Midsummer Herblore: Feverfew
Seed of parsley, dill, and rue,
Of celandine and feverfew:
Take equal parts of all these worts
And you'll be ready for any sport.
-F. C. Brown, Durham.
As we near Midsummer I once again am reminded of the constant contrasts that sneak into the web and ebb of the wheel of the year. As we stand, poised across from the dark days of winter, here in this brilliant, oppressive heat, it’s hard to see how after the longest day of the year we will yield ourselves once more to the darkness. We will go into that good night, but perhaps not quietly. Now the radishes are raw-skin pink, the peas crystalline in their pods, and the first long, yellow squashes begin their almost oppressive harvest dance. The first Harvests of Lammas loom and the work we do now is largely about keeping the plants alive long enough to bear leaf, fruit, and seed. Midsummer approaches, as it is on June 21st this year. It was a time of celebration, divination and mystery among many of our ancestors. This zenith point reached by the sun on its journey is one of the reasons for the name Solstice or “sun stopping” in Latin for this special day. But we have plants to discuss...
Traditions vary widely in the Western Hemisphere where the equinoxes and solstices are more easily discernible, but as always the ways in which plants fit into the Midsummer celebrations interests me most. For more lovely Midsummerlore, from the Scottish perspective especially, see one of my favorite magical people’s posts at Cailleach’s Herbarium. There is so much herblore from Europe around Midsummer herbs like St.John’s wort and Yarrow, but what of the other herbs of Midsummer? I want to introduce you to the lesser-known Midsummer plant, Feverfew.
Feverfew, or Tanacetum parthenium, is a small-flowered, daisy-like plant in the aster family whose sunny, yellow center opens around Midsummer every year. This has earned it one of its many folk names, Midsummer daisy, due to its June blooming and, well, looking like a daisy. Other names it has earned historically are featherfoil, featherfowl, and parthenium. Avicenna, in his Canon of Medicine, one of the most influential medical books in history, assigns Feverfew to the natures of heating and drying. Which, is strange, given Feverfew’s name. I’ll give you one guess what folk uses it had. Fever breaking is one of them for sure, but honestly, feverfew lives on today as a notorious headache, specifically migraine, remedy. In England it had other names, for it was included in abortifacient recipes, giving it the less savory name of “kill-bastard” among some country people. It was also a part of the menstrual herb pantheon and called Maid’s weed by some as well due to these attributes.
In Anglo-Saxon folk magic, this plant was curative for a specific condition known as “elf shot”. In combination with red nettle and “waybread” or plantain, it was used to cure the sudden pains we call a stich in the side. This was believed to have been caused by elves firing invisible arrows at unsuspecting victims. In the Anglo Saxon 11th century book, Lacnunga or “Remedies”, these three plants are mixed in butter and applied to this mysterious affliction. This renders it a powerful protection herb from meddling Fae, especially on a night such as Midsummer's Eve. Feverfew continued to be used as a pain relieving herb as well in history through the Romany community and was also used in place of Chamomile, most likely due to their similar appearance. It was likewise used as a sedative tea, just as Chamomile is.
The plant was also used to magically soothe unruly horses by the renown horsemen of East Anglia in England who were known to have certain secrets in the world of horsemanship. According to 16th century herbalist and botanist John Gerard, the method of picking must be done just so to ensure the magic of the herb remains intact. It must be harvested with the left hand specifically, while also reciting aloud the name of the sufferer, and at no time looking behind oneself. This little flower was also thought to aid those suffering from melancholy when one can barely speak from sadness. It even was used to help counteract the effects of an overindulgence of opium (Duke JA. 1985. CRC Handbook of Medicinal Herbs.)
The latin name, Tanacetum, comes from the name Thanatos, the Greek god of Death. This also yielded this plant it's lesser known folk name, Devil's Daisy. This may be due to its strange odor, which I have found to be very polarizing. I enjoy the mugwort-like scent, but occasionally certain people smell it and abhor it strongly, comparing it to some bodily smell. Romans and Greek associated this plant with the underworld, relating the scent to corpses, for this fragrant plant, for better or worse, was used to mask the scent of the dead in funerary rites. So, as is often the case, this Summer flower stands as an emblem of the life giving Sun, and as an accompaniment to Death. This association has given Feverfew a powerful magical influence as a plant of protection, Midsummer power and finally, the liminal spaces between Life and Death. Ever reminding up that with all Light, comes Darkness.
In Appalachia, this little herb was used for its fever breaking power as a tea as well as a poultice to “fevered places” (Frank C. Brown N.C. Folklore Collection). It was also used in folk hematological conditions known as “thick blood” which could include a variety of unpleasant symptoms (Phyllis Light. Southern Folk Medicine. 123). The plant was brought to North America alongside many other cottage herbs meant to heal.
I’ve been gathering the fresh flower heads to dry for tea, just incase I fall victim to some marauding Fae on Midsummer’s Eve, or if I need to chill out and calm the fuck down. The later being as likely to happen as the former. Regardless of invisible arrow dangers, this cheerful Midsummer bloomer is an important member of the herbs of Midsummer. Make a garland, hang a bundle above the door to protect against the wandering Fae who roam about the lands with the Summer thunderstorms, and include it in your Midsummer balefire to honor the Sun at its zenith point. Revel in the flames of Summer yet turn your back not on the Shadows of the Dark year.
Dictionary of Plantlore. D.C. Watts. 2007.
Light, Phyllis. Southern Folk Medicine. 2018.
Frank C Brown Collection of North Carolina Folklore.
Pareek, A., Suthar, M., Rathore, G. S., & Bansal, V. (2011). Feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium L.): A systematic review. Pharmacognosy Reviews, 5(9), 103–110. http://doi.org/10.4103/0973-7847.79105
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