Scientific Name(s): Chrysanthemum vulgare L., Tanacetum vulgare (L.) Bernh.
Common Name(s): Bitter or golden buttons, Garden tansy, Parsley fern, Scented fern, Stinking willie, Tansy
Tansy is indigenous to Europe and was introduced to North America either for use in folk remedies or as an ornamental plant. It is an invader of disturbed sites and is commonly found on roadsides and waste areas throughout temperate regions of North America. Tansy is listed as a "noxious weed" in several states.1
The hardy, aromatic, perennial plant grows erect in large clusters to about 0.5 to 1 m in height but can occasionally grow to nearly 2 m. Stems are smooth or mostly hairless, often purplish-red in color, and branch extensively at the top. The stalkless leaves grow alternately around the stem and are narrow, lance-shaped, and finely divided into leaflets, giving the plant a fern-like appearance. From July to October, mature plants bear dense, flat-topped clusters of small, button-like, yellow flowers, about one-half inch wide.6 Seeds are yellowish-brown with short, 5-toothed crowns. When crushed, the plant emits a strong, aromatic odor sometimes described as unpleasant. Do not confuse this species with other plants referred to as "tansy," such as tansy ragwort. Tansy ragwort (Senecio jacobea) can be distinguished from common tansy by its ray flowers (petals), absence of sharp-toothed leaves, and a long fringe of soft, white hairs on the seeds.1 Tansy is related to feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium).1
Tansy has been used extensively in traditional medicine for centuries, despite recognition of its potential toxicity. Records of its uses, kept by Charlemagne as well as Swiss Benedictine monks in the 8th century, still exist; tansy was used for the treatment of intestinal worms, rheumatism, fevers, and digestive disorders. Large doses were used to induce abortions. Conversely, smaller doses were thought to enhance fertility and prevent miscarriages.2 Other indications included treatment of gout, hysteria, kidney weakness, and flatulence. In moderate doses, tansy was used as an antispasmodic. Medieval records also note tansy as a culinary agent used to replace nutmeg and cinnamon, and as a bitter-tasting tea. Tansy pudding was a delicacy commonly associated with the Lenten fast.
Early American history records the use of tansy for funeral shrouds and wreaths. In 1668, the first president of Harvard University was buried in a tansy-lined coffin wearing a tansy wreath. When the Harvard cemetery was relocated in 1846, the tansy in the coffin still held its shape and fragrance.2 Colonial Americans exploited the preservative properties of tansy, using it for packing meat and other perishable goods. A 17th century governor of Massachusetts listed tansy as a necessary plant for colonial herb gardens. American Indians reportedly used tansy as an insect repellant.3
Tansy is also reputed to have had a place in Greek funeral rites. The name tansy is said to derive from the Greek word athanon, or immortal, either because of the flower's long-lasting nature or because of its ability to preserve dead bodies from decomposition.
Analysis of tansy plant extracts has identified 6 chemotypes distinguished by the components of their essential oil.4 Fresh tansy yields between 0.2% and 0.6% volatile oil of highly variable composition.5 Variability is further increased, both quantitatively and qualitatively, by the extraction method used.3 The volatile oil is dominated by terpenes. In plants grown in the United States, Canada, and England, the major constituent is β-thujone.3, 5 Some genotypes contain as much as 95% thujone6, 7 while other varieties are almost thujone-free.8 Major constituents of other genotypes include camphor, isopinocamphone, trans-chrysanthenyl acetate, sabinene, bornyl acetate, or germacrene D.9 Sesquiterpene lactones, principally parthenolide, are primary components of strains devoid of thujone.6 The presence of flavones eupatorin, jaceosidin10 apigenin, diosmetin, jaceidin, jaeosidin, and quercetin also has been recorded.6
The association between morphological attributes and chemical composition has been investigated in Finnish tansy.5 Strains with the tallest shoots were associated with high yields of camphor and 1,8-cineole. Mixed chemotypes had the shortest shoots.
Uses and Pharmacology
Evidence to support the use of tansy for any pharmacologic indication is lacking. Although roundworms are stunned by thujone and then expelled by the peristaltic action of the intestine, the risk of toxicity is too high to justify use as an anthelmintic. Similarly, use of tansy as an emmenagogue or abortifacient is dangerous.6
Parthenolide, the major component of some genotypes, impairs platelet activation, induces cyclo-oxygenase-2 expression in macrophages, and activates NF-κB.10
Mouse-ear edema was inhibited 93% by a parthenolide-rich fraction of a tansy extract. Similar inhibition occurred with indomethacin (85%) and a jaceosidin-rich fraction (80%). Effects against carrageenan-induced paw edema were more modest (25% and 8% for parthenolide and jaceosidin fractions, respectively).10
Research reveals no clinical data regarding the use of tansy for anti-inflammatory indications.
