Feverfew
It's a large assumption that Plutarch had Feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium) in mind, but tradition assigns this plant as sacred to the Goddess Athena. The species name parthenium alludes to Plutarch's account of a masonworker who fell from the roof of the Parthenon as it was being built. The herb that saved the man's life was thereafter Partheneum, the Virgin's Plant. This was in medieval times Christianized, when Feverfew was dubbed La Herba de Santa Maria. Imitating the "bitter herbs" which Jews partake at Passover in remembrance of slavery in Egypt, there arose a tradition in old England of including in Easter feasts a bitter pudding made with Feverfew & Tansy ( T. vulgar).

Feverfew, aka Bachelor's Buttons:
An Easily Gardened
Popular though Dubious
Headache Remedy

I'm a daisy & so are you
You're a daisy & I am too
We're a couple of daisies
Living in the daisy zoo.

Lackadaisical lazy days
Quite unphaseable crazy ways
We're as pretty as paisleys
Living in the daisy zoo.

-"Daisy Zoo"
by Paghat the Ratgirl

   

There are farmers who used to make a superb living growing, harvesting, drying & auctioning tobacco, assisting the cigarette manufacturers in killing hundreds of thousands of people worldwide, solely in order to make a level of profit not achievable by growing healthy produce. Some of these farmers completely depleted their soils, then found the market for their dried tobacco leaves was not so reliable as it once was.

So, what could they switch to that had the potential for extreme profitability, which would not mind depleted soils, which didn't need watering or fertilizing, & which might even take advantage of the tobacco-leaf drying sheds?

Well, how about some sort of "alternative medicine" herb! The public's willingness to buy little jars of ground up plant particles or extracts for extravagant amounts of money was one of the few remaining areas of profitability that (on paper at least) looked like tobacco farming in its heydey. It needn't actually have any health benefit, of course, just so long as the public thought it did, & kept the profits high.

Perhaps Saint John's Wort? Nope, field tests found that when grown in agricultural rows in poor soil, it is prone to plant diseases. How about Echinacea? Darn, it doesn't grow quite like a weed & actually takes a bit of care to get a good harvest. How about garlic? Too much established competition, plus one must use a few water resources to get the best harvests. How about Feverfew?

Bingo!

A weed that needs no fertilizing, uses no water resources, can produce multiple crops each year, can be dried on the same racks previously used for the tobacco leaves, plus it has already undergone a veritable renaissance of usage by herb-swilling rubes & practically sells itself!

When these same mooks grew tobacco, it didn't really matter if they were killing even their own children. So next time you're shopping for some dusty stale plant particles, pills, or extracts at your nearest misnomered "Health Food Store," remember, the pipeline getting this stuff to you has in the past been just as happy to sell you cigarettes. Your health is the last thing on their minds.

And oh my gosh, people do believe in feverfew. It's alleged to be useful for all manner of things, but in particular, according to the current fad, it is the foremost herbal remedy for headaches, including severe & crippling migraines.

Is it actually useful for this? So far as packaged products in health food stores are concerned, no, efficacy is not the least likely, though there is wiggle-room for some slight value to pharmaceutical grade extracts not available to the general public. There is slight evidence it might function as a migraine deterrant if used daily when no migraine is present. As commonly used, however, as a remedy for ordinary headaches, or even a migraine-in-progress, the evidence is more clear: it has no benefit whatsoever.

Here's the credible assessment: "The efficacy of feverfew for the prevention of migraine has not been established beyond reasonable doubt," to quote the precise finding of the Department of Complementary Medicine, School of Postgraduate Medicine & Health Sciences, University of Exeter. These are not debunkers; they searched for proof of efficacy on the basis of randomized doubleblind placebo-controlled studies, & found the evidence insufficient.

In a second overview of the literature conducted by the same School of Postgraduate Medicine, they concluded that some of double-blind studies held some indication of value greater than placebo; however: "The trial with the highest methodological quality, which was also among the largest, found no significant difference between feverfew & placebo."

The basic underlying reality is this: No significant difference between the effects of feverfew & the effects of placebo could be detected in studies with the best design. The smaller the sample, or the poorer the study design, the greater the possibility of a statistical value over placebo. No matter what else you hear or read -- & the pop-literature to the contrary is extravagant -- always bear in mind the University of Exeter analysis of the best-designed studies.


Feverfew Public confusion of migraine & headache in the public mind, & the failure to distinguish between treatment of active headache from prophylactic resistance to future migraines by regular migraine sufferers, are things the vendors rely on.

