Native to the eastern Mediterranean, Costmary was introduced into England in the 16th century and very quickly became extremely popular. With a multitude of uses it appeared in all gardens and was once considered to be one of the most common of garden plants.
Costmary is an incredibly useful perennial herb. Its leaves have a eucalyptus-like aroma which has been described as like garden mint with hints of balsam. The long, broad and resinous leaves support loose clusters of tiny, daisy-like flowers that emit a pleasant, balsamic fragrance.
Costmary was used for many purposes, culinary, medicinal aromatherapy or ornamental. It was known as Alecost, used to clear, flavour and aid in the preservation of beer and ales before being superseded by hops. Today it is usually used in the kitchen as a salad green or potherb. The leaves or stems or flowers can be cooked and used for food or seasoning, preparing tea or adding essence.
Costmary is one of the most interesting and complex of all herbs. It can be used in place of mint in iced drinks and as a sage substitute in stuffing. Its flavours pair well with egg and seafood dishes, and are wonderful when used with fruits and cake. Sweeter and more aromatic than Tansy, when clipped, Costmary also makes an attractive, fragrant hedge in the herb garden or perennial border.
Sowing: February to June or September to October.
Sow the seeds on the surface of lightly firmed, moist seed compost in pots or trays. Cover seed with only a light sprinkling of compost or vermiculite as light aids germination. Water from the base of the tray, Place in a propagator or warm place, ideally at 20°C (68°F). Keep the compost moist but not wet at all times.
Prick out each seedling once it has its first set of true leaves and transplant into 7.5cm (3in) pots containing free-draining compost and grow them on in frost free conditions until large enough to plant outside. When the plants are 15cm (6in) tall, gradually acclimatise to outdoor conditions for 10 to 15 days before planting out after all risk of frost has passed. Overwinter autumn sown plants in frost-free conditions before planting out the following spring.
Plant 45 to 60cm (16 to 24in) apart, in a dry sunny situation. The plant will thrive in almost every soil or situation but when grown in the shade, Costmary goes strongly to leaf, but will not flower. Frost resistant but drought tender, it is hardy to minus 30°C (-20°F).
In late summer, when the leaves look tattered, prune back half of them to the ground. They will grow 60 to 90cm (24 to 36in) tall if left unclipped. Feed and water the plant; when new growth appears, shear back the rest of the old leaves. Cut back flower stems to promote leaf growth.
Costmary is a perennial that should be renewed by division every few years, since the old plant becomes bare at the centre. As the roots creep freely, the plants will probably spread over the intervening spaces in a couple of years and need dividing and transplanting every second or third year.
If drying, pick the leaves just before the plant flowers as this is when their flavour is at its most intense.
Harvest in small quantities, then harvest the rest of the leaves before the costmary leaves turn yellow in autumn. The leaves dry quickly at 37°C (100°F) and can be stored for long periods of time.
Fresh, young leaves may be added to salads, soups, bread and cold beverages. Costmary can be used like mint in lemonade and other iced drinks and beverages. Uses in salads and fruit salads, cakes and teas. The flower petals can also be added to jams and conserves.
Costmary pairs well with tuna, egg and seafood dishes and can be used with game. Used as a substitute for sage, it is a traditional flavouring for veal and poultry stuffing. It is delicious with vegetables especially on peas and new potatoes and can be blended with melted butter as a dressing. The mint flavoured leaves of Costmary can be used in salads, soups, it is especially good in carrot soup, as well as homemade beer.
Use sparingly as a little goes a long way, the leaf has a sharp tang and can rapidly be overpowering in any dish.
The costmary plant is highly fragrant and retains its sweet-smelling scent when dried. The plant also helps to bring out the scents of other dried flowers and leaves, acting as a fixative for herb cushions, potpourri and herb sachets. In the past it was a useful strewing herb.
Gather together bunches of leaves, let the bunches dry then crush to release the scent and tie up in handmade chiffon bags to put in the linen closet, clothes closet, or on bookshelves to repel moths, ants and other insects.
Costmary can be used with herbs such as Lavender, Tansy and Wormwood to sweeten linen closets and to keep moths from your wardrobe. This herb can be also used with other soothing herbs such as Roses, Lemon balm and Cloves for a sleep pillow.
An infusion makes a scented rinse water for hair or skin. Leaves can also be used in the rinse water for linens after hand washing. In a glass bowl, place two tablespoons dried costmary and pour over about two cups boiling water. Allow this to infuse for 1 to 2 hours. Strain and use in rinse water.
The leaves are a good size to use as pleasant-smelling, insect-repellent bookmarks.
Costmary oil is a helpful remedy for mild burns where there is no blistering. It is also reported to be good for easing mild cases of gout. Crushed leaves will relieve the pain of bee stings and minor wounds and burns. For bruises, blisters and mild irritations of the skin, an ointment using dried costmary leaves is effective.