Sesquiterpene lactones have a cytoprotective effect against gastric ulcers, possibly related to interactions between the α-methylene-γ-lactone group and thiol constituents in the gastric mucosa. Additionally, flavonoids isolated from tansy may have a topical effect on ulcers.11
A dose-dependent reduction in ethanol-induced gastric lesions in rats was seen with a chloroform extract of a parthenolide-rich genotype of T. vulgare. Ulcer inhibition was similar for animals given chloroform extract or parthenolide (71% and 91% ulcer inhibition, respectively, at a dose of 40 mg/kg).
Research reveals no clinical data regarding the use of tansy as an antiulcer agent.
Animal/In vitro data
Tansy has some degree of in vitro antimicrobial activity against both gram-positive12, 13 and gram-negative bacteria.13 Organisms susceptible to a hydroalcoholic extract of T. vulgare include Bacillus subtilis, Escherichia coli, and Pseudomonas aeruginosa. Some activity against Candida krusei and C. tropicalis was also observed.
Anti HSV-1 activity of tansy aerial parts has been reported.14, 15 Aqueous extracts of the plant partially inactivate tick-borne encephalitis virus in vitro but have been found to induce resistance to the virus in infected mice.16
Research reveals no clinical data regarding the use of tansy alone as an antimicrobial agent. In combination with Rosa canina, Urtica dioica, selenium, flavonoids and carotenes, tansy has been studied in people living with HIV; (the combination preparation is known as "setarud" or "IMOD").17
Oil of tansy has a strong, insect-repellent property, but the acaricidal property is affected by the method of extraction. Bioassays have associated the presence of 1,8-cineole, bornyl acetate, rho-cymene, gamma-terpinene, and camphor with the strongest repellent activity4 and beta-thujone with insecticidal properties.3 Colorado potato beetles (Leptinotarsa decemlineata) were strongly repelled by a commercial oil of tansy and a steam distillate of fresh leaves and flowers of tansy.4 Inhibition of the feeding activity of the cabbage aphid (Brevicoryne brassicae) by a preparation of sesquiterpene lactones isolated from T. vulgare was 80% to 100%. High activity against the flour beetle (Tenebrio molitor), greenhouse whitefly (Trialerodes vaporariorium), and Teranychus urtiae Koch was also noted.18
The extraction process affected mortality of spider mites treated with a 4% extract of tansy. Mortality rates for extracts obtained by distillation in water or steam was 60% and 75%, respectively, compared with 16% for a microwave-assisted extraction process. LC50 values were 0.054 and 0.046 mg/cm2 for water and steam-assisted distillation processes, respectively. LC50 values for the microwave-assisted process were inconclusive. The active agent in this study was probably β-thujone, the main component in all 3 extracts (87% to 92%).3
Vasorelaxant properties of an aqueous extract of Tanacetum have ben demonstrated in vitro.19
There is no clinical evidence to support specific dosage of tansy. Classical use of the oil as an anthelmintic was at a dose of 0.1 g/day.
Pregnancy / Lactation
None well documented.
Ingestion of tansy and its extracts has been reported to cause serious systemic toxicity in animals and humans. Fatalities have occurred.
Prolonged exposure to tansy may cause contact dermatitis22; an extract of tansy is routinely included in the standard testing mixture for Asteraceae allergy.23, 24 A strong cross-sensitivity between chrysanthemum and tansy exists; the presence of parthenolide in both species may be a possible cause.24 Arbusculin-A and tanacetin have also been indicated as sensitizing agents.9 Prevalence of hypersensitivity to tansy has been reported as 60.6%23 to 77%24 of patients sensitive to Asteraceae (approximately 2% of the European patient population tested). Patients exhibiting the symptoms of contact dermatitis may have been exposed to the plants occupationally (flower trade), in their own gardens, or through the use of natural cosmetics, soaps, or shampoos. Clinically, lesions occur most often on the face, fingers, hands, and forearms.25
As little as 10 drops of the oil may be lethal, but survival has been reported after ingestion of 15 mL.9, 26 The tea also has been fatal.26 Symptoms of internal tansy poisoning include rapid and feeble pulse, severe gastritis, violent spasms, convulsions, and uterine bleeding; treatment with gastric lavage or emesis has been suggested, followed by symptomatic treatment.27 Thujone is probably responsible for much of the toxicity associated with the plant. Chronic poisoning from prolonged use is also likely.
Studies in rodents suggest a lack of toxicity from the aqueous extract of tansy (Tanacetum vulgare L.) leaves.28
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