Herb to Know: Costmary

Herb to Know

| June/July 2002

  • Steven Foster

Genus: Tanacetum balsamita or Chrysanthemum balsamita var. tanacetoides
Pronunciation: (Tah-nuh-SEE-tum ball-suh-MEE-tuh)
Family: Compositae (Asteraceae)

• Hardy perennial reaching 3 to 4 feet in height

Costmary is an herb of many names. Its principal common name shows it to be an herb dedicated to the Virgin Mary. The alternate name, sweet Mary, likely refers to the Virgin Mary, too, or it could refer to Mary Magdalene: the early herbalists Gerard and Culpeper mentioned an herb called maudlin (Magdalene) which was identical or very similar to costmary.

Other common names for costmary allude to its uses. As a flavoring of ales and spiced wine, it was called alecost. The name allspice applied to this herb may be a variant spelling for ale-spice, or perhaps the herb’s scent reminded someone of the spice allspice. Sweet tongue, a common name in Maine, refers to both the taste and the shape of the leaves.

The large, oblong leaves of costmary make neat, fragrant bookmarks, a use that spawned the old names Bible leaf or Bible plant. The minty odor, which persists in the dried leaf, might repel silverfish or book lice from the family Bible, and the leaf could be sniffed surreptitiously during long sermons to maintain wakefulness.

Mint geranium is a misnomer: costmary is closely related neither to the mints (Lamiaceae/Labiatae) nor to the geraniums (Geraniaceae); there’s nothing geraniumlike about its appearance or odor, and it is minty only in smell and taste. Another name referring to its odor is balsam herb. To add to the confusion, the name costmary has also been applied to tansy (Tanacetum vulgare), to which our Herb to Know is closely related.

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