Long considered an essential part of the herbal medicine chest, feverfew is a lovely little shrub with a variety of uses in and out of the garden. Though it looks like chamomile, the feverfew plant is a completely unrelated herb with very different applications.
Feverfew has been cultivated as a healing herb for centuries. It’s been grown and used by herbalists and physicians from ancient Egypt to medieval Europe. In ancient Greece, it was often used as a topical remedy for arthritis, while the Egyptians used it to expel worms.
Cherished by medieval housewives, it was given to brides as a start to the newlywed’s own garden. It’s folk-name, “bride’s buttons”, likely comes from this tradition.
Feverfew, or Tanacetum parthenium, is an attractive flowering herb. Related to tansy and chrysanthemums, it repels insects and freshens the air.
This herb grows easily in almost any climate. Feverfew’s masses of small, daisy-like flowers form a delightful landscape with balms, roses, and other flowering herbs. Traditionally a part of cottage herb gardens, the feverfew plant grows better beside houses and stone walls than it does in pots. It’s rarely grown indoors, though it can be grown successfully in a sunny room.
Growing a Feverfew Plant:
Feverfew is a perennial in zones 5 – 10, and grows easily as an annual in colder areas. This plant loves to spread and self seeds easily. As such, it’s become a regular part of the landscape across North America.
Its seeds are easily to find and easy to start. They germinate easily in about 10-14 days. Start your seeds indoors in late winter, or direct sow in your garden once all danger of frost is past.
Make sure your feverfew plant has well-drained, loamy soil and plenty of sunlight. These plants love the full sun.
Once you’ve established your feverfew, be prepared to have a garden full of it! This herb reseeds so abundantly that some people consider it invasive. If you’re used to dealing with tansy, mint, and bee balm, however, you’ll be more than up to the challenge of containing feverfew.
This plant loathes a drought, so keep it well watered in summer. An occasional light manure dressing is helpful as well, but not too often. I like to apply it in the spring, when the plant is young.
Feverfew repels many insects naturally! This makes it a great companion plant for many medicinal herbs. It pairs especially well with mint and thyme.
Just keep in mind that feverfew repels helpful insects as well as harmful ones. Therefore, avoid planting it in your bee and butterfly gardens. Despite its pretty flowers, the feverfew plant is not bee-friendly. Bees generally hate the blossoms’ strong, citrus scent.
Since this herb can self-pollinate easily, its bee-repelling scent doesn’t cause the plant any harm. That said, any close neighbors may suffer from lack of pollination. Keep feverfew out of your vegetable garden, and surround it with bee-attracting flowers to compensate for its unhospitable aroma.
You can take advantage of feverfew’s scent and plant it beside rose bushes to deter aphids. Or, plant it beside your front porch to keep mosquitos away.
Harvesting and Deadheading:
It’s important to deadhead, or remove the withered blossoms on your feverfew plant. Deadheading encourages new, healthy growth and lengthens the blossoming season. A deadheaded plant will blossom all summer long, and even well into the fall months.
Deadheading is essential if you want to discourage your feverfew from taking over the entire garden. It keeps self-seeding to a minimum.
Harvesting this herb is easy! Its blossoms are abundant, and all you need do is snip off what you need. If you’re growing feverfew as a medicinal or strewing herb, cut low on the stem to harvest all aerial parts.
To dry a feverfew plant, hang cut flowers from the ceiling in a cool, dry place. Keep the dried plant out of direct sunlight and use within a year.
Feverfew used to be an essential in herbal medicine cabinets all across Europe and North America. Unfortunately, it’s fallen out of favor recently as more exotic herbs have come into vogue. But it’s still a valuable medicinal herb with a variety of uses.
Once a standby in herbal gardens and home apothecaries, feverfew is enjoying a bit of a resurgence. Herb gardeners are beginning to look beyond the name to discover the real benefits of this little flower.
Feverfew is an emmenagogue, which means it promotes menstruation. It’s a powerful uterine stimulant and should not be taken internally or externally during pregnancy, as it can cause a miscarriage. It can be used after birth to help cleanse and tone the uterus, but only under the guidance of an experienced herbalist.
