbal folk-lore and access to wild medicine, many of us have lost touch with our ‘health sense’ and don’t use food or wild plants for nutrition, self-medication and preventative health care.
There are many little known plants ‘out there’, such as Tansy, with incredibly powerful qualities. The countryside near us and even the raw state of foods we normally eat contain a pharmacopeia of healing potential. People who want access to this more holistic and natural sense of health are finding it for themselves by rediscovering the awesome power of wild plants often thought of as weeds.
If this interests you – I have written and illustrated a book with over 200 pictures, on the subject called ‘WildFood Wizard’ – you can find out more about it here: WildFood Wizard by Simon Mitchell.