Feverfew: planting, risk of confusion & medicinal properties


Having grown up in the countryside, nature and self-sufficiency have always been big part of my life. I live and breathe nature and had the chance to delve even deeper into this interest during my studies in agricultural systems science at university.

Favourite fruit: apples, blackberries and plums
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Feverfew is an ancient and popular medicinal plant. But what effect does the plant have? How do you plant, care for and harvest them? We tell you everything you need to know about feverfew.

Feverfew blossom
The feverfew, which is used as a medicinal plant, has been somewhat forgotten over time [Photo: nakasea/ Shutterstock.com]

Feverfew has been a well-known medicinal herb for over 2000 years and has been selectively cultivated ever since. The German name of the herb known as Tanacetum parthenium, “Mutterkraut” (mother’s herb), comes from its use during pregnancy: it is said to induce labour and speed up birth. In the Middle Ages, it was even administered in large quantities and was supposed to induce abortion. We’ll show you how to grow wild chamomile in the home garden, how to care for it properly and what else you can use it for.

Feverfew: characteristics and origin

Feverfew originated in southeastern Europe and the eastern Mediterranean, but because of its established, widespread distribution throughout Europe, it is considered an archaeophyte – that is, a plant that is alien but was spread by human cultivation a very long time ago. In addition, feverfew is now found in large parts of the world, such as North, Central and South America, Oceania, large parts of Asia, North Africa, the Azores and Canary Islands, where it is, however, considered a neophyte.

Occasionally, the herbaceous and perennial plant from the Asteraceae family is also known as featherfew. There was long disagreement about the genus in the past: for example, feverfew was first assigned to the chamomiles (Matricaria) before being included in the Chrysanthemums (Chrysanthemum). However, it is nowadays classified as a subsection of the tansies (Tanacetum).

Flowering feverfew plant
The feverfew branches upwards and produces many flowers [Photo: weha/ Shutterstock.com]

Traditionally cultivated as an ornamental and medicinal plant in cottage gardens, this herb grows between 30 and 80 cm tall, forming delicate, pinnately lobed leaves about 8 cm long. Feverfew is conspicuous mainly because of its strong fragrance. The stem is ribbed and branches upward while woody near the base. Between May and August, the plant produces its flowers, which are about 1.5 to 2 cm in size and grow in umbel-like clusters or panicles. Characteristic is its yellowish appearing flower cluster of yellow tubular flowers, framed by white ray florets.

The flowers thereby provide a food source for some wild bee species such as the plasterer bee (Colletes daviesanus) and the tansy mask bee (Hylaeus nigritus). However, they are also readily visited by honeybees and flies. Feverfew is therefore bee-friendly.

Their fruits are classified as achenes. They are relatively small, grooved, and have small appendages, the pappus, which allows them to spread either by wind or with the help of passing animals.

Danger of confusion with feverfew

Feverfew can be easily confused with other plants for two reasons: First, it looks confusingly similar to German chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla) and ox-eye daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare); second, Alpine lovage (Mutellina adonidifolia) is also sometimes referred to as “feverfew” in common parlance.

Camomile plant
The camomile (Matricaria chamomilla, pictured) and the feverfew are very similar [Photo: Bjoern Wylezich/ Shutterstock.com]

Unlike German chamomile, the flower base of feverfew is much flatter, while in German chamomiles it forms a rounded head that is convex at the top and hollow on the inside. The chamomile flower is more fragrant than feverfew. In addition, the two plants differ in the length of their white petals, which are much shorter in feverfew. There are many potential uses.

The ox-eye daisy, on the other hand, can be easily distinguished by its leaves: It forms coarsely toothed basal leaves in columnar form and leaves with few toothed to entire margins in the upper area, while feverfew leaves have a pinnately lobed structure.

Is feverfew a weed?

Even if feverfew is often called a weed, this is not at all correct. It has been used as a medicinal plant for thousands of years and is selectively grown in medicinal and cottage gardens.

Feverfew in the garden
Tanacetum parthenium is not a weed and has a high ornamental value in the border [Photo: Marion Timmerman/ Shutterstock.com]

The most important species

Breeding and natural selection have produced some feverfew varieties. We list the most popular ones:

  • ˈGolden Mossˈ: Also known as golden feverfew, this plant lives up to its name, adorning itself with shimmering yellowish-green leaves year-round. The flowers are typical yellow clusters with white petals that bloom between June and September. In a sunny location, the Tanacetum parthenium ˈGolden Mossˈ even tolerates temperatures down to – 20 °C without problems, and grows quite small at only a maximum of 20 cm high.
  • ˈAureumˈ: Yellow-leaved feverfew forms leaves with a yellow tinge similar to golden feverfew, but this tinge is less noticeable in this variety. Flowers and growth are also typical for feverfew. Tanacetum parthenium ˈAureumˈ grows as much as 80 cm tall and can be easily overwintered in the bed.
  • ˈPleniflorusˈ: Most noticeable are the flowers of the stuffed feverfew, which are visually different from the other varieties because of their abundance. Under good conditions, it also grows up to 80 cm high and blooms between June and September. Temperatures of up to – 18 °C are no problem for the stuffed feverfew.
Feverfew flowering season
Tanacetum parthenium ˈPleniflorusˈ produces showy, double flowers [Photo: M. Schuppich/ Shutterstock.com]

Planting feverfew

Feverfew can be planted in your own garden without much effort. It should be noted that the plant naturally grows on loamy, nutrient-rich soils with moderate moisture. An appropriate site with neutral pH offers advantages for the crop, although sandy or gravelly soils are still acceptable. In addition, the soil should not dry out, as this is tolerated by feverfew as poorly as waterlogging. Feverfew thrives in full sun without problems, but can also be planted in off-sun locations.

