Name: Achillea millefolium (yarrow, common yarrow)
Family: Asteraceae (Compositae) | Genus: Achillea
Parts worked with medicinally: All aerial parts, root (archaic)
Endangered status: of least concern
warm/cool + dry + tonifying
Where exactly does yarrow get its name? Achillea pertains to Achilleas, legendary soldier of the Trojan War, and protagonist of Homer's Iliad. Mille means one-thousand, and folium leaves, or a thin, leaflike structure. Millefolium is an excellent description of yarrow leaves’ delicate and intricate structure, but I was curious to see specifically how yarrow was worked with in the Iliad to warrant a name of such renown. Here’s what I found:
Supporting him with one arm around him, under his chest, he led him into the hut. A squire put oxhides out on which he laid the wounded man, then took his sheath-knife and laid open the man’s thigh to excise the biting arrow. With warm water he washed the black blood flowing from the wound, then rubbed between his hands into a powder over the wound a bitter yarrow root, that dulled all pangs of pain. Now the gash dried as the blood and powder clotted.
Homer, The Iliad (Robert Fitzgerald translation)
It’s important to note that this excerpt makes reference to working with yarrow’s roots, rather than the aerial parts, as we work with most often today. I suppose a lot’s changed since the time of the Iliad. Wondering if I could find more information on the roots, I saw a few different places around the web make reference to the fact that it appears to be an old remedy for toothaches. Often preserved in brandy, pieces of the root are then chewed to ease the pain inflicted by the tooth. Upon further investigation of the of this claim, I was able to find a mention of the root’s application for toothaches on Henriette’s Herbal Homepage, one of my favorite herbal resources available online. On the literature of yarrow, Henriette writes: “...and few (if any) of those books will mention the root, which is great for toothaches.”
While it’s not advisable to place powdered plant matter of any kind directly in an open wound (you’ll just have to flush the particulates out of the wound at some point, anyhow) this speaks to yarrow’s storied tradition as a vulnerary and a styptic. The fact that the root has been used for toothaches, as well, indicates to me that yarrow’s anodyne action is no joke, and likely could have provided the necessary pain relief for the soldiers in the battle of Troy.
Yarrow’s lore spans across cultures, too. Straight, strong yarrow stalks have traditionally been harvested for aid in divining the I Ching, and predate the use of coins. Fifty stalks are required, forty-nine of which are then called upon to cast hexagrams. In this context, yarrow is a sacred plant thought to collect energies, and send them up and down the length of the hollow stems. It’s a plant seen as capable of seeking the truth of a given situation-- having both that strength and that nuance. Yarrow has a reputation as “battlefield medicine,” after all-- if anyone can stomach this task, it would be yarrow. If yarrow can heal a wound, I’m sure yarrow can reveal one, too.
Personally, I value non-medicinal knowledge of each herb I study, not only because it adds a layer of identity through which to better jog my memory, but it also helps me to better understand its collective significance-- culturally and spiritually.
But even if that’s not your cup of tea, yarrow’s got so much more to offer us!
I. Yarrow, in practice:
There’s a lot to be gleaned from our senses-- organoleptically. We often discount what our nose can tell us, especially. Something went bad in the fridge? You’ll smell it right away. Is this fruit ripe? Give it a sniff-- you’ll know! Flowers blooming somewhere in the distance? Your nose knows far before your eyes do. Here’s a quick overview of my sensory analysis of yarrow:
Fresh: On the nose, my flowering yarrow is wrought with an almost saccharine florality akin to sweet alyssum, with a hint of something more earthy and grounded. The taste is bitter and pungent, but not unpleasant in the least. It’s a little jarring on its own. I’m not sure I’d want it in a salad, but it doesn’t offend me.
Dried: The acrid nature of yarrow is far more apparent on the nose when the plant matter is dried. There’s a trace of something bile-like, slightly unpleasant, with a bit of must and earth in its midst. Barnyard notes. Sheep, specifically.I love yarrow, I do, but it is three things, invariably: bitter and acrid and pungent. To me, at least, yarrow’s aromatic side really gets lost on the nose when it’s dried.
II. Yarrow, the ally:
Yarrow does so much. It’s a highly intelligent and responsive plant! There’s a reason why it’s a cornerstone of western herbalism-- It’s been called upon for countless tasks over the centuries, and it listens when called upon. And we hear yarrow, too. Most of us probably heard yarrow’s name before we began our herbal studies. Sometimes it gets thrown around in fantasy novels, or on television shows. It finds its way into the health food section. It’s naturalized around the globe. It’s not shy, but I think yarrow wants us to listen to it in the way it listens to us-- intelligently. I’ll return to this at the end of the monograph. For now, let’s take a look at yarrow’s primary affinities.
