Tanacetum parthenium

Feverfew What did Gerard and Culpeper take When They Had Headaches?

In the grand scheme of things, it is always interesting to note how dependable
are the cycles of history. It has been said that a wise person is one who
studies history and can subsequently predict the future. There is much truth
in this. Is there ever anything new under the sun? Only new packages and
new names to old concepts? Perhaps we just think we are getting something
new. And what’s wrong with that, anyway? Truly excellent things persevere
and come back into vogue under a new disguise after we have forgotten that
we were tired of them.

Medicinal herbs seem to follow this axiom, and especially a particular herb,
called feverfew. Today, modern science has shown this common garden plant
from the Daisy family to contain compounds called sesquiterpenes that may
be more effective than aspirin and other modern drugs for relieving migraine
headaches, and perhaps arthritis as well.

Since a conservative figure on the incidence of migraine in this country
is 10 million and arthritis, 30 million, many of which have found no relief
through existing therapies, it seems likely that feverfew will become very
popular. The effectiveness of feverfew has been further demonstrated in
a 1988 double-blind study, increasing the interest of the press, and even
the medical community in this country.

Feverfew may prove to be a good example of a plant that reintroduces the
medical profession to its lost heritage–the efficacy (and overall safety)
in the prevention of disease and maintenance of health.

What spelled relief when Gerard and Culpeper had headaches, back in the
1600s? There was no aspirin, of course, no tylenol and no excedrin. It is
possible that they both preferred feverfew as their “drug” of
choice. Both herbalists talk about it in glowing terms in their well-known
herbals. Gerard, for instance says of it: “very good for them that
are giddie in the head” and “for such as be melancholike, sad,
pensive and without speech.”

Botany and Names

Feverfew is Tanacetum parthenium (L.) Schulz-Bip. from the Asteraceae,
or daisy family (formerly Compositae), the second-largest family of the
Angiosperms, after the orchid family. There has been some controversy during
the last 200 years about what genus of the Asteraceae feverfew should occupy.
One of the earliest scientific names for feverfew was Matricaria parthenoides,
bestowed by Linneaus. Feverfew has not been considered to be a Matricaria
since the early 1800
, when it was moved to Chrysanthemum. Feverfew
is given the name Chrysanthemum parthenium in the authoritative Hortus
but Flora Europa, which names it Tanacetum parthenium,
is generally recognized as taking precedent because the plant is native
from Europe, and the botanists that worked on the genus for the publication
were more familiar with the taxonomic position of the plant.

Feverfew has had many names in English over the Centuries, which means that
it was well used and familiar to the common folk. These names include Featherfew
(because of the feathery outline of the leaves, which some say was the derivative
of Feverfew), Flirtwort, Vetter-voo, Feather-fully and the German Mutterkraut.

History of Use

The ancients called Feverfew Parthenium because, as the legend tells,
it was used to save the life of someone who had fallen from the Parthenon,
the Doric temple of Athena on the acropolis in Athens. Dioscorides speaks
highly of the herb for many complaints, some of which can be interpreted
as ones in which a modern herbalist would use it, such as arthritis. He
recommends it for “St. Anthonies fire, to all hot inflammations and
hot swellings”, and also says it is good for phlegme and melancholy.

Among the early English Herbals, the one by Nicolas Culpeper was probably
the most popular. He wrote simply and practically of the medicinal herbs,
for he wanted to produce a work that could be used by all. The first edition
was from 1649, but it has gone through many editions, and is still produced
today. Culpeper was fond of relating the herbs to astrology, a practice
which was popular with the common people, and viewed with great suspicion
with the established medical authorities. He says that “Venus commands
this herb, and has commended it to succour her sisters (women), to be a
general strengthener of their wombs…”. Feverfew has a long history
of use for “female complaints” and is still used for this today.
He goes on to say, “It is very effectual for all pains in the head…”.
A more modern version of Culpeper gives some up-to-date practical information
on its use. “It is a useful remedy for teething troubles in infants
and the infusion can be administered to children in teaspoonful doses.”
This book also recommends the infusion as an enema and douche and says that
“it reduces inflammation and nerve pain”, as an external application
of the fresh herb steeped in olive oil (for two weeks).

In the Middle Ages, feverfew is more obscure, as it is not mentioned in
the Physicians of Myddvai, the record of generations of highly celebrated
Welsh physicians and herbalists. Neither is it listed in the Herbarium
of Apuleius
, possibly the most copied and influential herbal link between
the middle ages and the Great Herbals. However, it was known, and is given
a scant mention in a minor leechdom from sometime in the 13th century for
use in an eye salve.

By the middle 1500s it was well established in most herbals, including Dodoens,
Gerard and Matthioli.

The Edinburgh Dispensatory from Scotland was an influential early work for
over 100 years. In the 1791 edition, Feverfew (which was called Matricaria)
was again recommended for hysteria and “sundry other disorders”,
mainly as a carminative (expels gas) and stomach bitter. In 1857, Redwood
writes in his “Supplement to the Pharmacopeia” that Feverfew is
tonic, stimulating and anti-hysteric. He claims that bees find the odor
of the plant disagreeable and that any insect can be kept at a distance
by carrying a handful of the flower-heads. If this is true, Feverfew may
become very popular in certain areas of the northern U.S., where the mosquitos
are sometimes said to “sit out in the trees at night and bark.”

