In planning out my landscaping and gardening projects for next spring (I’m a bit early, I know) I rediscovered the yarrow plant. What an interesting slice of biology it is. Let’s take a look…
Yarrow, or Achillea millefolium, is a widespread, weedy herb related to chamomile, daisies and sunflowers. The little flowers grow in clusters and can range in color from white to deep reddish-purple. Its leaves are feathery and somewhat fern-like, which is where the name “millefolium,” or “thousands of leaves,” comes from. It is native to North America, Europe, and Asia and was introduced to Australia and New Zealand. Yarrow can be found all the way up to the alpine elevations and there are subspecies adapted to living in the arctic. In some places it has become a semi-invasive weed, but in general yarrow grows in open meadows.
Yarrow is a popular choice in both butterfly gardens and wildflower gardens. It can also be planted among other garden plants to ward off some types of pests. The nectar attracts wasps which eat certain insects, adding to its pest-fighting properties.
Being drought-tolerant and hardy it is often found in recovering or disturbed soils and is beneficial in restoring these areas for future plants. The deep roots of the yarrow plant pull nutrients up from below the level of many other weeds and cover crops which helps to refresh the soil for the next round of crops (provided that the plants are allowed to decompose there).
The stalks are used in divination rituals as a traditional method of consulting a Chinese oracle. They are also occasionally used to make pick-up sticks.
Medicinal uses for this herb are many. Various Native American groups have used it to treat fevers, colds, pain, and to aid in digestion. It is understood to work in part by expanding the blood vessels and lowering blood pressure. It can help stimulate appetite and aid in bile secretion from the gallbladder. Drinking a tea made from yarrow and mint is said to reduce seasonal allergy symptoms. Pounding the stalks into a pulp and spreading it onto bruises and swollen areas may help in healing them. One of its oldest uses was to stop bleeding, and the genus name “Achillea” comes from the idea that the Greek hero Achilles used it in battle to stop soldiers’ wounds from continuing to bleed (and it’s also said that he covered himself in it to make himself invincible to arrows, but I’m not sure if this is still a common usage and I’m not willing to try it…).
There may also be viable cosmetic uses for yarrow. One site suggested that it may stimulate hair growth. The extract has also been shown to reduce wrinkles and visible pores. A yarrow bath may ease pain, cramps, fevers, and rashes, as well as aid in healing the skin. A tincture can also be made and used as a bug repellent which is touted as being more effective than DEET but must be reapplied frequently. Some recipes also add catnip, citronella, or other herbs known to repel insects.
Leaves of the yarrow plant can be added to salads and other cold dishes. If used in cooked dishes, add them right at the end to avoid turning them bitter. On that same note, don’t use yarrow in making stock or broth as it will become very bitter. Before the use of hops to flavor beer, yarrow was one of the plants that was used for this purpose. The dried flowers and leaves can be used to make tea, or used as aromatherapy to aid in falling asleep.
The essential oil is an anti-inflammatory and promotes circulation and perspiration. It can be used as an antiseptic on wounds and, as mentioned before, will stop them from bleeding at the same time. This supposedly includes internal wounds such as ulcers.
This plant is considered toxic to cats, dogs, and horses, so if you are thinking about planting it in your garden but you have pets, consider planting it in a container that is high enough to prevent them from reaching the yarrow (although cats are pretty good at jumping) or in an area where they are not allowed.
As an herbal medicine it should not be used by someone who is pregnant.
It’s a good idea to test a bit of the plant on a small area of skin before using large amounts of it on your body or ingesting it in any form, to avoid a possible allergic reaction.
And as always, moderation. It may be safe to ingest small amounts on occasion, but if you start drinking gallons of the essential oil everyday, you will not only go broke but may also have some adverse effects. If in doubt, be safe and ask a doctor. I am not a doctor. Cool.
I look forward to planting yarrow and being able to try out some of these ideas. I would definitely like to experiment with the insect repellent formulas and I will post a recipe once I find one that I like. The yarrow bath also sounds like it would be soothing and wonderful. Anyone know of other yarrow facts or uses that I’ve left out?