Achillea millefolium or common yarrow is also known as “nosebleed plant” and stanchgrass. It has been used for millennia as a medicinal herb. Recent archeological finds have uncovered yarrow flowers on the body of a 40,000+-year-old Neanderthal Man. Legend has it that the Greek hero Achilles used the plant to heal his troops and soldiers during the Trojan War. Interestingly enough, yarrow’s use on the battlefield was continuous from that time until well after the American Civil War, almost 7000 years. The second half of the name (millefolium) refers to the plethora of feathery sections in the leaves. The English word that we use for the herb (yarrow) is a messed up version of the Anglo-Saxon word “gearwe.” It is said by some to be one of the most important herbs used by the Native Americans.
Yarrow grows literally everywhere. It is a hardy perennial and does well in almost any type of soil, as long as it has plenty of sunlight. It grows well from seed, or by spreading underground. It is considered a “weed” when found in the garden or near farmland. It is one of those plants that everyone sees and ignores most of the time. The plant has a natural resistance to drought and has been used by some to combat soil erosion. It is best propagated through seed, rhizomes, and division. Clumps should be divided every few years to maintain plant health.
Yarrow stems can grow over three feet tall. Grieve describes the upright stems of the plant as being angular and rough. The alternate leaves have a feathery appearance and are considered bi- or tripinnate. The leaves are considered fern-like, but with a much more delicate feel. Both the leaves and stems are hairy. The flower head is basically flat and arranged in rays. The inflorescence is usually in cluster form at the end of each ray. The tiny, round flowers can be white, pink, yellow, blood red, light purple, or orange. It is essential, when harvesting yarrow in the wild, not to mistake it with poison hemlock. Yarrow is a member of the Aster family. The flowers bloom from late spring through the summer.
Yarrow has long had many legends and superstitions associated with it besides those of healing. One of these holds that a person (male or female) can discover who their true love is by stating the love’s name then tickling the inside of their own nose with a yarrow leaf. If the person’s nose starts bleeding, the hoped-for answer is affirmative. Of course, there are chants involved, and then you might actually need the yarrow to stop the bleeding... Another holds that if a sprig (about an ounce) of the herb is sewn into a flannel sachet and placed under your pillow, then you will have a vision during the night of your future mate. More chanting rhymes are involved.
The most common nonmedical use of yarrow throughout history seems to be in trying to ward off evil. The Chinese used dried yarrow sticks for divination (I Ching), to help find answers to hard questions. Historically, several Native American tribes crushed and used yarrow flower heads on different body parts as a “deodorant,” or astringent. Even today, there is a steady market for yarrow stems with the flowers, for both fresh and dried arrangements. North America produces more than 50 tons of yarrow for sale/year. It is used in many earth religions and in magic for the casting of spells, as yarrow is considered an “air herb.” It is still used as a smudging herb in many areas, to fend off flying insects such as mosquitoes.
All parts of the plant may be used fresh, frozen, or dried. When drying the herb, pull it up by the roots, or cut it off at the ground, bunch the plant, and tie the bunch with a fine string or thread. Hang the plant in a cool, dry place away from direct sunlight. Sunlight destroys many of the nutrients and changes the chemical composition inside the stems and leaves. The entire plant is used when it is harvested, and the whole thing is good for food and is considered a fresh herb. The taste ranges from sweet to slightly bitter depending on the age of the stems. The young leaves and stems can be used in salads and stews. The leaves, when rubbed between the fingers or hands make an acceptable culinary substitute for sage in recipes. The flowers can be eaten or made into a tea. Yarrow flower heads are also used to flavor Vodka. They have been used to replace hops in the making of beer.
Medicinally, the entire plant is used as well. To harvest for medicinal purposes, take the plant while it is in flower. “White” yarrow (yarrow with white flowers) is more potent than other colors. More than twenty pharmaceutical products sold on the market today contain yarrow. Each part of the plant has different medicinal properties. The extraction and sale of the essential oils in yarrow are a multi-million dollar business. Because of its diverse abilities, some herbalists list yarrow as “a complete medicine chest.” Most herbalists suggest keeping at least 8 ounces of the dried herb on hand all year long.
Throughout history yarrow has been used medically, for three main things: as a wound dressing, to aid in digestion (from beginning to end), and to heal reproductive system problems. It has hemostatic properties (for open wounds), as well as analgesic, and antiseptic (antimicrobial) properties. That means, it stops bleeding, kills the pain, and helps prevent infection. It is also an anti-inflammatory. Yarrow flowers contain a powerful painkiller. To use yarrow in the field, bruise or crush young leaves and flowers together into a poultice. Apply directly to the wound. The fresh or dried leaves are crushed and can be used as a topical styptic for bites, scrapes, small cuts, oozing blisters, or burns. Yarrow also contains steroidal saponins, which are anabolic steroid precursors and are used to regulate sexual hormone production. The internal application historically has been to stop painful menstruation (it’s an antispasmodic), help combat the symptoms of menopause, and to help heal male sexual problems. Used psychotropically, yarrow acts like chamomile and causes euphoria.
Because of its powerful nature, cautions must be taken when using yarrow internally or for any length of time. After all, it is a drug. Because of the hormone interaction, if taken internally, it should not be ingested by pregnant or nursing women.
Okay, here’s the opposing viewpoint. So what if I don’t like yarrow and want to get rid of the stuff I do have? Topical herbicides do work, but their effectiveness depends on what time of year the application is made. An important thing to note is that many herbicides also kill the “good plants” that you want to keep. Make sure you follow the manufacturer’s instructions and use in a safe manner. If you talk to people who have actually gotten rid of yarrow organically, they will tell you that you need to dig it up and take it out.