Costmary is a useful perennial herb that grows up to a height of one meter (three feet) and bears broad, greenish-gray, egg-shaped, perfumed leaves with saw-like borders. The plant bears yellowish, button-like blossoms that bear a resemblance to those of tans. The costmary flowers bloom in assorted groups between the later phases of summer to early autumn. Occasionally positioned in the genus Chrysanthemum, customary is usually used as a potherb (plants whose leaves or stems or flowers are cooked and used for food or seasoning) or salad green. In addition, at times this herb is used for potpourri, preparing tea or adding essence.
It is interesting to note that costmary is known by several names. Its primary familiar name demonstrates that it is an herb bestowed to Virgin Mary. The other name, sweet Mary, possibly denoted Virgin Mary also, but it is possible that this name talks about Mary Magdalene. It may be mentioned here that the initial herbalists Gerard and Culpeper had discussed about an herb known as maudlin or Magdalene that was matching or extremely analogous to costmary. The other familiar names of costmary provide us sufficient hint regarding the uses of the herb. For instance, the name allspice given to this perennial 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. In Maine, the widespread name of the herb is sweet tongue that denotes flavor as well as the form of the costmary leaves.
There was a time when the scented toilet water was prepared with costmary leaves. Interestingly, the early American settlers also called the herb bible-leaf as they made use of the long leaves of costmary as bookmarks and, at the same time, refreshing themselves with the plant's pleasing aroma. In addition, the leaves of costmary having balsam spearmint aroma were often used as a marker in the Sunday bible enabling the parishioner to take pleasure in the delicate scent every time when the sermon became sluggish. In the Middle Ages, the herb was also known as ‘Alecost' as it was widely used to give an essence to ale. In addition to the above mentioned exploits of the herb, costmary may also be used in spring salad, soups, cakes, teas, poultry as well as homemade beer. The dried leaves of costmary have a mint-like fragrance and this may be helpful in warding off silverfish or book lice from the books.
Although costmary is occasionally referred to mint geranium, it needs to be mentioned here 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 flavor 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.
In fact, even the scientific names of costmary appear to be as dubious as the herb's common names. The herb, which has been scientifically been known as T. balsamita and Balsamita major or B. mas. even before that, has been scientifically rechristened as Chrysanthemum balsamita or as C. b. var. tanacetoides in the more recent times. Despite its new name, some nurseries still catalog the herb as C. balsamita.
Akin to majority of the herbs, costmary was also valued for its remedial properties. Long back, the herb was used to treat an assortment of ailments, including diarrhea, “quotidien ague”, liver problems and to cure cerebral disorders. Many herbal medicinal practitioners have also prescribed the herb to bring on delayed menstrual periods. As costmary is astringent, it was widely ingested as a tea or blended with sugar as a preserve.
Habitat and cultivation
Costmary is indigenous or native to southern Europe and western regions of Asia and is a hardy plant that is able to withstand the cold winters of Europe as well as the humid summers in Asia. Over the years, the herb has been naturalized and commercially grown in several parts of North America and Europe. Years ago, the costmary was a common herb as people extensively cultivated it in their gardens, but today it is mostly grown as an ornamental plant.
Costmary thrives best when it is watered occasionally. It is also important to wet the soil profoundly with two to three glasses of water at intervals of two to three weeks. In addition, prior to harvesting and using the herb, one ought to be familiar with the balsamic period which refers to the phase when the active principles in the plant selected for harvesting are present in maximum quantity.
Healthy growth of costmary may be ensured by cultivating the plants in such a place that receives a few hours of direct sunlight daily. It is important to note that costmary will grow well both under the sun as well as in partial shade, but it requires full sunlight for the herb to bear flowers. As costmary is perennial in nature, it is possible to grow the herb in your garden all through the year. Division of the plant at intervals of every two to three years enables the herb to grow more vigorously. It may be mentioned here that it is very difficult to propagate costmary from seeds.
As discussed earlier, costmary can withstand extreme climatic conditions, especially cold weather. This is one of the reasons why the herb could be naturalized and is cultivated in several regions of North America as well as Europe. As the leaves of this herb are beneficial as nourishments and digestive use, cultivators may use insecticides and adopt anticryptogamic methods. However, it is essential that these should be used much before the harvesting season so that the toxins present in insecticides do not affect the health of the humans taking the herb or its products internally.