YARROW / MILFOIL
BOTANICAL NAME: Achillea millefolium
FAMILY: Compositae (Asteraceae)
FOLK NAMES: milfoil, thousand leaf, soldier’s woundwort, staunchwort, blood wort, Devil’s plaything, Margaret’s herb, and many others
DESCRIPTION/HABITAT: The herb we know as yarrow is one member of a genus containing over 85 species. It is now naturalized in most temperate zones but is native to Eurasia. However, there is a closely related and essentially identical native species on the North American continent, Achillea lanulosa, which can only be differentiated by chromosomal examination (1).
In either case, it is an aromatic, hardy, rhizomatous perennial herb with one to several stems reaching up to about three feet in height. The leaves are very finely dissected, with a feathery, lacy appearance giving rise to the plant’s folk name “thousand leaf”. It bears several dense, generally white and occasionally pinkish white composite flower heads. Depending on location, flowering generally occurs between May and September and as the flowers rise and bloom, the leaves shrink back and become small. Many cultivars of A. millefolium having larger, more colorful flowers are grown as garden ornamentals but don’t have the medicinal potency of the wild growing plant.
Generally, Achillea is said to enjoy well drained soil and full sun. However, in the Southern Appalachians where I live it can be found happily growing wild in the partially shaded edge zones at the border of the forest and even in the dense, poorly drained clay soils of abandoned lots, waysides, and people’s yards.
Today, yarrow is widely grown commercially for dried herb and, mostly in Eastern Europe, for essential oil production.
HISTORY: Yarrow is an herb with an ancient and rich history. Fossilized yarrow pollen has been found in a Neanderthal burial that is over 50,000 years old (2). Together with other medicinal plants in bloom, the yarrow was apparently laid around the head of an elderly Neanderthal male who died of natural causes.(Note: some archeologists now dispute that the plants were intentionally placed and argue that rodents may have carried the pollen into the burial). Did these ancient hominids know the medicinal powers of this plant? We can only speculate as to the significance of these findings but, inarguably, yarrow has a very long history of use as a medicinal and magical herb.
The botanical name of the genus, Achillea, is a reference to the Greek hero Achilles, whose mother, the nymph Thetis, made him magically invulnerable to wounds, except at his heel. When Paris struck him with a poisonous arrow at this spot, he was instructed by Aphrodite to place yarrow on the wound, which was immediately healed. Chiron, the mythical centaur who was famed as a healer, also instructed Achilles in the use of yarrow for healing the wounds of battle. It’s efficacy in this respect is echoed in some of it’s old folk names such as soldier’s wound wort, staunchweed, bloodwort, and others.
The renowned first century CE physician Dioscorides, who has been called “the father of phytotherapy”, also wrote of the herb’s usefulness for puncture wounds and slashes.
The English word “yarrow” is derived from the old Anglo-Saxon word “gearwe”, which means “to make healthy”. It was a sacred herb to the old Germanic peoples and was generally dedicated to the Goddess Freya. The Greeks considered it an herb of Aphrodite (Venus), although Western astrologers have traditionally called it an herb of Mars. Despite its strong association as an herb of battle and soldiers (hence a “man’s herb”), it’s most ancient and enduring history marks it as an herb of the Goddess in her many manifestations and some of the herb’s older folk names reflect this: e.g., virgin’s herb, Margaret’s herb (for St. Margaret who was traditionally invoked for many women’s illnesses), and herb de Notre Dame. Indeed, its has a long history of traditional use for many types of women’s complaints, such as dysmenorrhea characterized by excessive bleeding, as well as for the treatment of venereal diseases and other urogenital problems.
Magically, yarrow was traditionally used by women in Europe and the British Isles as part of spells conducted to reveal the identity of their future husbands. It has also been used for divination in China since the 2nd century where its dried stems were used to generate the random patterns used in the I Ching.
Yarrow is known to have been one of the nine sacred healing herbs of the ancient Celts and was gathered at the August festival of Lughnasa, where it was used in offerings to the Goddess and also saved for medicinal use later in the year. Maude Grieve wrote of its on-going use in the Highlands of Scotland, where it had long been used as a wound ointment, and in the Orkney Islands for dispelling melancholy. She noted also that it was one of the herbs “dedicated to the Evil One” in earlier days and having the folk names of Devil’s Nettle, Devil’s Plaything, and Bad Man’s Plaything (3). These names were, of course, inventions of the Christian church and reflected the hysteria about witches and surviving remnants of the old beliefs rather than any ancient associations of the herb.
Yarrow also has a long and extensive history of use among Native American and Native Canadian groups, having been used by literally dozens of tribes across the continent, often as a cold remedy, analgesic, febrifuge, antirheumatic, to stop bleeding, and as a digestive/gastrointestinal aid. The Cherokee used it to stop bleeding, including menorraghia and internal bleeding; as a febrifuge; and as a sedative infusion for restful sleep. Among the Iroquois, it was highly regarded as a “blood purifier” and the Lakota applied chewed dried leaves to wounds. In truth, it was widely regarded as practically a panacea that might be used in the treatment of almost any illness of adults or children. It was sometimes used in the treatment of horses as well. It has been used by the Potowatami as a smudge to keep witches away; by the Kutenai as a perfume (leaves); and by others as an insect-repellant smudge. A number of related species have been used in various parts of North America. (4)