It should also be avoided by people who are taking blood thinners. This herb relaxes blood vessels and can interact with blood-thinning medications, preventing clotting and increasing bleeding risk.
Used with care, feverfew is a helpful, healing herb. But it’s definitely one that demands respect and caution as well. If you’re at all uncertain, wait to use it until you can consult with an experienced herbalist or naturopath.
Despite its name, the feverfew plant has never been a popular fever reducer. Try an infusion of yarrow flowers and leaves for fevers instead, as that plant is diaphoretic. Often considered too overpowering and disrupting to use on fevers, this herb’s name is a bit of a misnomer.
Some say that feverfew’s name is merely a corruption of featherfew, referring to the plant’s fine, feathery leaves. It can help reduce fevers, but it’s rarely a first choice. This herb is best known as a prophylactctic against migraine, and has been used to both treat and prevent migraines for centuries.
Nicholas Culpeper, famous 15th century herbalist, recommends bruising the herb and pressing it to your wrists at the first sign of an approaching headache.
You can also chew a fresh feverfew leaf each day to keep migraines away. This practice occasionally causes mouth ulcers, however, so chew with care. You can sautee the leaves in a small amount of olive oil if oral sores become a problem.
Historically, herbalists considered feverfew too bitter and potent to be used internally. Most of its traditional uses are external: in salves, poultices, and strewing.
A salve (or balm) is a preparation consisting of herbs, oil, and wax. Steep the herbs in oil for at least two weeks, strain them out, and then heat the oil with wax on the stove until the wax is melted. Then stir well to make sure the mixture is blended before pouring into jars and cooling.
Feverfew is a fantastic addition to any headache salve. Steep one part each feverfew, lavender, chamomile, and lemon balm in 5 parts almond oil. After two weeks of slow infusing in a sunny place, strain out the herbs. Put the oil on the stove with about 2 parts solid beeswax and warm slowly until the wax melts. Blend well and pour int a wide mouth jar.
A poultice is one of the easiest herbal applications imaginable. Just apply chopped herbs directly to your skin and hold them in place with gauze or cotton wrapping.
When Culpeper recommends bruising a bit of feverfew and pressing it to your wrist, he’s recommending a poultice. But to get a bit of extra healing from your feverfew poultice, you can boil whole stems and flowers briefly first. Drain the water and let the boiled plant cool just enough to be comfortable before wrapping it. Place the poultice against your wrists for headaches, or on your abdomen for colicky pains.
Carrying a bit of fresh feverfew with you allows for an easy, “on-the-go” remedy for migraines. Bruise—or crumple—a few leaves and press them to your wrists or temples.
Medieval migraine sufferers would tie a little bouquet of feverfew to their wrists with red twine.
This is a medieval favorite for using intense herbs safely, and it’s coming back into fashion!
Strewing is simply casting cut herbs on the floor to freshen the air. Herbs like feverfew, and its cousin tansy, were common strewing herbs because their scent deters insects and relieves headaches.
It’s a safe and effective way for pregnant women to enjoy some of the feverfew plant’s benefits as well. Strewing doesn’t involve prolonged or intense contact with the plant’s essential oils. It’s a great way to get a mild dose of healing without any of the adverse side effects.
Herbal lore considers feverfew to be a lucky addition to herb gardens. Travellers wore it with comfrey to ward of sickness and misfortune. It’s a great health-promoting plant: even while in the ground, it’s well-known for driving away disease. During plagues medieval housewives planted feverfew all around the house, and it seems to have kept out some disease-carrying pests.
An absolute essential for any aspiring herbalist, feverfew gives you an opportunity to practice local, sustainable herbalism in your very own cottage garden.
Like tansy, feverfew is a medieval favorite that’s been long neglected by modern gardeners. If you’re looking to restore a bit of magic or folk wisdom to your garden, or just love the idea of reclaiming old traditions, you can’t do better than this ancient herb.