Synonyms: Bad Man’s Plaything, Bloodwort, Carpenter’s Weed, Devil’s Nettle, Devil’s Plaything, Herbe Militaris, Knight’s Milfoil, Milfoil, Nose Bleed, Old Man’s Pepper, Sanguinary, Soldier’s Woundwort, Staunchweed, Thousand Weed, Yarroway
Scientific Name: Achillea millefolium L.
Family: Compositae/Asteraceae (Daisy family)
Bitter principles, essential oil, flavonoids
These plants are immediately recognisable by their distinctive leaves, even in close-cropped meadows. Yarrow is closely related to chamomile and has leaves which resemble little feathers. They form a rosette that rests on the ground. From this rosette grows a stem which can reach a height of up to 60 centimetres. From June to October it bears white-looking flowers at its tip. These flowers are doubly deceiving. At first glance they look like umbels, which are clusters of florets arranged in a horizontal plane like an umbrella. However, the yarrow is not a member of the umbel-bearing Umbelliferae family, but belongs to the Asteraceae or Compositae family. And this leads us to the second deception. What looks like a single flower in the umbel-like inflorescence known as a corymb is actually made up of several small florets which are formed and arranged to look like a single flower!
With its bitter principles yarrow stimulates the appetite and the digestion, and alleviates gastrointestinal and bilious ailments. The proazulene contained in its essential oil has disinfectant, anti-inflammatory and antispasmodic properties. Yarrow also staunches external and internal bleeding, which is why decoctions of the plant are effective in wound treatment. A further important field of use for yarrow is the treatment of gynaecological complaints such as painful menstruation and vaginal inflammation.
In homeopathy yarrow is used to control bleeding of diverse origins, for example in the lung, bowels, nose or womb, for varicose veins and for disorders of the stomach, bowels and lower abdomen.
The healing powers of yarrow were known in antiquity. The scientific name Achillea derives from this epoch. According to a legend passed down to us by the Greek physician Dioscorides (1st century CE), the centaur and healer Chiron drew the attention of the hero Achilles to the wound-healing properties of this medicinal plant. The scientific epithet millefolium is composed of mille = thousand and folium = leaves and describes the form of the yarrow leaves. The name yarrow itself refers to the plant’s healing powers. It derives from the Old High German garwe, meaning healthgiver.
Folk names such as Soldier’s Woundwort or Knight’s Milfoil indicate that in earlier times the yarrow was used to heal in particular wounds caused by iron weapons. On the other hand the yarrow has a feminine side which is revealed in its healing powers. In the Middle Ages the poetic name ‘supercilium veneris’, or Venus’s eyebrow, expressed recognition of this feminine side.
In biodynamic agriculture the yarrow is one of the medicinal plants added in processed form to compost heaps to aid the conversion of plant matter to soil. Behind this treatment lies the idea that the ground and compost heaps are both extremely sophisticated living systems full of micro-organisms which respond positively to medicinal plants in the same way as human beings do.
The yarrow is associated with many customs and symbols. Representations of the medicinal plant are found on Roman gravestones, because in that era it symbolised sleep, among other things. The same interpretation gave rise to the custom of placing yarrow stalks on children’s eyes as they were falling asleep, to give them sweet dreams.
Many cultures used the yarrow for divination. Dried yarrow stalks were used to consult the I Ging, the Chinese oracle of change. In European culture, predictions relating to affairs of the heart predominated. If freshly plucked yarrow was placed under the pillow the sleeper was said to dream of their future partner, as witnessed by the rhyme: 'Thou pretty herb of Venus's tree, / Thy true name it is Yarrow; / Now who my bosom friend must be, / Pray tell thou me tomorrow.' In another form of divination a girl in love would turn a stalk of yarrow three times inside her nose: if her nose started to bleed this meant her beloved would return the sentiment. Since yarrow stalks are quite stiff and pointed, it was not unlikely that the procedure would cause the nose to bleed. This was also known to naughty schoolboys, who used their knowledge to escape lessons by bringing on a nosebleed. Hence the yarrow’s folk name ‘nose bleed’.
But the yarrow also represented spurned love. In Germany, if a woman wanted to make unmistakeably clear to a suitor that she loved another, she sent him a special basket of flowers called a Schabab as a sign of rejection. The basket contained yarrow, love-in-a-mist, corn cockle, cornflower, chicory, groundsel and eyebright. Still today, a rejected admirer is said in German to have “received a basket”.
A ‘Maundy Thursday soup’ thought to have protective qualities contained the first young leaves of the yarrow, among other ingredients. Anyone who ate it would have good health throughout the year and be safe from harm. It is quite probable that this soup would have beneficial effects, since yarrow, as an aid to digestion, makes a good culinary herb, rendering fatty dishes more digestible and salads tastier.
The plant from another perspective
Yarrow is associated with light and warmth. It loves bright, dry mountain regions, where it grows vigorously and is resistant to heat, cold and drought. Even at ground level its leaves, with their filigree form and essential oil content, already resemble flowers. Early in the year they are harbingers of a flower which will develop fully only slowly and late in the year. However, it does survive until winter and retains its allure even in dried bouquets. This growth pattern conveys consistency. Perseverance, warmth, light and dryness are the attributes of the yarrow. Added to these is saltiness, expressed as a high, 48 percent potassium content in its ash. There is something very harmonious about this picture. The yarrow passes on its soothing and drying qualities when it is used to combat inflammatory processes.