Feverfew: What did Gerard and Culpeper take when they had Headaches?

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. Sometimes 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. A conservative figure on the incidence of migraine in this country is 10 million and arthritis 30 million. Since many migraine sufferers 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 heritageÓthe 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, and no tylenol or 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 Linnaeus. Feverfew has not been considered to be a Matricaria since the early 1800s, when it was moved to Chrysanthemum. Feverfew is given the name Chrysanthemum parthenium in the authoritative Hortus Third, 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 phlegm 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 by 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 was 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. 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 extols 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, tranquilizer 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. 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 morifolium is used as a sedative and 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) taken for many complaints, including digestive, circulatory, and nervous difficulties. Was John Hill referring to migraine when he wrote 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 this extreme type of headache. 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 that nearly 9 million people suffer from migraine in the U.S.! After two widely discussed double-blind studies were 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 spring.


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