Plants are different from us in more ways than one, but perhaps most obviously in their limited mobility. The garden relies on the immobility of plants to protect its identity. Yet examples of garden escapees abound. These plants are often labeled as weeds, a category that encompasses many such undesirable plants whose history and usefulness is glossed over in favor of more pressing economic and aesthetic concerns. Wastelands are a refuge for weeds. Unkept fields and abandoned railroads are a haven for many undesirable species. It is here that we explore and read our own history, reflected in the uses and abuses of plants.
Today we walked along the S-bahn track lines in the northernmost part of Prenzlauer Berg. Following the Mauerweg (the path of the former Berlin Wall), underneath the Bornholmer bridge and past the cherry trees donated to the people of Berlin by the Japanese government, one finds a foot path trailing along the railway tracks. It is now mid-August and the path is dominated by a sea of golden yellow color emanating a slight but pleasant aromatic presence. The small, button-like yellow flowers belong to Tansy (Tanacetum vulgare) – a plant so encyclopedic in its past usage that it is worthy of an officinales designation. I can imagine that tansy was a very useful plant to have around before such essentials as safe drinking water were readily available. Problems with intestinal worms? Drink a bitter tansy tea and all the worms will quickly flee! Salt prices too high to cure your meat? Rub a tansy leaf or two and use less salt than accustomed to!
Yet, tansies have many contemporary uses as well. For example, the tansy is well-known as a natural insect and bug repellent, which explains its popularity among many organic farmers looking for natural pesticides and insecticides. That is not to say that tansy is not despised by many gardeners for its resilience and tendency to dominate a landscape. And make no mistake: tansy can be deadly if ingested in large quantities. In the past, copious amounts of tansy were used to induce abortions, while – paradoxically – smaller amounts were used to increase fertility. Yet, on a more lighthearted note, tansies were also a part of traditional food recipes, such as tansy pudding and tansy omelets.
Today, tansy belongs to the garbage of history, sidetracked by progress, precision and innovation, visible as the blurred yellow blotches on the ground along the S-bahn tracks.