Yarrow (Achillea millefolium, A. lanulosa) is found throughout the Northern Hemisphere and is common in the West. Everywhere it is found — here, Europe, Asia — yarrow has a long history of medicinal use. It is classified as cold, dry, bitter and pungeant (1). Yarrow is great plant to have in the garden…or in a pot for those without a yard. Among it’s many uses, yarrow is a premier 1st Aid herb. It is a good plant to know along the trail, as it will make life much more pleasant if you’ve just gashed your leg open on a rock. Yarrow is an effective styptic, it quickly stops or slows bleeding as fresh, dried or tinctured herb. It also promotes healing and suppresses infection. About a year ago, my partner cut his finger deeply while grabbing a knife out of the dishwasher. He called me at work to find out which plant in the garden was yarrow. After rinsing his finger, he slapped on the yarrow and wrapped the whole thing. The bleeding stopped quickly and his finger healed nicely without any infection. Literally, as I sat here writing about yarrow, said partner yelled down from the bathroom wanting to know where my jar of dried yarrow was — he cut himself shaving. (There were several feet of snow on the ground, so no fresh yarrow). Herbalist Matthew Wood points out that yarrow is indicated for those prone to accidents (1), so perhaps my partner should wear it around his neck.
I’ve had opportunities to do “yarrow 1st Aid” for other folks as well. A couple years ago, an elderly gentleman visiting from Spain face-planted on the sidewalk outside of my cafe in San Francisco. He had a gash on his nose that bled profusely (the face is highly vascularized). I gave him some dried yarrow in a napkin to hold on the wound while he and his daughter waited for a cab. The bleeding stopped, and he was off to get stitches at urgent care. Another time, my friend cut himself at a wedding reception we were attending (must have been cutting his food too enthusiastically). Yarrow happened to be growing in a planter on the deck outside, and so the story goes….
The genus name for yarrow, Achillea, is apparently in honor of the ancient Greek hero, Achilles, who was said to use yarrow on the wounds of his soldiers (2). Indeed, yarrow’s other common names, “Soldier’s Woundwort” and “Knight’s Milfoil” reflect it’s value in wound tending on the battlefield (2). The latter name also reflects yarrow’s appearance. Milfoil means “thousand leaves” and comes from the fact that the feathery leaves of yarrow actually appear to be made up of many tiny leaves. The species name, millefolium, is also derived from this. In the Southwest it is known as Plumajillo (little feather), also reflecting leaf appearance. Culpeper provided a good description of yarrow: “It has many leaves cut into a multitude of fine small parts, of a deep green colour, and tough substance; the stalk is upright, of a dull greyish green, and the flowers are usually white, but not all of a whiteness, and grow in knots…It is an upright, and not unhandsome plant…” (3).
Yarrow is plentiful along the coast of California, where I used to live. I transpanted some from the beach to my backyard in the city and it took off, providing a ready supply of medicine. Yarrow is common here in Colorado, too. It’s all over Durango and even grows in my yard in Wildcat Canyon, despite the seemingly inpenetrable clay soil. The yarrow here in Durango has a softer appearance and slightly sweeter smell — though still sharp — than the sharp scented yarrow from the Bay Area. It’s an easy plant to grow because it doesn’t mind being neglected; it does just fine on it’s own. In fact, the medicine is stronger from plants that have had to rough it than from coddled plants.
Yarrow grows as a colony and it’s best to gather plants from the periphery of the patch, rather than the mother plant in the middle. Unless you need the root (for instance, for a toothache), just pinch off the top of the plant just above a leaf node, including the flowering top and some leaves. A new flowering top will grow back. In an emergency 1st Aid situation, don’t worry about whether the plant is blooming, just pinch off some of the upper leaves at a node. There many cultivated varieties, with flowers of various colors. Stick with the white-flowered varieties for medicinal use, as the others may or may not have the same properties. A yarrow essential oil is available but is quite expensive (if it’s real) and it lacks the digestive system benefits of the whole herb. The oil contains thujone, a toxic ketone, and should be used with respect, and not at all in children (4). I simply use the herb, rather than the oil.
As mentioned, yarrow has many uses besides 1st Aid. It is a digestive bitter. Taking a small amount before meals will stimulate the production of digestive juices from the stomach, pancreas and liver, allowing you to digest and absorb your food more efficiently. By small amounts, I mean ~5 drops of extract on your tongue, or a little bit of tea, or, for the brave, a small nip of leaf. This can also prevent indigestion and acid reflux, two symptoms that can reflect poor digestion. Because yarrow suppresses smooth muscle spasms and is astringent, yarrow is useful for IBS and for diarrhea in general. It worked pretty well for me when I ate way too much chard the day before I was going on a longish motorcycle ride… Herbalists will use yarrow as part of a formula for Inflammatory Bowel Disease, particularly if there is ulceration and bleeding in ulcerative colitis (5, 6). At the other end of the digestive tract, yarrow is useful for teething pain, gum pain and toothaches (7).
