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How Was Yarrow Used in the Past?

As part of my own herbal journey that started during the COVID-19 quarantine, I’ve been doing a lot of research on the plants in my garden. I’m specifically interested in their historical and traditional uses by ancient and Native cultures for medicinal purposes, although I love finding folklore and magical stories about them too! There is some fascinating history behind these plants!

I thought I’d share my own research, adventures, and misadventures while getting to know these plants. I’m not a trained herbalist and definitely a greenhorn! But maybe we can learn together along the way?

yarrow and wild raspberries
My yarrow foraging surprise! While cutting my cultivated purple yarrow, I found wild white yarrow and wild raspberries growing in the back of my yard.

 

What’s in a Name?

Yarrow is a beautiful and cheerful herb that’s been growing in my mother’s garden since before I was born. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if it has been growing in the gardens of my ancestor women for generations. It just looks like the type of antique, heirloom plant that would be surrounded by hollyhocks and dog roses.

Its scientific name Achillea millefolium gives you a little hint about the plant:  Achillea hints to Achilles (the Greek warrior who is rumored to have used yarrow to staunch his wounds), and millefolium translates to thousands of leaves (a nod to the fact that yarrows leaves are dainty, feathery, and appear to be in the thousands) [3, 10, 6, 7]. It’s also known commonly as milfoil, knight’s milfoil, soldier’s woundwort, bloodwort, devil’s plaything, green arrow, thousand-leaved clover, gordaldo, gordoloba, cammock, and plumajillo. (Whew.) Again the common names all hint to its traditional use as a blood stauncher for wounds, even up through the Civil War [10].

It’s in the scientific family Asteraceae, which is the same family of Asters, Sunflowers, Lettuce, Artichoke, Chamomile, Calendula, Echinacea, Crysanthemum, Dahlia, Zinnia, Marigold, Dandelion, Ragweed, and even Wormwort! And the list goes on!

The “aster” in Asteraceae hints to the root word “star,” indicative of the star-like flowers of many plants in this family. However, there’s an even more interesting feature to their blossoms! Rather than being just one single flower, their flower heads are actually a collection of many smaller blossoms! For instance, a sunflower is made up of outer petals (which are actually individual flowers called ray flowers) and a cluster of smaller flowers on the inside (the disc flowers which produce all of those wonderful sunflower seeds).

 

Warnings About Yarrow

Dr. Charles F. Millspaugh noted in his 1892 book Medicinal Plants that yarrow had been used as a hazardous abortifacient, similar to nutmeg [1]. I think Culpeper may also hint to this when he said, “It stops the terms in women, being boiled in white wine, and the decoction drank.” Occasional use during pregnancy or nursing was “okay,” though repeated usage “may cause a problem” [9].

He continues that yarrow was sometimes used as a diaphoretic in small children, there was sometimes a “predictable temperate [sic] spike before sweating commences.”

When used to suppose gastrointestinal inflammation, it “may aggravate the situation” [9].

Angier also said that yarrow makes the skin hypersensitive to sunlight, so be extra careful when using it as a salve, compress, or bath.

My little comment here is that yarrow is one of those plants which seems to have a history of specific use, rather than an herb that one would consume on an everyday basis. As far as my usage of the herb goes, I personally would not consume it internally, though I intend to create a salve with it to help aid my body in healing bruises.

yarrow flowers
Adorable yarrow flowers were a staple in historic homes and gardens.

 

Traditional Uses of Yarrow

Yarrow has been used throughout history including Greek [3,6,7,10], Native American [1], Norwegian [6], and Neanderthal cultures, specifically at the Neanderthal flower gravesite called Shanidar IV in Iraq [9].

I’m going to do my best to group yarrow’s traditional uses by purpose, rather than by the texts I’ve been reading. This little plant was used for so many things!

The most commonly cited one is that it was used to stop bleeding [3]. For external bleeding, the leaves were steeped in water before being applied [1]. One of its common names, nosebleed, hints to the fact that it was placed inside of the nose to staunch the flow of blood [3,6,7,10]. It was used for internal bleeding [5], when dried, powdered, and brewed with plantain into a tea [1].

For bruises, it was turned into a paste, poultice, or salve and applied to the skin, especially with goldenrod, mullein, and St. John’s wort [1,13]. It was also used with wild onions for burns [1]!

And it wasn’t just used for cuts and bruises! It was also used to help regulate the menses, especially spotting mid-cycle or for especially long periods [3,6,9]. Some used it as a blood builder after childbirth [1], and some of yarrow’s flavonoids were found to “have at least some influence over estrogen receptor sites” [9]. It was also used for external vaginitis [9].

