Champaign-Urbana Herb Society
Herb of the Month - Yarrow - January 2000
Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)Common yarrow is an old medicinal herb known by several names. Its Latin name is Achillea millefolium. Yarrow was used by Achilles to stop the bleeding of his wounded men in the Trojan Wars. This is where yarrow is thought to have received its Latin name. Others believe the herbalist named Achilles discovered the herb's healing properties. Needless to say, the Greeks regarded it as a valuable astringent. The English called the plant "soldier's woundwort" and "carpenter's weed", which is testimony to yarrow's great reputation as a wound healer. In this country it was used in the Civil War to treat soldiers' wounds. Native Americans used yarrow to treat cuts and bruises, considered the herb a spiritual aid and drank yarrow tea for a wide range of ailments from internal bleeding to fevers and sickness. "Nosebleed" was another name used by the English. The fresh leaves were simply pushed into the nostrils. Yarrow is still used today to treat cuts.
Yarrow was associated with witchcraft in England, but it also had a reputation as being a love charm, especially if plucked from the grave of a young man. It was brought to weddings to ensure that the newlyweds would have at least seven years of love. The Saxons sewed yarrow into good luck charms to ward against misfortune, and in the Scottish Hebrides yarrow was used in charms to foretell the future and in sleep pillows to give visions of a true love's face.
Yarrow's medicinal uses are far greater than its use as a culinary herb. It's been used to reduce fevers because it causes the body to perspire. A high fever makes one thirsty and a tea made of yarrow is refreshing. It relieves the thirst caused by the fever, but makes the individual perspire which helps to eliminate poison through the sweat glands and kidneys. The flower tops can be made into a lotion for the body that helps reduce fever. Yarrow never debilitates the patient and has tonic qualities that help to purify the blood. It's also used to help digestion and was well known by the Shakers as a digestive and general tonic.
As a cosmetic, yarrow makes an effective skin cleanser and toner because of its astringency. Yarrow tea made with flowering stems is said to be beneficial to oily skin. The plant is native to Europe and was naturalized in North America. Common yarrow is found in pastures, roadsides, embankments, and waste ground.
This is a pretty perennial (hardy to -30° F.) with flat-topped clusters of white, pink or yellow flowers that bloom from June through September. Leaves are aromatic and finely divided, clasping the stem toward the top, while the lower leaves are stalked. Millefolium refers to leaf segments. If picked on hot days, it is said the leaves feel very cool and are fragrant. There are several plant varieties that range in height from eight inches to five feet. Yarrow is easy to grow and will self-sow, which some gardeners find invasive. If started by seed it needs light to germinate. In early spring or autumn, yarrow can be propagated by root division. Yarrow needs full sun and well-drained soil, yet it grows quite well in poor ground. If planted as a border to the herb garden as a companion plant, it enhances essential oil production of other herbs. Yarrow is a good plant in paths as well as borders, as it will grow well even if walked upon. If the flowers are cut back after the first blooms have faded, yarrow will generally bloom again in the fall. The plant will form a large clump and needs to be divided every other year. The whole plant can be harvested, but the leaves and flowers are mostly used. Harvest as needed throughout the summer or hand-dry for later use.
Yarrow tea is often used to water ailing plants. Since it's a mild disinfectant, yarrow is used in water, vinegar, ammonia, or alcohol extraction for surface cleaning. It's also a good insect chaser for moths, roaches, and mosquitoes. However, the essential oil of yarrow is usually too expensive for most households.
Thanks to Mary Crawford for this report on yarrow. Her sources were Book of Herbs by Sybil Leeks, Herbal Home Hints by Louise Gruenberg, How to Grow Herbs by Sunset Books, and An Illustrated Guide to HerbsŃTheir Medicine and Magic by Anna Kruger.
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