Thursday, March 3, 2011

Achillea millefolium - Yarrow, for Love and Fortune

Achillea millefolium - Yarrow is a common herb found throughout North America and Eurasia.  Achillea is named after Achilles, in legend it was the plant he used to stanch the wounds of the Greeks at Troy.  The name Yarrow is a corruption of the Anglo-Saxon name for the plant - gearwe; and the Dutch, yerw. The word means "treat" or "prepare."

Other common names for it are Milfoil, Old Man's Pepper, Soldier's Woundwort, Knight's Milfoil, Thousand Weed, Nose Bleed, Carpenter's Weed, Bloodwort, Staunchweed, Sanguinary, Devil's Nettle, Devil's Plaything, Bad Man's Plaything, and Yarroway. In Spanish-speaking New Mexico and southern Colorado, it is called plumajillo, or "little feather", for the shape of the leaves.

The stem is angular and rough, the leaves alternate, 3 to 4 inches long and 1 inch wide, with a feathery appearance and tiny white or yellow flowers that form a flat-topped cluster.  Other varieties include shades of cream to yellow, pink, and red.  Flowers appear mid-July and bloom all summer. Yarrows can be planted to combat soil erosion due to the plant's resistance to drought. Many cultivated varieties are available and flowers should be picked when at full bloom for drying.

Great in sun or shade, this drought tolerant plant makes a great replacement for thirsty lawns. Yarrow can be kept mowed and can even handle some light foot traffic, but unlike lawns, yarrow only requires occasional mowing.  Yarrow is a great choice for shady areas under oak and pine trees, as well.  It will cover the ground and require no water after it has been established.  They don't mind pine needles or oak leaves falling on them, your native wildlife can use them, and they don't require fertilizer.  Yarrow makes a delightfully feathery lawn, and has pretty white flowers that attract honey bees and butterflies.

In folk medicine, yarrow has been used mainly for digestion and cirulation.  It opens circulation to the skin, slows fast heart rate; and has been used for stress related hypertension. It cleanses the body for digestive and kidney related purposes and works on fever by supporting other body functions rather than lowering the fever.  For fevers of the respiratory system it has been combined with elderflowers. Garlic has been added for cleansing and used very early in the course of a fever (NOT during the rising heat of the fever), or when the peak has been reached and during convalescence. 

Achillea millefolium was once used as a cure-all, a styptic, a bitter, for acne and varicose veins, for promoting excretion at the kidney, used for asthma, fits, hemorrhoids, varicose veins, hypertension, fever, intermittent fever, to promote sweating, vaginal discharge, for its hormonal action in relation to periods, colic, nervous tension and spasms, dandruff and falling hair (combined with rosemary and peppermint), internal bleeding, for healing old wounds, catarrh, enteritis, diarrhea, excessive or scanty or painful menses, gastritis, dyspepsia, to improve the appetite, intestinal colic, nervous dyspepsia, and palpitations.

Achillea millefolium also has some hormonal action.  It's leaves have been used for wounds and staunching the flow of blood.  A decoction has been used for wounds, sores, and chapped hands.  It has been used to improve the appetite and to stimulate the central nervous system to treat depression and mood disorders and it is used where there is risk of thrombosis.

In cosmetics Yarrow is used as an astringent and for cleansing and in skin lotions.  It is mildly aromatic and flowers are used in herbal baths for their astringency.  It is good for very oily skin as a wash in the form of herb water.  It is excellent as everlasting material for dried flower arrangements.

In classical mythology, Achilles learned about this plant from his childhood tutor, Chiron, who was very knowledgeable about herbs. Chiron taught Achilles about making a salve from the plant and found it useful during the Battle of Troy.

In early Europe witches supposedly used it for incantations and divination. The leaves, when placed over the eyes, is believed to allow someone to see into the Otherworld.  As a love charm, the herb is made into a small sachet and placed under a pillow, it can reveal the identity of one’s true love.  There are also some ancient rhymes from Britain that utilize yarrow for divining a true love by sticking the herb up your nose.  According to Maude Grieve, one recites the following while inserting the herb in the nose:

“Green arrow, green arrow, you bear a white blow,
If my love love me, my nose will bleed now
If my love don’t love it’ ont bleed a drop’

[In reality, Yarrow is a nasal irritant, and causes the nose to bleed if inserted, so putting it up your nose for any reason is really stupid.]

Celtic folklore tells that witches could achieve flight by wearing a sprig of the yarrow in their cap, which is called a Cappeen d'Yarrag.  And it's strong healing powers gave rise to the belief that it had the ability to banish negative forces.  Another belief states that if you hang a bunch of dried yarrow or yarrow that was used in wedding decorations, over the bed, you will ensure a lasting love for seven years.

Chinese folklore states that the best sticks for I Ching divination are made from yarrow.  The Druids selected stems of yarrow to divine the weather, and the Irish included it as one of the herbs of St. John, hanging it in houses as protection from sickness and everything from blindness to barking dogs. It was used for magical amulets by the Saxons and served as protection from all sorts of ailments and robbery.

Yarrow has also been used as a food, and was very popular as a vegetable in the 17th century. The younger leaves are said to be a pleasant leaf vegetable when cooked as spinach, or in a soup. Yarrow is sweet with a slight bitter taste. In Sweden it is called 'Field Hop' and has been used in the manufacture of beer. This beer is considered more intoxicating than when hops is used.

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