Everyone gets headaches, therefore everyone's a potential customer for feverfew. In reality it has no effect on active headaches whatsoever, nor even on active migraines. Even the most hopeful-seeming studies in no way allege that Feverfew treats actual pain. The faint possibility is that daily use without interuption lowers the incidence of future migraines, & even that possibility isn't substantiated by the best-designed doubleblind studies.

Still, the fact is, placebo benefits are not illusory; they are perfectly real. Insofar as placebos can relieve headache pain, so can Feverfew.

It may yet turn out to be true that feverfew has some barely perceivable benefit for migraines difficult to quantify in the objective glare of randomized doubleblind studies. The volatile oils that give Feverfew its strong odor, & several other chemical components, do have proven & specific effects on body chemistry measurable even on animal-modeled studies.

Yet the idea that it is a headache remedy has been proven false time & again, while the prophylactic potential for migraine treatment remains an uncertainty. None of these facts keep "food supplement" sellers from encouraging gullible beliefs in feverfew.

From the vendors' point of view, you have to remain convinced even if the science lacks conviction, because Feverfew's more likely value as a diuretic is not as commercially valuable. There simply aren't millions of eager customers sauntering up to vendors asking, "What can you sell me that'll help me piss up a storm?"

It was in the 1970s when health food stores first became oriented toward crackpot "remedies," to the point that many such businesses stopped selling organic produce, which tended to wilt or go soft before it could be sold at inflated prices, & these stores became exclusively "PPPs" or Pill-Popper Palaces. Dried herbs could be sold even if they were staler than a peanut found under a sofa cushion.

But in the 1970s, feverfew was not one of the herbs being marketed. Up to Victorian times it was commonly regarded as a useful tea tonic especially for "female complaints." It had in the fifteenth & sixteenth centuries been believed useful for menstrual & postpartum cleansing, & as a treatment for melancholia or insanity. These dubious beliefs & uses had fallen by the wayside & thus feverfew lacked commercial promise.

An additional belief that the name "Feverfew" meant it was useful for reducing fevers was based wholly on a mistaken understanding of the name, which was a corruption of the older names Featherfoil, Featherfew, or Featherfully. This alluded to the appearance of the leaves & had nothing to do with reducing fevers. This was well enough known by the 1970s nobody tried to hornswoggle the public into believing it belonged on any list of beneficial herbs.

So how & why did it make a major commercial comeback when so short a time ago Feverfew had been rejected even by the gullible herbal remedy community itself?

Well, the first point of comeback was the industry's need for changing products. One by one the most useful herbs were found to be dangerous & put vendors at risk of being sued, or federal restrictions were placed on selling them at all. Bad press & a few legal restrictions on Valerian, for example, or herbal Ephedra, made it difficult to market nationally. What is needed is something innocuous, with neither benefit nor side-effect.

Feverfew by comparison had minor & transient side-effects, for often enough the least valuable herbs were also the least likely to be dangerous. It is the nature of the herbal remedy environment of trade that the more useful an herb is (& the most dangerous), the less likely it is to remain in the marketplace; but the more useless (& harmless) the herb, the more likely it is to be promoted.

Each year as it becomes better understood how herbs such as St. John's Wort intefer with prescription medicines, that Ephedra kills people, or that commercially prepared Taheebo is nearly always made from sawmill waste using the wrong species of tree, rather than from the quinine-like residues found underneath the bark of a completely different species of Taheebo....well, in the end, it means that the public's herbal preferences change as often as do hemlines of dresses. New products attached to new beliefs are continuously required to meet the target-audience's desire for novelty, variety, & newness.


Feverfew So what the industry has come more & more to require are less & less potent herbs, stuff the public would keep buying but which was decreasingly likely either to harm or benefit them.

This is why garlic became so fashionably promoted for all manner of health benefits, from curing AIDs to stopping the aging process & curing cancer. Commercially it's actual values were these: it wouldn't kill or injur the customer resulting in civil suits; it had some vague scientific findings which were easily misconstrued as definitive proof of this & that, or would keep the FDA off the vendor's backs if vendors were exaggerators rather than liars; with the correct packaging it could be sold for hundreds of times its cost to grow; & the sorts of people requiring the promise of herbal fixes were apparently not smart enough to just cook with actual garlic.

Every hypochondriac with a mild headache thinks she or he suffers migraines. The "news" of a natural migraine cure arrived at the same time farmers were searching for something that could be grown in tobacco-depleted soils at a time when tobacco profits were on the downswing. It was also a time when herbal remedy promoters needed new products to fill shelf-spaces vacated by products that endangered customers' lives or had merely fallen out of fashion among the fickle users of dubious products.

As the story goes, Mrs. A. Jenkins, wife of a retired Welsh doctor, heard from a coal miner that Feverfew cured migraines. She had suffered from severe headaches for fifty years when unexpectedly she cured herself with feverfew tea, having brewed three leaves daily for ten months before noticing she was well.