Its second most common usage was to break a fever and start a sweat when one was having a dry fever [1,5,9,13]. It was also used to make a tea alongside echinacea, elderflower, and bee balm [13]. It also was said to help restore you to health after a cold or to end a cold more quickly [1,6,10]. It was often combined with peppermint and elderflower [10].

It was used for issues with the digestive tract such as ulcers [3,9] and hemorrhoids [1,6,9]. It was thought to be healing to the gastric mucosa [9].

By the western indigenous tribes of the US, it was documented as being used as an anesthetic for wounds before cleaning wounds and acted within half an hour [1], Research Service of the US Department of Agriculture]. Going along those same lines of pain relief, it was used for toothaches [3,6,9] and for rheumatism by Norwegians [6].

Some random things it was used for:  eyewash for redness [1], for bone fractures [1], baldness and losing hair [3], “arresting nocturnal losses in the male” [6], mouthwash, stopping from having to pee in the night, for worms, for earache, and even for tuberculosis [1].

Finally, it was thought of as an appetite builder [6,9] that helped to digest and use fat [9]. It also has a long history of being used as a bitter in brewing beer [12].

 

Magical Uses of Yarrow

Beyond the traditional medicinal uses for yarrow, it also has some adorable magical lore surrounding it. There were even a few chants (or spells in my opinion) that people would use with yarrow. The main ones were for love charms or divinations.

“Green arrow! green arrow! You bear a white blow; If my love love me, my nose will bleed now.” [6,7]

If one picks yarrow in the first hour of the morning, places three sprigs in one’s shoe, chants “Good morning, good morning, good Yarrow, and thrice good morning to thee. Tell me, before this time to-morrow, who my true love is to be,” they’ll see their future husband in their dreams. [7]

They say that yarrow belongs to Venus [7], which also rules Taurus and Libra.

It guards whoever wears it, giving them courage if they hold it. It also brings people you love into your life and ensure that your love lasts for at least seven years. Some say that yarrow tea gives you psychic powers and that it can be used to exorcise evil and remove negativity [4]. If you have dreams of harvesting yarrow after reading this, it probably means that you will hear something soon that will bring you great joy [7].

yarrow charm
A little yarrow charm that I made for someone to help keep away nightmares and night hags. It has yarrow as its main stalk with rosemary and borage added in its center.

 

Summary

Yarrow is a pretty hopping herb with tombs of history and folklore behind it.

Just a few weeks ago, I thought it was only a simple flower in the garden. It doesn’t have the modern-day popularity of Echinacea, which grows abundantly in our yard. But now I realize that it’s presence in my grandmother’s garden and her grandmother before her might have been because of this long history of medicine women utilizing it for their families.

I’ve been harvesting, drying, steeping, and cooking yarrow for the past few days now. It’s been a joy! I don’t know if I am going to do anything with it, but I enjoy the eucalyptus-like smell as it hangs out in my office.

I also spent some time making a little hanging sprig of it with additional rosemary for a friend who has nightmares. I think it’s especially sweet that the herb might help bring good friends into their life—or a love that lasts at least seven years. :] It was a cute little present to make.

If you’re interested in identifying and wildcrafting yarrow, click here.

 

Bibliography
[1] Angier, Bradford. Field Guide to Medicinal Wild Plants. Stackpole Books. 2008.
[2] Arber, Agnes. Herbals:  Their Origin and Evolution. A. Asher & Co. 1912.
[3] Culpeper, Nicholas. The Complete Herbal. A. Cross. 1850.
[4] Cunningham, Scott. Encyclopedia of Magical Herbs. Llewellyn Publications. 2019.
[5] Easley, Thomas and Steven Horne. The Modern Herbal Dispensatory. North Atlantic Books. 2016.
[6] Fernie, W. T. Herbal Simples Approved For Modern Uses of Cure. Boericke & Tafel. 1897.
[7] Folkard, Richard. Plant Lore, Legends, and Lyrics. R. Folkard and Son. 1884.
[8] Kadans, Joseph M. Modern Encyclopedia of Herbs. Simon & Schuster Inc. 1993.
[9] Kane, Charles W. Herbal Medicine. Lincoln Town Press. 2009.
[10] Kruger, Anna. American Nature Guides:  Herbs. Dragon’s World. 19925
[11] Pickston, Margaret. The Language of Flowers. Michael Joseph Ltd. 1979.
[12] Rose, Lisa M. Midwest Foraging. Timber Press. 2015.
[13] Rose, Lisa M. Midwest Medicinal Plants. Timber Press. 2017.

A little addendum here:   herbalists are not medical practitioners, are not qualified to diagnose or treat any type of illness and are not able to cure people. So if you have a medical issue, I recommend going to your family doctor. That being said, I personally am playing around with these herbs in my own kitchen and seeing how it feels to supplement my body with them in certain situations.


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