Known as the “master of the blood,” yarrow’s intelligence is perhaps most clearly observed in its regulation of the blood. We’ve mentioned that yarrow is a styptic, but it can also act as a circulatory stimulant! It demonstrates the opposing actions of encouraging more blood flow, or reducing blood loss, depending on the context in which it’s called upon, and the state of the tissue in any given body. This ability to restore homeostasis in the circulatory system is one area in which yarrow really excels. Yarrow has diffusive and astringent actions, so if blood isn’t getting to the periphery and circulating properly, yarrow is a good ally to stimulate blood flow to the surface of the skin. A stimulating diaphoretic, it can bring about a fever. In this way, it may be helpful topically applied to varicose veins. All things considered, this leaves me wondering what cosmetic applications yarrow could have on the face, applied topically. Some astringency and circulatory support could be an excellent remedy for dull or untoned looking skin, perhaps along with some rose and witch hazel.
Yarrow’s a bitter. It’s no centaury. But, it’s a bitter all the same, and it’ll certainly do the trick if you're looking for some gentle and effective digestive support, from beginning to end. Yarrow’s bitter effects start when they’re experienced on the tongue, of course! As we know, if you’re looking to experience yarrow’s digestive actions, you’ve got to taste it first, at the very beginning of your digestive tract. It can stimulate an appetite, as well as aid in bloating and digestive cramping. I’m curious if yarrow could be a good ally in situations where hemorrhoids are present, too, as it can halt internal bleeding.
When you need to have a difficult conversation, or work through something uncomfortable, yarrow’s got you. I cannot speak highly enough of plain old yarrow tea for helping me to stay emotionally present, but in an adaptive and almost subtle manner. While motherwort lends me the fortitude needed for setting boundaries or otherwise drawing a line in the dirt-- be it with myself, or others-- yarrow says “Step back before you charge forward,” or “reach out before you pull away.” When I don’t know how to feel about how I feel, I find that yarrow tea is what I need. I don’t necessarily realize yarrow is doing much of anything before I realize that I’m able to think through what it is I actually need, which is a fairly new skill for me. In my body, yarrow’s emotional armour is more like a gossamer cloak than staunch chain mail.
Keep in mind that this is just my experience. I would love to hear how yarrow works in your body!
III. Yarrow, my friend:
Let’s talk for a moment about my personal relationship with yarrow, because I’m certain that this informs a great deal of my experiences with this plant, and how I choose to work with it, especially on the emotional front.
For the most part, the yarrow we work with medicinally produces white flowers. It’s the most potent. However, when I rescued my dried out yarrow plants from a garden center, I grabbed the plants without seeing their blooms. In addition to my white yarrow, I have some pink yarrow, as well. Upon getting my plants home, I trimmed them back and gave them a big drink of water. I could tell they were really parched and happy to be receiving some attention! Within a few days, they’d filled out a bit and were putting forth new, beautiful and intricate little leaves. When yarrow leaves are young, they look quite like lace, or a tiny, crocheted feather. This is one of the first plants I’ve truly felt “in service” to-- it’s one thing to grow my plants from seed, and another thing entirely to find some plants already in need of care. They’ve been nothing but abundant, and for that I’m grateful. I think this falls in line with yarrow being “smart” in the way it works within our bodies-- it’s perceptive. That’s who yarrow is. (I’m not sure if there’s a way to neatly break that down into constituents or actions, when this is something I’ve also experienced with the living plant.)
I look forward to many more seasons with yarrow at my side. I don’t see a reality in which I wouldn’t grow yarrow-- it seems so happy here, and I love watching it shoot up new stalks and seeing the leaves grow and unfurl from tiny crescents.
This year, my first year growing yarrow, I knew right away that I wanted to tincture some yarrow fresh! I don’t often work with fresh plant tinctures, but now that I have a garden of my own, and spend so much time with my herbs prior to harvesting dehydrating them, I’ve taken in interest not only in capturing their medicinal constituents, but also less easily quantified aspects-- what makes this yarrow my yarrow-- the environment in which it has grown, the feeling that interacting with that plant brings me. I wouldn’t go so far as to say me sticking some herbs in local vodka is anything close to capturing terroir, but I do wish to capture a sense of place and time when I make a fresh tincture.
I have this feeling like yarrow isn’t the “most” anything-- it’s not an extreme herb, but that doesn’t downplay its importance and power. It’s not the bitterest bitter. It’s not the most intense circulatory stimulant. Emotionally, it’s not going to shock you out of a panic attack (correct me if I’m wrong, though!) Yarrow is supportive, and does a great job without needing to be the trendiest or showiest herb out there.
Contraindications / words of caution: For the most part, yarrow is for everyone. (Well, unless you’re allergic to it. That’s not unheard of with Asteraceae.) Also, large doses should be avoided during pregnancy. Overall, this is a safe plant with a lot of information available out there. It’s been with us for millennia, after all.