A tea is useful for colds, upset stomachs and cramps and to ease childbirth. Costmary inhalation is a useful remedy for catarrh, helping to clear the nasal passages.
Tanacetum balsamita is native to the eastern Mediterranean presumably in the Caucasus region. It is a member of the Asteraceae, the daisy family and is a close relative of feverfew and tansy.
It has become naturalised in many parts of southern Europe. It became popular in more Northern latitudes in the Middle Ages, when it was grown in monasteries and Imperial gardens in accordance with Charlemagne's Capitulare de Villis - An edit decreed by King Charlemagne in the year 812 AD, which regulated the administration of his crown estates.
It was introduced into England in the sixteenth century and a little later to the American colonies. It was formerly to be found in almost every garden. Lyte, writing in 1578, said it was then 'very common in all gardens.' Gerard, twenty years later, says 'it groweth everywhere in gardens,' and Parkinson mentions it among other sweet herbs in his garden. Today it has now so completely gone out of favour as to have become a rarity, though it may still occasionally be found in old gardens, especially in Lincolnshire in the UK where it is erroneously called 'Mace’, although this term is usually reserved for a spice derived from the nutmeg tree.
The genus name tanacetum refers to the family relationship with Tansy, Tanacetum vulgare. It is derived from the Greek athanasia meaning 'immortality', which is perhaps a reference to its long-lasting odour.
The species name balsamita derives from the Latin balsamum also from the Greek balsamos meaning aromatic. The word originated from Old Hebrew bōshem denoting the balsam tree, but also meaning ‘fragrance’ or ‘spice’ in general.
Tanacetum balsamita has a number of synonyms: Balsamita major, Balsamita vulgaris, Chrysanthemum balsamita and Chrysanthemum majus. In some old herbals it appears as Balsamita mas or Maudlin.
It gets its common name of Costmary, (Middle English costmarie or coursemary) from the oriental herb Saussuria costus or Indian orris which is an aromatic herb mentioned by Theophrastus in regard to its use in perfumes in ancient Greece. The root of which is used as a spice and as a preserve. The Latin name costus comes from the Sanskrit, kustha.
Costmary has a special place in Christian tradition. In the Middle Ages, the plant was widely associated with the Virgin Mary and was known in France as ‘Herbe Sainte-Marie’ or ‘Saint Mary’s herb’. The other name, Sweet Mary, possibly denoted Virgin Mary also, but it is possible that this name talks about Mary Magdalene. According to medieval legend, costmary was the balsam with which Mary Magdalene washed Jesus’ feet. The herbalists Gerard and Culpeper discussed an herb known at that time as Maudlin or Magdalene that was matching or extremely analogous to costmary.
Other common names provide us sufficient hint regarding the uses of this fragrant herb.
Costmary has been used in the brewing of ales and beers since at least the 15th century, hence its common name of Alecost. It was used to clear, flavour and aid in the preservation of beer and ales before being superseded by hops. The name Allspice also given to this herb is possibly a modification of the spelling ‘ale-spice’. It is also possible that those who named the herb allspice did so because the aroma of costmary reminded them of the spice called allspice.
Costmary obtained the name ‘Bible Leaf’ in Puritan places of worship where the sermons were unendurably long. A leaf was placed between the pages of the Bible, enabling the parishioner to take pleasure in the delicate scent every time when the sermon became sluggish. It still makes a fragrant and fun bookmark and has the added benefit of repelling insects.
Although costmary is occasionally referred to mint geranium, it needs to be mentioned that this name is inappropriate for the herb. The reason for this is that neither costmary is intimately related to the mints (scientific name Lamiaceae/ Labiatae), nor to the geraniums (scientific name Geraniaceae). Moreover, costmary does not possess any of the characteristics of the geraniums either in its appearance or scent. As far as the mints are concerned, costmary has no resemblance with this genus, barring its flavour and aroma. What is more confusing is the fact that another herb tansy (scientific name Tanacetum vulgare), which is intimately related to costmary, has also been given the name costmary.
Achillea ageratum, being Balsamita foemina, the Maudlin or Sweet Milfoil, a native of Italy and Spain, introduced into England in 1570, an aromatic plant with a sweet smell and a bitter taste, and yellow, tansy-like flowers, was used by the earlier herbalists for the same purposes as Costmary. Culpepper speaks of it growing in gardens and having the same virtues as Costmary, but by the time of Linnaeus its use was obsolete. Both Costmary and Maudlin were much used to make 'sweete washing water.'
- Additional Information
Packet Size 50mg Average Seed Count 150 Seeds Seed Form Natural Seeds per gram 3,500 sds/gm Common Name Herbe Sainte-Marie, Alecost Other Common Names Saint Mary’s Herb, Bible Leaf Family Asteraceae Genus Tanacetum Species balsamita Hardiness Hardy Perennial Height 45 to 60cm (18 to 24in) Spread 30cm (12in)