That's a nice tale; & a nice tale (where alternative medicine is concerned) always counts for more than science. That a doctor's wife & not a doctor "proved" it is a wonderful touch, for believers in alternate medicine are emotionally commited (on alternate days) to the idea that "real" doctors have an international cabal to keep the secrets of immortal life & perpetual good health from us, & the real secrets of good health are to be found in the advice of ethnic grandmothers, advertising pamphlets, & any random Natural Foods Coop employee.

With a couple of early & poorly conducted studies providing intimations of benefit that would later prove difficult or impossible to reproduce with better controls, the quackpot remedy purveyors began their full-tilt down-hill rush with the new Message of Miracles, promoting scores of new products containing Feverfew.

In such pop-culture healing books as The New Age Herbalist (1988) & The Healing Power of Herbs (1995) & dozens suchlike, one can learn that such things as Feverfew sure 'nuff possess super powers & science says so, though mainly only the pop literature says so. The literature encouraging these beliefs resembles nothing so much as it resembles pamphlets handed out door to door by the Jehova's Witnesses.

The urban folklore of Feverfew's profound efficacy is by now firmly established. As with any belief system that is more a matter of faith than reality, legions of alternative medicine hypochondriacs became, & remain, easily talked out of their money.

Even if they find out that no study supports the idea that it is a headache remedy, what they learn instead is it might retard migraines somewhat better than a placebo if taken daily for the rest of one's life. Hey, the vendors can deal with you believing that its worthlessness for headaches means you should take it everyday forever!

And the damnable thing is, most people could just scatter a few seeds & have it growing in their gardens like the weed it is. If the story of the imaginary Welshwoman were even true, then three leaves a day, from your own garden, is all anyone would need. Stale old store-bought pills or powders that have no standardized potency are not by any stretch of the imagination required.


Feverfew originated in the Balkans & the Caucasus mountains, but has naturalized around the globe in the temperate zones. Beyond its requirement for full sun & good drainage, it takes no care to grow in abundance. It could be harvested fresh rather than purchased stale, & "believers" could brew up as much magical tea, or munch as many leaf sandwiches, as their dear wee hearts required, achieving the superb placebo benefit Feverfew legitimately possesses, all without it costing a dime.

Clumps can be short-lived in the garden, except that it reseeds itself with such abandon that a gardener is never at risk of having to obtain a replacement. If the flowers are not removed before they go to seed, Feverfew will be popping up throughout one's gardens. It'll even spring out of cracks in sidewalks.

Given that it is not longlived as a perennial, it is odd that Belgian botanist Rembert Dodoens (1517-1585) should have speculated that the name Tanecetum is derived from the Greek "athanasia," meaning "immortality." This unlikely word-association has been widely promulgated by the very hoodwinkers who want you to believe it is worth paying good money for jars full of crunched up garden rubble, & if you spend enough money on it, you just might live forever!

This is no more true than the fib that Feverfew is derived from Latin fetrifugia, "driver out of fevers." Such retrofitted mythic assertions try to justify beliefs by hindsight, & have no etymological validity.

In reality the name Tanacetum, sometimes called the Devil's Daisy, is a Latin borrowing from the Greek Thanatos, Death. Greeks & Romans associated the plant with the underworld. Its odor was supposed either to resemble that of corpses, or to mask the scent of corpses when used in funereal rituals. It may have been used in Athena temples when Athena's priestess donned the Gorgon mask & became Black Athena (see also Curly Tansy for a discussion of Tanacetum the Herb of Thanatos).

One finds that the most popular hypochondrical diseases change from generation to generation. Sales angles have to keep up with the changes. In 15th & 16th Century herbals, medicinal plants frequently had completely different uses than current fashion asserts.

This is especially true of the herbs that never had any empirical evidence in their favor. Herbs with strong enough value to provide predictable effects don't change in use as much, but Fevervew's alleged value has changed dramatically from funerary herb, to a treatment for dizziness & melancholy, to a womb cleanser, to fever treatment, & finally to headache remedy (with arthritis cure waiting in the wings as the next change of fad).

Culpepper bought into the entirety of the mystical claptrap called the Doctrine of Signatures. This Astrological & Theosophy-like doctrine held to such childish assumptions as this: if a flower was red, it must have some value in treating blood conditions, but if leaves looked like chicken livers, then that plant must treat liver diseases. So Culpepper produced a marvelous work on herbal folklore which has ever since been passed off as expert testimony on the actual medicinal values of such things as Feverfew.

