Plants have secrets that science is only just discovering, but that traditional herbalists, healers and farmers have known about for millenia. On the first stop of our herbal tour of Zaytuna Farm we met Rosemary, that ancient remedy for memory and concentration. This stop is with my mate, Yarrow. He’s been called a lot of different names over time, and his scientific name is Achillea millefolium. At Zaytuna you’ll find him in our herb spiral and scattered through our kitchen garden. He’s unassuming and a little scruffy looking but don’t let that give you the wrong impression.
Yarrow is one surprising herbal hero. He’s a perennial spreading herb with delicate feathery leaves that resemble fern fronds. His flowers form in an umbel and can be red, white, purple, pink or yellow. The leaves grows in a rosette up to about 20cm high, and the flower umbels reach around 60cm. The plant spreads through its rhizome, a creeping root system. He looks delicate and pretty, but being trampled on doesn’t bother him too much, and he packs an astounding punch in the herbal medicine cabinet.
Yarrow can grow in a variety of climates and is a very adaptable plant. He likes it warm, and will die back to the rhizome in frost, before coming back in the spring, depending how cold the frost was. He will grow in part to full sun, and spreads more easily in rich, loose soil. He’ll be drought-tolerant once well-established and doesn’t like too much water. Yarrow grows well with other plants and is said to increase the aromatic aspects of herbs growing nearby. Yarrow attracts ladybirds and predatory wasps, both of which can help keep other insects in the garden in check. Yarrow also repels mosquitoes, ticks, ants and some species of beetles and flies.
Yarrow can be propagated by dividing at the roots or started from seed. When starting from seed, don’t bury the seeds, but press them gently onto the seedling mix and keep them moist until they germinate. The seeds need light to germinate, and generally take 5-10 days. Yarrow will self- seed under ideal conditions, but needs plenty of sun to set seed well.
Yarrow leaves can be eaten and have a pepper-like flavour. The leaves can be chopped and used fresh in salad or dried as a pepper substitute. When making Yarrow tea, a hot infusion is preferred for it’s febrifuge qualities, but a cold infusion will minimise the bitterness when being prepared for other uses.
Me and Yarrow go back to the day that I cut my finger in the kitchen garden, just as I realised I was running late. Blood was spurting out and I thought, as I grabbed some yarrow, crushed it and formed it into an impromptu poultice over the cut, that I might need to go into town for stitches later. I rushed off to keep my appointment and was astounded when a minute or two later I removed the yarrow, and realised that the bleeding had completely stopped. That was a good reminder for me, that the names herbs carried in the past are keys to knowledge. Yarrow has been known by numerous names that include Woundwort and Staunch Blood.
Yarrow is an alterative ( a medicine that restores the proper function of the body and increases health and vitality), analgesic, antibacterial, anti inflammatory, antipyretic, antiseptic, antispasmodic, astringent, carminative, diaphoretic, digestive, diuretic, emmenagogue, febrifuge, hemostatic, prophylactic, stimulant and vulnerary.
How can it be so good at stacking functions? Yarrow is one of the plants (though it seems all plants do this to varying degrees), that has been shown to contain varied chemistry, both between individual plants and between regions. One Yarrow plant was found to contain more than 125 different chemical compounds. As well as simply containing all these compounds, plants are constantly monitoring their surroundings and through complex feedback loops they “vary the numbers, combinations and amounts of the phytochemicals they make”, and even vary the phytochemicals they put in individual seeds. Yarrow, and many of his botanical mates, are quietly working on things of astounding complexity.
The list of issues Yarrow has been used to treat covers an entire page in Isabell Shipard’s classic text. Some of the most common uses include yarrow as a treatment for wounds and bleeding (internal and external, including irregular menstruation), to reduce fevers, to reduce blood pressure, to stimulate the circulatory system and clean the blood. Yarrow tea made from the leaves or flowers or both, is used to tone blood vessels as a treatment for hemorrhoids and varicose veins, to improve digestive function and expel gas, and to encourage perspiration and to clear congestion.
As in my first encounter with the wonders of yarrow, a crushed leaf in the nose can staunch nosebleeds, and applied directly on to a wound encourages the blood to clot. Yarrow infusion and compresses are useful for pain. An infusion or the fresh juice are both useful for inflamed skin conditions.Yarrow infusions and hydrosols can help acne and generally has a beneficial and astringent effect on the skin. The essential oil can be useful for rheumatism, arthritis, muscle pain and cramps, menstrual cramps, scarring and acne.
Yarrow is powerful and so, should be used with some common sense. In rare cases, people may be allergic and yarrow may cause dermatitis and sun sensitivity, headaches and vertigo, especially if taken in excessive amounts. Pregnant women should avoid yarrow as it’s reputed to be a uterine stimulant, and the essential oil is a possible abortifacient. People on anticoagulant drugs should also avoid yarrow.
My mate Yarrow looks frilly, and delicate but is actually a powerful healer, a herbal hero, with astounding skills, that deserve both a place in our gardens, our stories and our medicine cabinets.
How Can I Use Herbs in My Daily Life by Isabell Shipard
Herbal Remedies: A practical guide to herbs and their healing properties by Nicola Peterson
Herbal Antibiotics by Stephen Harrod Buhner
375 Essential Oils and Hydrosols by Jeanne Rose
Essential Oil Safety by Robert Tisserand and Rodney Young
Alchemy of herbs by Rosalee de la Foret
The Modern Herbal Dispensatory by Thomas Easley and Steven Horne
The Lost Language of Plants by Stephen Harrod Buhner