Costmary – humble guardian of the feminine principle

I have a gathering of herbs in my garden that I use for cooking. Nothing out of the ordinary, but enough to pull off a decent meal here and there. Earlier this year, I came across a completely new (to me) herb – a tall, upright shoot with large, serrated, grayish-green leaves that seemed to just keep growing and growing. I had never seen it before – or even heard of it – so some research was in order. Its leaves have a wonderful scent, but I found the flavor rather bitter. Despite was the literature says, it didn’t exactly inspire me to perform any great culinary experiments. But, as a medicinal, it apparently has a wide range of applications; per Wikipedia it was used for “…menstruation problems. In the 18th century, it was classified as a laxative, against stomach problems and as an astringent. It was recommended against melancholy and hysteria as well as dysentery and against gallbladder disease.”

The sunny, yellow button flowers rise above the gray-green foliage. Image courtesy of Asiaherbs4u.

The sunny, yellow button flowers rise above the gray-green foliage. Image shamelessly borrowed from Asiaherbs4u.

Mother Earth Living offers a far more in-depth presentation of its virtues than I will, but here is a brief history: The  ‘Costus’ part of Costmary’s name indicates that it came from “the Orient”. From there, it spread first to the Mediterranean regions, and was later introduced to Britain in the 1500’s. It was a valued herb in the late medieval herb gardens, and later became an essential component of Elizabethan knot gardens. Its Latin name is either Tanacetum balsamita or Balsamita vulgaris, and it is believed that the herb is the same as was referred to by Columella – one of the foremost Roman writers on agriculture – in 70 AD, when he mentions something called ‘balsamita’.

This beloved herb is actually known by many names. Alecost, Bible leaf, Mint geranium, Sweet Mary, and Sweet tongue are some. Alecost, of course indicates its usefulness in ale production, while calling it Mint geranium is rather misleading, as it is neither a mint nor a geranium – even though its scented foliage rosette sends out rhizomes and multiplies much like a mint does. Let this be your warning – unless you have plenty of space to let it spread, grow it in a confined space, or it might take over. The term Bible leaf stems from the popular use of its oblong, fragrant leaves for bookmarks. Supposedly the perfume would keep silverfish and book lice away from the Good Book. The free-spirited 17th century British astrologer and pharmacist Nicholas Culpeper called it “the Balsam herbe”, but he also called it “Maudlin”.

Trying to capture the gray-green foliage. Hope you get the idea. Judging from how it currently looks, it is not a very visually appealing plant, but it more than makes up for it in fragrance.

Trying to capture the gray-green foliage. Hope you get the idea. Judging from how it currently looks, it is not a very visually appealing plant, but it more than makes up for it in fragrance and – as you will soon see – in symbolic value. To me, anyway…

Per the rebellious renegade Culpeper, “Maudlin” indicated that it was named after Mary of Magdalene (as in Jesus’ lover) – not Mary of Nazareth (as in the mother of Jesus) as often believed. This intrigued me to no end! You see, years ago, I learned that there was a Gospel of Mary. This ancient document laid dormant in history until it was discovered in Egypt at the end of the nineteenth century. It was not made public until 1955. In it, Mary relays a private dialogue with Jesus from a vision to the other apostles, where he declares: “Do not lay down any rules beyond what I appointed you, and do not give a law like the lawgiver lest you be constrained by it.” Incredulous, Peter and Andrew responded: “Did He really speak privately with a woman and not openly to us? Are we to turn about and all listen to her? Did He prefer her to us?” Levi (also known as Matthew) spoke up in defense of Mary: “Now I see you contending against the woman like the adversaries. But if the Savior made her worthy, who are you indeed to reject her? Surely the Savior knows her very well. That is why He loved her more than us. Rather let us be ashamed and put on the perfect Man, and separate as He commanded us and preach the gospel, not laying down any other rule or other law beyond what the Savior said.”

Wow! Can you imagine what the world might look like if Mary’s documented experiences  had gotten equal share with the others in building of the New Testament? Instead, the male-dominated, often harshly judgmental interpretation of Christ’s teachings has given us the misogynistic, intolerant and discriminatory world we live in today. The dominating Biblical female figure to date has generally been Mother Mary – a figure I have always felt a kind of empathetic pity for – a battered, mournful creature, mentally downtrodden by the burden of witnessing the horrors of the decisions made by men around her. I’m no theologian, but it seems she is always hailed for her gentle and forgiving Motherhood, rather than her Womanhood (in other words, exactly the kind of focus one might expect from a patriarchal society). So, instead of being relegated to the sidelines of Christian myth, I think Mary Magdalene should have been given the top spot, and celebrated as the equal female counterpart to Jesus – as the Yin is to the Yang, if you will. If she had, perhaps Christianity would have stayed truer to its original message of love, forgiveness and mercy. Before I read “According to Mary Magdalene” by Marianne Fredriksson, I only knew of Mary as a prostitute who joined the traveling entourage of Jesus. Marianne Fredriksson’s book, as you can imagine, was harshly criticized by the Christian mainstream. Really people, open up your minds!