Yarrow, like reishi (discussed in the previous post) can do seemingly contradictory things. Yarrow can stop bleeding externally and internally, but can induce bleeding as well. As an emmenagogue, yarrow will bring on delayed menses and helping with painful, sluggish periods (dysmenorrhia). Conversely, it can reduce excess menses and flooding. Because it is bitter, and therefore potentially stimulating to the uterus, yarrow isn’t the best herb to take during pregnancy unless working with a trained practitioner.
The cardiovascular system also benefits from yarrow. Yarrow reduces blood pressure while promoting circulation. Depending on how it’s used, it can act as either a vasodilator or a vasoconstrictor (8). It is a blood vessel tonic due to it’s flavonoid content and astringency. Flavonoids increase the surface integrity of veins and capillaries and tone vascular smooth muscles, while astringents “tighten” or tone tissues. Thus, yarrow is useful for preventing varicose veins and spider veins. It can be made into a salve or used in a sitz bath for hemorrhoids, which are similar to varicose veins in that there is a loss of venous wall integrity and the vein balloons out. Yarrow is a specific herb for dealing with clots (1), especially in the background of high blood pressure. The antiinflammatory properties of yarrow also benefit the cardiovascular system, where inflammation leads to the buildup of cholesterol.
Yarrow is useful for various types of infection. It can be used in a formula for genitourinary infections such as candida, gardenella, and chlamydia in men and women, as well as for nonspecific vaginitis (5). Yarrow is commonly used for urinary tract infections, particularly if there is any blood in the urine (hematuria). It’s also handy for chronic cystitis. (Red flag: If you have a fever associated with the infection, go to urgent care, as it could be a kidney infection, which is dangerous if allowed to progress.) Yarrow is helpful in respiratory infections, particularly of viral origin (which is most of them). It also reduces fever. It has antihistamine activity related to it’s flavonoid content, and will dry up excess sinus secretions (5). Also, there is some scientific evidence that yarrow may be useful for treating Leishmaniasis, a difficult-to-treat, parasite-borne disease that afflicts millions of people in the tropical world (9, 10).
Yarrow also relieves pain, such the achiness associated with the flu or an infected tooth. Herbalist Michael Moore , recommended adding strong yarrow tea to a warm bath for relieving the inflammation and pain of rheumatoid arthritis (11).
Paralleling it’s medicinal uses, yarrow has a long, multicultural history of energetic and magical uses. Energetically, yarrow is about boundaries and protection. It’s been used for centuries in this capacity. Some people hang it over the entryway to their home as protection, while others use the flower essence internally to block out negative energy from other people or situations. This makes yarrow essence useful for those who do social work, counselling or any job entailing close work with other people. Conversely, in some parts of Europe, yarrow was associated with the Devil and was called “Devil’s Nettle” or “Devil’s Plaything” (2). Finally, yarrow was used for divination and magic in Europe as well as in China (2). One spell involved sewing yarrow up in flannel, putting it under the pillow before bedtime and citing an incantation, the purpose of which was to see who your future husband or wife was to be:
“Thou pretty herb of Venus’ tree,
Thy true name is Yarrow.
Now who my bosom friend must be,
Pray tell though me tomorrow.”
1)Wood, M (1997) The Book of Herbal Wisdom. North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, CA.
2) Grieve, M. (1931) A Modern Herbal. Dorset Press, New York, NY.
3) Culpeper, N. Complete Herbal & English Physician. Reprint. (1826) J. Gleave & Son, Deansgate.
4) Schnaubelt, K (1998) Advanced Aromatherapy. Healing Arts Press, Rochester,
5) Herbal Medicine classes at Ohlone Center for Herbal Studies, Berkeley, CA.
6) Alfs, M. (2003) 300 Herbs: Their Indicaions & Contraindications. Old
Theology Book House, New Brighton, MN.
7) Moore, M (2003) Medicinal Plants of the Mountain West. Museum of New
Mexico Press, Santa Fe, NM.
8) Tilford, G (1998) From Earth to Herbalist. Mountain Press Publishing Co, Missoula, MT.
9) Santos, AO, et al (2010) Annals of Tropical Medicine & Parasitol. 104:
10) Nilforoushzadeh, MA, et al (2008) Journal of Vector Borne Diseases. 45:
11) Moore, M. (1993) Medicinal Plants of the Pacific West. Red Crane Books,
Inc., Santa Fe, NM.
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