Tanacetum parthenium (L.) Schultz Bip. (Feverfew)

Tanacetum parthenium (L.) Schultz (Family Compositae) is a member of a genus of 14 species native to Europe and Asia; it has several synonyms: e.g., Matricaria parthenium L.; Chrysanthemum parthenium (L.) Bernh., Pyrethrum parthenium (L.) Sm.; Leucanthemum parthenium (L.) Gren. and Godron; and is very closely related to Parthenium parthenifblium (Willd., Schultz Bip. ().Tanacetum parthenium is a perennial herb strongly aromatic in all its parts with a vertical rootstock and erect stem (up to 70 cm) with yellow-green leaves and a flowering period from June to late August. The flowerheads (1 to 2.4 cm in diam.) are carried in dense corymbs with spreading, white, rather short ray florets and yellow disk florets. ().

The species was probably originally confined to S.E. Europe, Asia Minor, and the Caucasus but is now naturalized throughout Europe and the Americas. It is abundant on waysides and waste ground and in mountain shrub. The plant is commercially grown on a small but increasing scale and is much privately cultivated as a pot herb. Extracts of the leaves or the fresh foliage have been extensively used in folk medicine. This has led to the adoption of a rich variety of local names: midsummer daisy, nosebleed, devil daisy, ague plant are examples of numerous English regional names in addition to its universally accepted name of feverfew ().

The medicinal use of Tanacetum parthenium dates from antiquity (e.g. Dioscorides ca. 60 AD), through medieval times as a monastery herb up to the recent vogue in alternative medicine. Indeed, it has been dubbed “the aspirin of the herbal era.” The uses of the reported decoctions, infusions, tinctures, powders, and tablets produced from the aerial parts can be classified under five groups as being efficacious for treatment of:

  1. a) Fever, headache, and migraine.
  2. b) Labour, threatened miscarriage, and the regulation of menstruation.
  3. c) Stomach and tooth aches; insect bites.
  4. d) Arthritis.
  5. e) Asthma.

This range suggests that the plant contains anti-histamine and general anti-inflammatory agents. The herb has also been used in cooking as a bitter principle, and the essences have been used in preparation of liquers and perfumes ().

Recent pharmacological and clinical tests involving direct ingestion of foliage or of extracts indicate the presence of very significant anti-migraine activity () with no side effects (). Consistently with the overall similarity of effects with those of aspirin, crude extracts inhibited prostaglandin synthesis () although unlike most such inhibitors this did not involve blockage of the crucial cycloxygenase (). Extracts of the herb also inhibited granule secretion and aggregation in blood platelets and neurofibrils in vitro and these processes have been implicated in the etiology of migraine and rheumatoid arthritis respectively (). However, clinical trials indicated no benefit in the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis (). In vitro experiments also showed fractions of extracts to be toxic to blood cells () and to contain a novel type of mast-cell inhibitor (). This last finding is consistent with the general anti-inflammatory nature of the herb.

So far, cell cultures that synthesize and accumulate parthenolide have not been established. However, with specific choice of physiological state of explants and of diurnal culture conditions certain cell lines have been obtained that produce the macrocyclic germacrenes A and D. Selection and cloning of the producing cells should be possible and the oxygenation systems necessary for lactone formation may be stimulated by adjustment of conditions further: especially by manipulation of O2-CO2-C2H4 levels over the cultures. Accumulation of biosynthetically active biomass should also allow the purification of the terpenoid cyclase that constructs the germacrane skeleton from FPP.


Selections from the book: “Medicinal and Aromatic Plants V”, 1993.