Medical Herbs Catalogue



Botanical Name: Tanacetum balsamita (LINN.)
Family: N.O. Compositae

Synonyms: Alecost. Balsam Herb. Costmarie. Mace. Balsamita.
(French) Herbe Sainte-Marie.
Part Used: Leaves.

Closely allied to the Tansy is another old English herb - Costmary (Tanacetum balsamita, Linn.). The whole of this plant emits a soft balsamic odour - pleasanter and more aromatic than that of Tansy - to which fact it owes its name of balsamita, and we find it referred to by Culpepper and others as the 'Balsam Herb.' In some old herbals it appears as Balsamita mas, Maudlin, Achillea ageratum, being Balsamita foemina.

It is a native of the Orient, but has now become naturalized in many parts of southern Europe and was formerly to be found in almost every garden in this country, having been introduced into England in the sixteenth century - Lyte, writing in 1578, said it was then 'very common in all gardens.' Gerard, twenty years later, says 'it groweth everywhere in gardens,' and Parkinson mentions it among other sweet herbs in his garden, but it has now so completely gone out of favour as to have become a rarity, though it may still occasionally be found in old gardens, especially in Lincolnshire, where it is known as 'Mace.'

In distinction to the feathery leaves of its near relative, the Tansy, the somewhat long and broad leaves of Costmary are entire, their margins only finely toothed. The stems rise 2 to 3 feet from the creeping roots and bear in August, at their summit, heads of insignificant yellowish flowers in loose clusters, which do not set seed in this country.

Cultivation: The plant will thrive in almost every soil or situation, but will do best on dry land.

Propagation is effected by division of the roots in early spring, or in autumn, planting 2 feet apart, in a dry, warm situation. As the roots creep freely, the plants will probably spread over the intervening spaces in a couple of years and need dividing and transplanting every second or third year.

Grown in the shade, Costmary goes strongly to leaf, but will not flower.

Medicinal Action and Uses: On account of the aroma and taste of its leaves, Costmary was much used to give a spicy flavouring to ale - whence its other name, Aletcost. Markham (The Countrie Farmer, 1616) says that 'both Costmarie' and Avens 'give this savour.'

The fresh leaves were also used in salads and in pottage, and dried are often put into pot-pourri, as they retain their aroma. Our great-grandmothers used to tie up bundles of Costmary with Lavender 'to Iye upon the toppes of beds, presses, etc., for sweet scent and savour.'

The name Costmary is derived from the Latin costus (an Oriental plant), the root of which is used as a spice and as a preserve, and 'Mary,' in reference to Our Lady. In the Middle Ages, the plant was widely associated with her name and was known in France as Herbe Sainte-Marie.

It was at one time employed medicinally in this country, having somewhat astringent and antiseptic properties, and had a place in our Pharmacopceia until 1788, chiefly as an aperient, its use in dysentery being especially indicated.

Green's Universal Herbal (1532) stated, 'A strong infusion of the leaves to be good in disorders of the stomach and head,' and much celebrated for its efficacy as an emmenagogue. Salmon (171O), among other uses, recommends the juice of the herb as a diuretic and 'good in cases of Quotidien Ague,' and continues: 'The powder of the leaves is a good stomatick and may be taken from 1/2 to 1 dram morning and night. I commend it to such as are apt to have the gout to fly upwards into the stomach. It is astringent, resists poison and the bitings of venomous beasts and kills worms in human bodies. The oil by insolation or boiling in Olive oil warms and comforts preternatural coldness, discusses swellings and gives ease in gout, sciatica and other like pains. The Cataplasm draws out the fire in Burnings, being applied before they are blistered. The spirituous tincture helps a weak and disaffected liver, strengthens the nerves, head and brain.' Culpepper speaks of its being 'astringent to the stomach' and: 'strengthening to the liver and all other inward parts; and taken in whey works more effectually. Taken fasting in the morning it is very profitable for pains in the head that are continual, and to stay, dry up, and consume all thin rheums or distillations from the head into the stomach, and helps much to digest raw humours that are gathered therein. . . . It is an especial friend and help to evil, weak and cold livers. The seed is familiarly given to children for the worms, and so is the infusion of the flowers in white wine given them to the quantity of two ounces at a time.' And before Culpepper's days, Gerard had said: 'The Conserve made with leaves of Costmaria and sugar doth warm and dry thebraine and openeth the stoppings of the same; stoppeth all catarrhes, rheumes and distillations, taken in the quantitie of a beane.' We find this plant mentioned in a very composite old recipe 'for a Consumption,' called 'Aqua Composita,' in which it is spelt 'Coursemary.' Also in an 'Oyntment,' for 'bruises, dry itches, streins of veins and sinews, scorchings of gunpowder, the shingles, blisters, scabs and vermine.'

An ointment made by boiling the herb in olive oil with Adder's Tongue and thickening the strained liquid with wax and resin and turpentine was considered to be very valuable for application to sores and ulcers.

Achillea ageratum (Linn.), the Maudlin or Sweet Milfoil, a native of Italy and Spain, introduced into England in 1570, an aromatic plant with a sweet smell and a bitter taste, and yellow, tansy-like flowers, was used by the earlier herbalists for the same purposes as Costmary. Culpepper speaks of it growing in gardens and having the same virtues as Costmary, but by the time of Linnzeus its use was obsolete. Both Costmary and Maudlin were much used to make 'sweete washing water.'