In the spring, the first pre-grown plants are available at the garden centre and can be taken directly to the bed. In this case, 2 to 4 plants per square meter can be placed in previously dug planting holes – without placing them deeper than they were previously in the pot. Light pressing ensures a good soil seal and subsequent watering promotes the growth.

Feverfew leaves
Shortly after planting, the feverfew will grow vigorously [Photo: Avril Burton/ Shutterstock.com]

Alternatively, the herb can be grown in pre-culture from March onwards. For this purpose, appropriate sowing containers are filled with a high-quality sowing soil, which has a reduced nutrient content to promote root growth. For example, our Plantura Organic Herb & Seedling Compost promotes root growth of young plants through the targeted reduced nutrient content. In addition, thanks to its airy, loose structure, it provides optimal growth conditions for germination in advance, without silting up. In addition, our seedling compost is completely safe for pets and garden animals because of the completely natural raw materials.

Organic Herb & Seedling Compost, 20L
Organic Herb & Seedling Compost, 20L
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  • Perfect for herbs as well as sowing, propagating & transplanting
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  • Peat-free & organic soil: CO2-saving composition

Feverfew seeds should only be placed on the soil and lightly pressed, without being covered by substrate. After thorough watering, the seeding container can be covered with a transparent film, with a few holes pierced into it. This creates a kind of mini-greenhouse, which provides the seeds with optimal conditions for germination and high humidity. In a bright place the seeds germinate at about 15 °C after 2 to 3 weeks. Those who find the pre-culture of feverfew too laborious, can wait until April and sow the seeds directly in the open ground, following the same principle.

Plant care

Feverfew is generally quite undemanding and requires little care, even during the summer. Only during prolonged dry periods does it become necessary to water the herbaceous plant. Faded flowerheads should be cut out before seed maturity if self-seeding is to be prevented. For selective self-seeding without letting the herb run rampant, individual flowerheads can be left on the plant to mature. Faded shoots may be cut back vigorously to encourage a bushy growth of the plant.

Fertilisation is not necessary for annual culture of feverfew, but for perennial culture, some fertiliser such as manure or compost can be spread around the plants in the spring. Alternatively, a high-quality, ecological slow-release fertiliser in granule form is used, which releases its nutrients only through microbial conversion in the soil. For this purpose, for example, our Plantura All Purpose Plant Food is suitable, which thanks to its balanced nutrient ratio also optimally supplies herbs such as feverfew.

Many feverfew flowers
If the inflorescences are not removed, the feverfew can sow and spread [Photo: Gabriela Beres/ Shutterstock.com]

Is feverfew hardy? Often feverfew is planted as an annual summer flower. However, it can easily be cultivated as a perennial, herbaceous plant and can tolerate frosts of up to – 12 °C without any problems, some varieties even up to – 20 °C. The plant grows perennially, so the above-ground parts of the plant do not die. However, this should be cut back before the onset of frost to facilitate overwintering. It is advantageous for overwintering to protect feverfew somewhat against cold winds and the intense winter sun, for example, with a fleece or straw mat. However, care must be taken to ensure that the cover is permeable to air and moisture. Otherwise there could be a buildup of air or moisture underneath, which would cause lasting damage to the plant. On frost-free days, feverfew should be watered lightly, as water is also evaporated through the leaves during the winter.

Harvest, use and medicinal properties

Between June and October is the harvest time of feverfew, as soon as the flowers have fully opened. These are then clipped off just below the flowerheads with fingers or garden shears, as with German chamomile. In the process, the flowers should be protected as much as possible and not damaged.

Feverfew medicinal uses
Feverfew is a well-known medicinal plant and is used for various purposes [Photo: Madeleine Steinbach/ Shutterstock.com]

Feverfew has been used as a medicinal plant since the first century. In the Middle Ages it was used mainly for its fever-reducing and headache-relieving effects, which explains the name. However, it owes it owes its German name of “Mutterkraut” (mother’s herb) to its use against pregnancy discomfort, the induction of labour and its birth-accelerating effect. In addition, feverfew was administered in high doses in the Middle Ages to specifically induce abortion. In weaker doses and used internally as feverfew tea, tincture or extract, it can help against rheumatism or inhibit inflammation. Taken long term, it is said to prevent migraine attacks, help against intestinal parasites, and aid digestion. Used externally, feverfew can help cleanse the skin and as an insect repellent, as it repels insects because of its odour. As a hair conditioner, it can also be used against lice.

Not only is the herb excellent when grown and used as a medicinal plant, it is also an eye-catcher when planted as an ornamental plant in the garden. It is therefore particularly effective as an underplanting in combination with other flowering perennials such as roses. Even as a cut flower in the vase, wild chamomile makes a good impression.

Cut feverfew in vases
Feverfew is suitable as a garden plant and as a cut flower for the home [Photo: one pony/ Shutterstock.com]

Is feverfew poisonous?

Generally, the herb is not toxic, but in a high dosage it can cause abortion in pregnant women. In addition, all above-ground plant parts contain ingredients that are considered contact allergens. People with a daisy allergy react mainly to the substance parthenolide, which can trigger an allergic reaction. For most animals, the plant poses no danger, however, feverfew is poisonous to rabbits and should not be fed to them under any circumstances.

Bee on feverfew flower
Feverfew is usually harmless and a popular food plant for bees and insects [Photo: nnattalli/ Shutterstock.com]

Does wild chamomile look a little bare in your garden on its own? With our tips you’ll learn how to properly create an herb spiral.