Yarrow Achillea millefolium
Yarrow has a long and rich history of medicinal and magical use and is one of the most fascinating as well as efficacious garden plants. It is a hardy perennial and member of the aster family, that is distinguished by its feathery leaves and white to pink flowers that bloom in densely arranged clusters. It grows up to 50cm high and has a characteristic herbaceous odour. Yarrow is a prolific plant that grows naturally in many regions of Europe, North America and Asia. The flowering tops are used medicinally and it is also edible with an aromatic flavour that is sweet and mildly bitter and quite sage-like.
Achillea’s generic name is derived from Achilles, the mythical Greek warrior who allegedly used it to treat wounds during the Trojan War and indeed today it is often used as a poultice, wash, soak or salve to relieve pain and help to heal wounds and injuries of various types.
Its specific name means ‘a thousand leaves’ and refers to its feathery foliage. Evidence of yarrow has even been found in some Neanderthal gravesites. A 2012 study found that yarrow was present in the dentition of Neanderthal remains from El Sidrón cave, an archaeological dig site in Spain. In the Middle Ages it was used as an ingredient in gruit, a herbal mixture used to flavour ale prior to the use of hops. The herb was used for divination in spells especially love spells in France and in Ireland people hung it in their homes to avert illness on St. John’s Eve. Yarrow was once inhaled as a snuff and in the seventeenth century it was an ingredient of salads; the peppery leaves and the flowers were used to flavour beverages. Today, the flowers and leaves are still used in some types of bitters and liqueurs.
Many different Native American tribes throughout history have used yarrow. In North America, yarrow is considered to be one of the sacred “Life Medicines” by the Navajo people. The Winnebago people used a yarrow infusion to treat earache and the early American settlers used it for diarrhoea, leucorrhoea and bleeding. One of the plant's constituents, achilleine, was isolated and used as a quinine substitute at the turn of the century. In China, stalks of yarrow plants were traditionally used to cast I Ching hexagrams. The I Ching is an ancient Chinese book of divination and yarrow is still used medicinally in China today.
Today yarrow makes a wonderful addition to the herbal medicine cabinet to alleviate mild symptoms of colds and flu, as well as minor digestive complaints among many common ailments.
Yarrow is part of the classic tea formula to treat colds and flu with its valuable diaphoretic properties that help manage any fevers holistically. This herb prevents the body temperature from rising too high but has a minimal suppressant affect on the course of the fever that is part of the natural healing process. The flowers are rich in chemicals that are helpful in the treatment of allergic catarrhal problems such as hay fever.
This herb is a reliable first-aid treatment for wounds and nosebleeds; the antibacterial action of yarrow plus its powerful astringency promotes rapid healing. Research has affirmed yarrow’s antibiotic, antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties. Used externally, yarrow hastens the healing of wounds, where it will also have anaesthetic effect and stimulate the formation of granulation tissue. This is also useful to treat haemorrhoids and varicose veins.
The next time you have a toothache, try chewing on a yarrow leaf. Its analgesic properties can help to numb the affected area and reduce inflammation in the gums. The herb treats many skin irritations and yarrow oil has been traditionally used in hair shampoos to soothe scalp problems.
Yarrow is a circulatory tonic that both stops bleeding and is indicated for haemorrhage as it moves stagnant blood. The herb encourages blood clotting, due to its the alkaloid achilleine that is haemostatic (stops bleeding) reducing clotting time without toxic side effects. Long considered by herbalists to be a “blood-moving herb,” yarrow has been used to stimulate blood circulation. Yarrow lowers high blood pressure by dilating the peripheral vessels and it is considered to be a specific in thrombotic conditions associated with high blood pressure. It also tones the blood vessels and influences the vagus nerve, slowing the heart rate.
Yarrow contains asparagin, a potent diuretic and may be of assistance for kidney disorders by normalising the distribution, secretion and elimination of water in the body. Anything that helps open the pores in the skin, stimulate circulation, cleanse the blood and strengthen the function of internal organs will improve the healthy functioning of the lymphatic system. Yarrow promotes all these actions and is thus an efficient “alterative” herb to use as a lymphatic tonic. Yarrow is also known as an adaptogen which means it, can work in seemingly contradictory ways to help the body achieve homeostasis, or to balance every body system in an integrated way.
Yarrow increases saliva and stomach acid to help improve digestion which explains its use in bitter tonics to relieve many digestive complaints. It has long been used to treat issues like ulcers and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), stomach pain, diarrhea, bloating and constipation. A study has confirmed that its antispasmodic effect helps to relax smooth muscle in the intestines. It works well in combination with other herbs like marshmallow root, peppermint and chamomile to ease intestinal gas (flatulence), mild gastrointestinal (GI) cramping and other GI complaints.
Due to the presence of steroidal constituents, yarrow is added to women’s herbal blends to aid in heavy, painful periods, reduce uterine cramping, easing menstrual discomfort and postpartum bleeding. It also regulates the menstrual cycle and can be used in a sitz bath for pelvic pain.
Yarrow plant is reputed to relieve symptoms of depression and anxiety; the potent flavonoids and alkaloids in the plant significantly lower the secretion of corticosterone, a hormone that peaks up during stress.
Makes a classic herbal tea: Yarrow combines well with elderflowers and peppermint as the “go to” cold and flu remedy that also reduces fevers; add echinacea for an extra immune boost. Or try yarrow with chamomile and ginger to address digestive complaints.