But, back to the plant! I may not use it much for cooking, but after learning this, I will tend this herb as a living, growing symbol of the softer, more tolerant and nurturing feminine principle. Its moon-gray leaves and sun-like button flowers will represent the coming of the long overdue return to a more balanced and caring society, shared equally between the sexes. Post-Christ, they actually got along quite well for many hundred years, until the Bubonic Plague offered an opening for male dominance via the Christian clergy. (You can read more about the witch hunt that ensued at the end of an old post I wrote a few years ago, about Halloween.)  My hope is that women everywhere will eventually retrieve their innate strength, bond together, claim their right to equal representation, and help steer the administration of our planet in a direction more caring for, and inclusive of, ALL living creatures that inhabit it. May we exert our inner light like the Costmary does, and spread that bright spirit vigorously, in a mint like fashion. It may sound silly, but the world could really use it! Happy Halloween, y’all!




About annamadeit

I was born and raised in Sweden, By now, I have lived almost as long in the United States. The path I’ve taken has been long and varied, and has given me a philosophical approach to life. I may joke that I’m a sybarite, but the truth is, I find joy and luxury in life’s simple things as well. My outlook on life has roots in a culture rich in history and tradition, and I care a great deal about environmental stewardship. Aesthetically, while drawn to the visually clean, functional practicality and sustainable solutions that are the hallmarks of modern Scandinavia, I also have a deep appreciation for the raw, the weathered, and the worn - materials that tell a story. To me, contrast, counterpoint, and diversity are what makes life interesting and engaging. Color has always informed everything I do. I’m a functional tetrachromat, and a hopeless plantoholic. I was originally trained as an architect working mostly on interiors, but soon ventured outside - into garden design. It’s that contrast thing again… An interior adrift from its exterior, is like a yin without a yang. My firm conviction that everything is connected gets me in trouble time and time again. The world is a big place, and full of marvelous distractions, and offers plentiful opportunities for inquiry and exploration. I started writing to quell my constant queries, explore my discoveries, and nurture my curiosity. The Creative Flux was started in 2010, and became a catch-all for all kinds of intersecting interests. The start of Flutter & Hum at the end of 2013 marks my descent into plant nerd revelry. I occasionally contribute to other blogs, but those two are my main ones. For sure, topics are all over the map, but then again - so am I! Welcome to my blogs!
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11 Responses to Costmary – humble guardian of the feminine principle

  1. Pingback: Costmary - humble guardian of the feminine principle | Christians Anonymous

  2. Alison says:

    I love how much thought you put into what you grow. An excellent post, with lots to teach us.

    • annamadeit says:

      Thank you, Alison! Truth be told, I don’t put that much thought into everything, but this one kinda stuck out. I find that kind of historical cause and effect absolutely mesmerizing!

  3. rickii says:

    It’s very pretty in bloom, and you never know when a family member or neighbor will be seized by a bout of hysteria.

  4. linda says:

    I think we shall all have to grow Costmay ! Save me some seeds ?
    I’m sucking on Horehound sweets , another one from Britain …sore throat ;(

    • annamadeit says:

      Oh no – sorry you aren’t feeling well, Linda! Hope you feel better soon… If my plant is anywhere near as vigorous as the average mint, I suspect I will have plenty to give away before too long. And, you’ll be first on my list! 🙂

  5. commonweeder says:

    What a fascinating post! I had never heard of the Gospel of Mary – although a favorite mystery story by Laurie R King is titled A Letter of Mary (yes, that Mary). I also have a large herb garden, but no costmary. I did know it was called Bible leaf and thought was its only use. I never thought it was edible. Thank you for such an enlightening post.

    • annamadeit says:

      I too was completely floored by this discovery! As far as edibility, maybe you’ll have more success incorporating it into recipes than I’ve had so far. It really was pretty bitter… I might have to check out that mystery story… 😉

  6. I love that you grow this just for its meaning to you. Very interesting story and interpretation. Personal posts like this are what make blogging so real. 🙂

  7. annamadeit says:

    Thanks Tammy! I wasn’t alive when this document was made public, but holy cow – I can’t believe it didn’t make more of a stink than it did. I can’t help but wonder if it wasn’t hushed down, and swept under the carpet by all those chauvinist theologians. Growing herbs, of course, isn’t going to change anything, but seeing it grow will remind me of Mary M and the frustration she must have felt in getting the message through the density and rigid mindset of her contemporaries. 🙂 Don’t EVER give up! 🙂

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