It will be noted that Feverfew was recommend by many authorities for hysteria.
It is known that this plant contains camphor, and it is even possible to
smell this in the fresh or freeze-dried plant. Camphor was traditionally
given as a remedy in cases of hysteria. This connection is seen in M. Grieve’s
A Modern Herbal. Also in this work, mrs. Grieve extolls its virtues
as a tincture for relieving the pain and swelling of insect bites. As a
proven anti-inflammatory agent, this makes sense nowadays.

Finally, feverfew was recommended by popular superstition in the 1600s to
be planted around dwellings for its powers to ward off disease and purify
the atmosphere.

As one can see, Feverfew has been used widely in England, and for many diverse
ailments, although nervous disorders, headaches and inflammatory ailments
seem to be especially important.

Feverfew is very popular in both medicine and cooking in Italy, and a modern
Italian book, (republished in English) “The Macdonald Encyclopedia
of Medicinal Plants” (1982), gives the uses of Feverfew as Stomachic,
antispasmodic, tranquillizer and emmenagogic. They go on to say that “this
plant is often used in cooking to give a deliciously aromatic bitter taste
to certain foods. Apparently the Italians are more fond of the bitter experience
than the English, for one reads constantly of the trials and tribulations
of having to eat the fresh leaves every day (as a remedy for migraine),
and of the many ploys to mask its unpleasant flavor. This is a good reason
why feverfew tablets are so popular in England.

Down through the ages, feverfew has been an herb that is more used by common
folk than by doctors–it has never been official in the U.S., and rarely
in Europe.

It is listed in a supplementary work, the U.S. Dispensatory, which gives
a lot of ‘off the record’ information about plants and other drugs that
were commonly in use at that time. In the 21st edition of this work (1928),
we read that Feverfew is “cultivated in our gardens and naturalized
in some places”. No uses are given, just that it is used extensively
in Europe and that it is sold interchangeably with Chamomile, both Roman
(Anthemis nobilis) and German (Matricaria chamomilla).

The European tradition of using feverfew as a folk medicine was carried
on by the modern herbalist John Lust, possibly because of his European Naturopathic
training. In his popular work, “The Herb Book”, the common uses
already discussed are detailed, and in addition, he claims that it is good
for the alcoholic d.t.’s. According to Lust, Feverfew has fallen out of
favor (as of 1974) and was hard to find in health stores, even herb shops.
This condition has persisted until recently, and may now be changing with
the many positive reports coming from England.

Many people are becoming interested in Traditional Chinese Medicine. This
has arisen out of an interest in the amazing pain-relieving effects of acupuncture.
In this system, there is a continuous development of herbal medicine for
over three thousand years, a remarkable achievement.

In the Chinese materia medicas, Tanacentum parthenium is not mentioned,
but other closely related Chrysanthemum spp. are. These flowers were
traditionally used to clear heat (inflammations) from the body. Chrysanthemum
is used as a sedative, for its cooling ability in headache
and in influenza. This shows a possible link between the two cultures and
their use of Chrysanthemum relatives (Keys). The Barefoot Doctor’s
Manual lists 5 species of Chrysanthemum, mainly used for heat conditions
such as boils, as well as for headaches. In the classic Chinese Herbal work,
the Pen Ts’ao, some uses given for Chrysanthemum sinense include
promotion of the menses, and as a wine (made by steeping the flowers) is
taken for many complaints, including digestive, circulatory and nervous

Was John Hill referring to Migraine when he said in his 1772 “The Family
Herbal”, “In the worst headache this herb exceeds whatever else
is known”? Anyone that has experienced migraine regularly would not
disagree with the doctor; to them it would be hard to imagine a headache
that could be worse.

Migraine is estimated to occur in about 10% of the population of Britain.
In one survey, it was found that 28% of the members of Parliament suffered
from migraine. Perhaps an example of political pressure, although the article
that quoted this study assured us that these migraines in no way affected
the public servant’s ability to perform their proper duties. In other countries,
such as Denmark and New Zealand, the estimate of migraine occurrence ranges
from 5% to as high as 19%. In the U.S., two studies range from 2% to 3.4%
of the total population, although many researchers feel that only 25% of
the cases are actually reported. Even if the figure of 3.4% were accurate,
it would still mean thatnnearly 9 million people suffer from migraine in
the U.S.!

After two widely discussed double-blind studies, performed in England, showing
that feverfew does indeed help migraine sufferers, even the medical profession
in this country, Canada and Australia have been at least interested in what
relief the plant may bring to their patients. It is easy to imagine an important
place in the medicine of the future for this ancient medicinal plant.

A final word about growing feverfew. It is an excellent garden plant, and
a familiar sight in many English gardens, and even California gardens, in
the author’s experience.

Many people may already have feverfew growing in their gardens and not be
aware of it. Its sunny bouquets of white and yellow flowers are quite attractive.
Once they become established, they may wander over a whole area, either
under cultivation or where the soil is disturbed. When the plants are for
personal use, only several will be required. It is good to nip off the flowering
buds of one or two, as the plants will produce many more leaves. One can
also be allowed to seed, providing a source of new plants, though the plants
are perennials and will continue to flourish from the same roots the following


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Written by Christopher Hobbs LAc AHG

Explore Wellness in 2021