It started with the Tansy cakes. I had to ask myself ‘Why would anyone eat anything that tastes so weird’? I had grown some Tansy in the garden and was curious enough about this traditional recipe to make some.
Chrysanthemum Vulgare is a common perennial in the British Isles and the name Tansy is thought to be derived from the Greek ‘athansia’, meaning ‘immortal’. Reasons suggested for this include the fact that the dried flower lasts forever or that it has a medicinal quality contributing to long life. Looking back to Greek literature, Tansy was given by the Gods to Ganymede to make him immortal.
Tansy certainly had a reputation as a vermifuge in the middle ages. John Gerard wrote in his 17th century Herball:
“In the Spring time are made with the leaves here of newly sprung up, and with eggs, cakes of Tansies, which be pleasant to taste, and good for the stomacke. For if any bad humours cleave there unto, it doth perfectly concoct them and scoure them downewards”.
Tansy was a common kitchen garden herb for medicinal and culinary use, in place of expensive foreign spices such as nutmeg and cinnamon. It was used to flavour custard, cakes, milk puddings, omelettes and freshwater fish. In Ireland it was included in sausages called ‘Drisheens’. Its use as a springtime ‘cleanser’ even became ritualised into a part of the Christian Easter traditions;
“On Easter Sunday be the pudding seen,
To which the Tansy lends her sober green.”
The consensus on this much written about herb is that it was used at Easter to purify the blood after lent. This consensus shows a problem though, in that in England the plant does not show leaves until the end of May – well after Easter. This is evidence of the assimilation of natural ‘self-medicating’ or ‘preventative detoxing’ herbalism into a controlling religious patriarchy during the early middle ages. Other countries have other stories about the suppression of local peoples and their natural folklore in support of a dominant and often patriarchal religious culture.
Observation of wild and domesticated animals shows that they regularly self-medicate with wild plants. Sick chimpanzees chew bitter leaves from a bush not normally part of their diet, and then recover. Research by Michael Hoffman shows that a particular nematode worm is common in the monkeys’ guts during the rainy season and that their chewing of the leaves coincided with the prevalence of this parasite, which it destroyed. This was the same bush that local tribes use to get rid of stomach parasites.
Dogs and cats self medicate by eating couch grass or cleavers. Parrots, chickens, camels, snow geese, starlings – all have been observed consuming substances normally alien to their diet to remedial effect. Bears particularly are venerated by North American Indian culture because they symbolise the powers of ‘regeneration’. North American Indians discovered the use of a root called Osha from bears. It is so effective as an all round painkiller and anti-viral, that it is now on the endangered species list.
The Woolly Bear caterpillar changes its diet according to whether it is infected by a particular parasite. Normally a Lupin eater, the caterpillar increases its chance of surviving a particular fly parasite by changing to a diet of Poison Hemlock.
Self-medication is not therefore a ‘rational choice’ in other species, but a carefully integrated part of a survival mechanism against an invisible predator – disease. Humans seem to have lost this sense of their own health management and are often uninformed as to the uses of plants growing around them. They have become victim to predatory pharmaceutical industries.
Humans often self-medicate, often with damaging interventions – alcohol indulgence to deal with stress being an obvious example of this. The ready availability of pharmaceutical or street drugs as alteratives is another. We consume substances such as caffeine or sugar drinks for easy energy. Unlike chimpanzees though, we seem to have lost the knowledge and ability to use the plants growing around us to maintain health. This ‘common sense’ has been lost which leads us straight into the hands of food and pharmaceutical manufacturers with a profit motive. Many of these ‘cures’ on offer from Big Pharma deal with the symptoms of a disease rather than looking at the causes.
A natural trait towards self-medicating may well be at the basis of many of our unconscious ‘eating choices’. Potatoes for example contain a form of opiate, which may lead to a desire for chips or crisps. Chocolate and other forms of sweet are well-known for their ‘buzz’ quality, the ultimate comfort food treat – a cocktail of delicious and stimulating chemicals. To some extent all foods can act as alteratives to a unique physiology.
We talk about comfort foods and rewarding ourselves with treats to eat. Sometimes we have a favourite food that can help if we feel ill. For me this is scrambled egg, which is a unique food because it contains all of the amino acids we need to digest it.
An extreme example of what we do is shown in ‘Pica’ where a person gets uncontrollable desires to eat certain edible (and inedible) substances. This condition is occurs in pregnant women and is thought to express the need for particular minerals. My mother told me she had a desire to eat oil paints when she was pregnant with me.
Because our food sources are often limited to processed food, and because of the destruction of herbal folk-lore and access to wild medicine, many of us have lost touch with our health sense and don’t use food or wild plants for self-medication or preventative health care. But the wheel is turning and people like you want more access to this holistic and gentle sense of health that is prevalent in other medical philosophies, and other animal species.