Alecost (Costmary), Tanacetum balsamita
Tanacetum balsamita is an attractive tall growing, perennial herb, belonging to the daisy family, the Compositae.
This aromatic herb has two common names, 'Costmary' and Alecost. 'Cost' refers to Costus, a spicy Asian plant related to ginger, which has a slightly similar flavour. 'Mary' refers to a mythical association with the Virgin Mary, perhaps due to the fact that this herb was used in medieval times as an infusion, taken to relieve the pain of childbirth.
'Alecost' translates into ale - cost, or 'spicy herb for ale' advertising the fact it was once an important flavouring of ales.
Tanacetum balsamita originates from Central Asia and was introduced into England in the sixteenth century. It became very important for herbal medicines and was grown extensively for the treatment of burns and insect stings. Alecost was also used to clarify food by adding to hot fat and was said to remove various impurities. The herb was grown and used by the Romans, Egyptians and Greeks. It is said that Charlemagne loved to gaze at this pale silver-green fragrant herb, which was grown in his gardens.
Alecost is a sweet smelling, large leaved herb. The leaves grow to 15cm and
are covered with very fine hairs. The plant reaches 3m or more in height when
mature and produces very pretty, yellow, button-like flowers throughout late
summer and early autumn. The flowers last for about a week in a vase.
'Alecost is frequently known and be an inhabitant of almost every garden, that it is needless to write a description there of.' He continues to speak of its uses: 'it cleanses that which is foul, and hinders putrefaction and corruption . helps their evil effects it is an especial friend to evil, weak and cold livers'
Alecost is little used medicinally today.
The leaves have a minty, balsam-like flavour reminiscent of spearmint chewing gum. The aromatic leaves were once pressed between the pages of bibles, giving it another name 'bible leaf'. It is possible the leaf was placed within the pages to keep the book smelling sweet rather than mildewy. Perhaps fresh leaves were placed in the good book for something to chew, stopping the worshipper from falling asleep during a long sermon!
Alecost contains a natural insect repellent and was employed by Native Americans
to deter various potato pests. It was also used regularly till the end of
the Victorian era in wardrobes and clothes stores to deter clothes moths.
Advantages of this herb
This attractive plant provides a lovely 'cottage garden' addition to the herb
The dried leaves of alecost retain their minty-balsam perfume for a long time and make a sweet addition to pot pourris. A sachet containing lavender and Alecost provides a pleasant perfume for the wardrobe, used to deter clothes moths.
A small amount of the leaf can be added to soups and salads. Add to melted butter and new potatoes.
Alecost is recommended in modern herbals to relieve a stuffed up nose. Place a handful of the leaves in a bowl of boiling water, cover the head with a towel and inhale for five to ten minutes.
Recipes for ointments to relieve mild skin irritations can be found in herbal books.
Growing this herb
Alecost is easy to grow. It prefers fertile, well-drained soil in full sun
or part shade. Alecost will not flower if it does not receive enough sun.
As this herb spreads, allow it plenty of space to grow (60-90cm between plants).
Alecost dies down in the winter and should be cut back when it becomes untidy. Divide plants every three years.
Sow seed in spring, in plug trays or pots, in a cool greenhouse or
cold-frame. When large enough to handle, pot up, or plant out directly.
Roots should be divided in the autumn or the spring. Lift the whole plant, remove the central section of old root and discard. Choose young sections of rhizomes, making sure there are healthy buds and root on each root to be re-planted.
Leaves are best picked when young; harvest from spring to early autumn. Their flavour is best before flowering. Dry the leaves in a well-aerated room over a cake rack. Place in a sealed jar.
Flowers should be gathered in the autumn and hung in small bunches
in a dark, cool, well ventilated room. The flowers look lovely in pot pourri.