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Plants of Colonial Willimasburg: Feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium aka Chrysanthemum parthenium aka Pyrethrum parthenium aka Matricaria parthenium )

Feverfew is a bushy, aromatic  biennial or short-lived perennial  and a member of the aster family, Asteracea, that also includes sunflower, yarrow, and lettuce.  It is native to the Balkans and Caucasus  but after introduction to Europe and North America naturalized in disturbed soil in both areas.  The  erect  clump-forming plants grow 2-3 feet tall and have  well branched, finely furrowed stems.  The leaves are  stemmed, up to 4″ long, and strongly scented with a bitter-citrus aroma.  They are  yellow green, and deeply pinnately lobed or incised. Numerous 3/4″ wide daisy-like  terminal flower heads appear from midsummer through fall and consist of numerous yellow disc flowers surrounded by 10-20 white ray flowers.  Feverfew likes average consistently moist well-drained soil, and full sun but tolerates some shade.  Plants  are short lived but can be propagated by seed, division in spring, or seed.   The long bloom period and attractiveness of the plant especially the  flowers make it a good choice for the flower garden as well as the herb garden.  The flowers are good in both fresh and dried bouquets.  The genus name, Tanacetum, comes from Greek word athanatos meaning immortal referring to the persistence of the plant in the garden or the long lasting nature of the dried flowers.  The specific epithet, parthenium, refers to the Parthenon on the acropolis of Athens where a worker’s life was saved with this plant when he fell, or so the story goes.   The common name, feverfew, is derived from the Latin word  febrigugis meaning fever reducer although this characteristic is no longer associated with this plant. 

The earliest recorded mention of feverfew was by the ancient Greek physician Dioscorides who valued it for its positive effect on the uterus and thought it aided in treating inflammations.  In the 17th century plantsman John Gerard mentions its use in drinks and warding off ague when bound on the wrists while  English apothecary John Parkinson praised its use for recovery from opium overdose and effectiveness in treating headaches.  Naturalist Nicholas Culpeper noted that feverfew could strengthen the womb but he was probably just repeating the opinion of Dioscorides, and  Massachusetts minister Cotton Mather recommended it for toothaches.  By the 20th century the herb was used to treat headaches especially migraines.