A pretty daisy relative with a distinctive spicy smell, feverfew (scientifically Tanacetum parthenium, sunflower family, Asteraceae) was a common folk remedy in Europe for more than 2000 years. Its name, feverfew, is based on the name the Romans used for it, febrifuge, which means fever-reducer. English speakers heard that and wrote feverfew. It is also called featherfew; the leaves are somewhat feathery. Other common names include wild chamomile, bachelor’s button, and midsummer daisy.
Because daisy-like plants can be very similar, feverfew has had several scientific names. Currently, Tanacetum parthenium is correct and supersedes Chrysanthemum parthenium, Matricaria parthenium, and others. Tanacetum is an old Roman name for tansy (Tanacetum vulgare) to which feverfew is closely related. The species epithet of feverfew, parthenium, comes from its name in ancient Greek, parthenion. One source said that was the name of a plant that saved the life of a worker who fell from the Parthenon during its construction. An equally convincing source said that parthenos is Greek for “girl” (virgin), alluding to the herb’s importance for treating women’s illnesses. Both could be true but not as the origin of the name.
Uses Through the Ages
It is native to eastern Europe but as a valuable medicinal plant was carried elsewhere long ago. It is hardy and grows easily in disturbed conditions, so now it grows wild all over Eurasia and, since European exploration, all over the world.
Feverfew was so popular a medicine that historians have dubbed it the “medieval aspirin” and the “aspirin” of the 18th century.” The list of medical complaints which feverfew has treated is very long, including arthritis, coughs and breathing difficulties, dermatitis and psoriasis, earache, fever, headache, inflammations and swelling, insect bites, morning sickness and labor, menstrual disorders, nervousness and depression, spasms, stomach ache and constipation, tinnitus, toothache, vertigo and intestinal worms. It was also taken as a general tonic, but, especially, it was used to reduce fevers. Modern clinical studies have only tested a few uses but find an effective anti-inflammatory and treatment for migraine headaches. The preparation matters, however; not all forms are effective. It is, furthermore, a strong enough drug to be dangerous to pregnant and nursing women, and to infants. It inhibits or counteracts a variety of medications including blood-thinners and causes allergic reactions in people allergic to daisy-family plants including ragweed (Ambrosia). That said, it is widely used safely.
Care and Preparation
Feverfew is easy to grow. The plants live a few years and readily reseed. Its spicy smell led the English to plant it around their houses to purify the air.
Feverfew’s “flowers” are actually clusters of tiny florets, the central (disc) florets yellow and the surrounding (ray) florets white. The flowerheads are an inch across at most, so they do look like buttons, resulting in the old common name bachelor’s buttons. Today that name generally means the bigger, blue-flowered Centaurium cynanus, but other plants have been called bachelor’s buttons at one time or another. Feverfew makes good cut flowers because the flowerheads last a long time and dry nicely for dried arrangements.
Historically, dried feverfew leaves were used as an insect repellent. Modern herbal insect repellents generally do not include feverfew, preferring other plants. Feverfew is touted to repel everything from mosquitos to bedbugs to mice and so is also used a companion plant, protecting other plants from pests. I think feverfew is likely to have some effect but other plants are stronger insect repellents.
Folklore said that you could simply carry it and you would be protected from colds, fevers, and accidents.
It is a pretty, easy-to-grow old-fashioned herb.
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National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. Feverfew. Nccih.nih.gov/health/fewverfew. Accessed 8/19/19.
Pareek, A., M. Suthar, G. S. Rathore, and V. Bansal 2011. Feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium L.): A systematic review. Pharmacognosy Review 5 (9): 103-110.