In the Doctrine of Signatures, herb values were keyed to astrological charts, & Feverfew was useful primarily for "women's complaints" because it was keyed to the planet Venus. This included Melancholy because women were thought to be more prone to mental disorders, hysteria being synonymous with womb-caused madness.

Culpepper can seem to be riotously funny if he is read with the idea that anyone could find any of this to be scientific. Even in his day he was criticized for his aversion to science while making medical suggestions based on star charts & the physical appearance of plants. His response, as for similar crackpots & believers down to our own day, was to deplore emperical evidence as inferior to greater mystical truths.

He was insufficiently prescient to foreshadow the modern belief in Feverfew as a headache remedy, but was convinced that some confluence of Feverfew & Venus strengthened & cleansed the womb, hence it's occasional name, Maid's Weed, reflecting its species name. The original "Maid" was in Greek Kore, aka Persephone, the adolescent form of Black Aphrodite as ruler of the underworld.

Still, Culpepper might be praised for suggesting women take our Feverfew with white wine. I've no doubt many a belledame & fishwife alike finished off their bottles of feverfew-laced wine with exactly the happy feelings Culpepper promised.

Culpepper also said that Feverfew could be used to treat vertigo, which he defined as "a running or swimming of the head," & he said that a pain on the head caused by cold should have Feverfew leaves bruised (to release the foul odor) & "applied to the top of the head." He nowhere suggests ingesting Feverfew for a headache, but attaching a bit of it upon one's pate he was quite sure would cure vertigo or relieve a pain caused by coldness.

This reference to placing Feverfew on top of the head as a topical treatment for dizziness or icecream headache no one today supports as making any sense at all, though these references have modernly been violently paraphrased to indicate Feverfew was Culpepper's headache remedy!

The nearness of the words "Feverfew" & "Head" within Culpepper's ditzy assertions was proof enough. His advice gets misquoted because to represent him accurately & insist upon his credibility would mean Feverfew's value in migraine treatment should be activated by placing a few bruised & stinking leaves under one's hat. The only possible effect this could have would be to annoy the bejabbers out of the user's doubtlessly numerous headlice.

Jefferson's edition of Gerard's Herball (1633), copying a first century belief of Dioscorides, was just as adamant that Feverfew was a cure for melancholia.

Although "Melancholia" was a polite way of speaking of madness & suicidal depression (with which such herbs as Curly Tansy, Common Tansy, Feverfew, & Hops were superstitiously associated), desperate believers in magical remedies today see in Gerard's references to melancholia, as in Culpepper's allusion to topical treatment for a freeze-induced headache, the much-wanted evidence that the "classic" herbals did recognize Feverfew's value as a migraine remedy. The faithful require just such far reaches to hold on to their faith.

Of course, if Gerard is such an expert, then the reason Feverfew fails to function as he promises would be because it is never in our day harvested as he instructs. For according to Gerard the magic only works if the Feverfew is harvested exclusively with the left hand, while reciting aloud the name of the sufferer, & at no time looking backward over one's shoulder. Maybe all those doubleblind studies would've had better conclusive results if only the researchers had harvested the leaves correctly!

The classical herbalists are ever to be adored for their record of botanical myths & magical practices. It only becomes comical when one sees modern "alternative medicine" nutters pouring over old occult treatises about plants, looking for magical cures for their own ailments real or imagined. Too bad they're never searching to cure gullibility, foolhardiness, & ignorance.

It may all be harmless enough for the average hypochondriac with a desire to pop pills for all sorts of problems too indistinct for actual physicians to treat. A capsule with a barely detectible percentage of bee pollen, or a cup of chamomille tea, couldn't hurt, & the mere act of trying might soothe the savage imagination & bring ease to suffering. But this kind of faith-based hoohah passing itself off as medicine can be very harmful to the legitimately ill.

A discussion of Feverfew's vastly more certain value as an insect repellant I will skip past since this article is already long. Enough to say that Feverfew's real value is as a garden ornamental, & if one wishes to dry some of it to make tea, that's not at all unreasonable, as it might even be a moderately good source of niacin & iron.

   



[Garden Indexes: What's New]
[Shade Perennials] — [Ferns]
[Sun Perennials] — [ Sun-garden Herbs]
[Hardy Geraniums & Heucheras] — [Creepers & Vines]
[Monkshoods & Delphiniums]
[Bulbs & Corms] — [Jack-in-the-Pulpits]
[Evergreen Trees] — [Deciduous Trees]
[Rhododendrons, Azaleas, & Camellias]
[Evergreen Shrubs — [Deciduous Shrubs]
[Succulents] — [Miscellaneous]

[Species Index] — [GIFT SHOP ]
[Write to Paghat] — [Home]

   

copyright by Paghat the Ratgirl