Common yarrow (achillea millefolium), is an aromatic flowering plant found worldwide across the northern hemisphere. It originated in Europe and early colonists spread it everywhere they settled. It is part of the aster or Asteraceae (Compositae) family, and a close relative of both chamomile and chrysanthemums. The name achillea millefolium is a combination of the Greek Hero Achilles (who supposedly used yarrow excessively) and millefolium, which translates as a “thousand leaves”. Other common names include gordaldo, bloodwort, nosebleed plant, old man’s pepper, devil’s nettle, carpenter’s weed, sanguinary, milfoil, soldier’s woundwort, thousand-leaf, and many others. You can learn more about the history of Yarrow at the Gardening Know How Blog.
Yarrow grows in zones 3-9 and is a perennial that can grow up to 36″ in height and when mature, the plant is covered with tiny flowers that can range from white to pinkish colored but can also be yellow, orange, or purple. Wild yarrow has white to pale yellow flowers; the high color varieties are hybrids and not recommended for medicinal use. Yarrow grows as a single stem plant, but is usually found in huge clusters with dark green, fern-like leaves that range from 1″ to 4″ in length on average. It can be found wild in numerous places and is easily cultivated. It performs well in average-to-poor soil, provided there is good drainage and full sun. It’s also a good companion plant, improving the health of other plants growing nearby by enhancing their essential oil content, which makes them more resistant to insect damage. Yarrow also improves soil fertility.
The medicinal use of yarrow has been well-documented over time and has copious amounts of scientific evidence to support the associated claims. It is used in natural medicine as an antiseptic, antispasmodic, astringent, carminative (helps to alleviate gas in the bowels), diaphoretic (makes you sweat), digestive aid, emmenagogue (stimulates blood flow to the pelvic region), stimulant, vasodilator (widens blood vessels) and as a vulnerary (used to promote wound healing). It’s most known in history for use externally in treating open wounds and staunching the flow of blood.
As a tea, it is used to manage the symptoms of colds and flu, for stomach ulcers and cramps, certain abscesses, and to reduce inflammation. Yarrow is also used to treat kidney disorders, amenorrhea (the absence of menses), skin irritations, and hemorrhaging. Additionally, it’s used to stimulate the flow of bile and to purify the blood.
Native Americans used yarrow to treat gastrointestinal conditions and as a digestive aid. It induces sweating and helps lower a fever. Its mild sedative properties make it useful in treating insomnia, cramps and menstrual pain. Yarrow leaves, flowers, and stems are used medicinally to make teas, infusions, salves, and poultices. Yarrow stalks can be pounded into a pulp, which is then applied to swollen areas, sprains, and bruises. It can be used both internally and externally with proven results.
It’s been shown to be successful because of it’s natural anti-inflammatory and antiseptic volatile oils, and astringent tannins. These properties promote healing of cuts and wounds, burns and ulcers, and inflammatory skin conditions. In the digestive system, yarrow stimulates the appetite, enhances digestion and absorption; its astringent properties curb diarrhea and dysentery, and stem bleeding from the lining of the gut. The antiseptic and anti-inflammatory properties treat infections and inflamed conditions such as gastritis and enteritis, the bitters stimulate liver function, while its antispasmodics relax cramping, bloating due to gas, colic and nervous dyspepsia.
Yarrow has properties which help to repair damaged or worn out tissues in the body. These properties also make it a versatile remedy which, when applied externally, is useful in curing cuts and wounds, burns and ulcers as well as swollen and irritated skin.
In The Kitchen
Although its not mainstream, you can use this herb in the kitchen. It may take some experimentation though. Despite the spicy and exotic smell, yarrow will leave a bitterness if added to stock or soup recipes. It’s considered a “soft” herb and can be substituted for tarragon. It’s also great in herb mixtures that include other soft herbs – the website Forager Chef has a great article called Cooking With Yarrow which can point you in the right direction and there you can find tips on how to preserve the flavor while cooking.
The optimal time to harvest us when the buds open. This happens sometime between July and September in the Northern part of the country or between late-April and June in the Southern part of the country. An old-fashioned way to test if the yarrow is ready to cut is to crush a few of the leaves in your hand and take a whiff. If you smell a spicy rich scent, then it’s time to harvest. If you can’t smell anything, or the smell is very faint, then wait a few days and check again. As with most herbs, only harvest when the plants are dry.
Cut the entire stalk about 2″-3″ above ground level – you can use the leaves, flowers, and stems. The roots are also useful, however if you dig up the plant to gather roots, you’ll need to replant for next season. Air dry the stalks by hanging them in small bunches or lay them on drying racks with good air flow. To make a fresh tincture, chop up the flowering tops and leaves and put them in a dark glass container with enough alcohol (80 proof or higher) to completely cover the herb. The ratio of herb to alcohol is really your choice. Many on-line recipes call for a 5:1 ratio of alcohol to herb. We make a stronger version using a traditional method of filling the container with as much fresh chopped herb as you can cram into it until it’s about an inch from the top. Fill the container with alcohol until the herb is covered. Store in a cool dark place, seal and shake occasionally, and wait 8 weeks for the finished product.
If you have sensitive skin, wear gloves during the harvest. It’s rare, but some people can have a reaction when handling large quantities of yarrow, which have resulted in red and itchy skin.
Despite its many benefits, yarrow may have potential side effects for some people. If you’re allergic to any member of the aster family (chrysanthemums, ragweed and daisy are some examples), do not ingest or apply yarrow topically. In some cases yarrow may also make your skin light-sensitive. Pregnant women and breastfeeding mothers should also refrain from using yarrow, as this herb may induce a miscarriage and may have unknown effects on an unborn child. As with any herbal medicine, consult with your doctor or licensed herbalist before starting any treatment.