I finally managed to get out onto the top of the Downs last week to collect my harvest of yarrow. It was the prefect day for it, with bright sunshine to dry off the dew without being so hot that the volatile oils were too quick to evaporate. Now the tincture is steeping away and the flowers are dried for teas so it seems like the perfect time to share a few words about this most valuable of healing remedies.
Despite being one of the most important medicines in my healing repertoire, I have been avoiding posting about yarrow for quite sometime. This is for the simple reason that it is useful for many things it’s hard to know where to start, yarrow really requires an entire book to itself! For simplicity’s sake I will stick to the basics here but I will revisit this wonder herb with more specific information in the future.
Yarrow is a common weed native to the Northern hemisphere that grows freely in grassland, chalk land, roadsides and other sites with well draining ground. It is instantly recognisable due to its feathery leaves, strong stems and broad white flower heads made up of many small individual flowers.
Yarrow as a Wound Healer:
This is perhaps yarrow’s most famous and most ancient use. Yarrow was found amongst other medicinal herbs in the Neanderthal burial site in Iraq which dates from around 60,000 BC and has become famous in herbal medicine as one of the earliest indications of human’s use of medicinal plants. Myth tells us it was given to Achilles by the centaur Chiron so he could use it on the battlefield and its Latin name, Achillea millefollium, still reflects this tale. Its common names too included Soldier’s herb, herba militaris, Knight’s milfoil, carpenter’s grass and nosebleed. Yarrow is possibly the most useful wound herb we have as it staunches bleeding and is antimicrobial and pain relieving too.
Yarrow for Colds and Fevers:
It’s next greatest claim to fame is it’s ability to make us sweat. When fever is building, drinking hot teas of yarrow can help it to break by relaxing the circulation and the pores of the skin, allowing us to sweat freely and ridding the body of infection. Dr Christopher once wrote, “Yarrow, when administered hot and copiously, will raise the heat of the body, equalise the circulation and produce perspiration.” It may seem inadvisable to raise the body heat in cases of fever but by using yarrow we are supporting the body in responding to infection naturally. The classic formula for colds and flus is yarrow, peppermint and elderflower which should be drunk as a hot tea as soon as possible. The the patient should then wrap up warmly, keeping a hot water bottle at their feet and wait to sweat. When there is a high body temperature but no sweating, this formula is especially useful to help release the heat via the skin. Now is the time to get these herbs in stock before the cold and flu season strikes.
Yarrow for the Circulation:
Yarrow’s affinity for the blood and circulation can be seen internally as well as externally. It tones the blood vessels at the same time as dilating capillaries and moving the blood, thus giving it a wide range of applications. It has been used to treat high blood pressure, often in combination with Hawthorn and Lime blossom and it has a reputation for being able to prevent blood clots. It’s tonifying action makes it particularly useful for treating varicose veins and haemorrhoids. Yarrow really is a great equaliser, it moves where necessary and tones where needed. This dual action is what has given it is reputation for being able to both cure and cause nosebleeds!
Yarrow for the Digestion:
Being bitter, pungent and aromatic means that yarrow is particularly useful for stimulating the digestion and getting the bile and pancreatic juices flowing. Because of it’s affinity to the circulation as well it can help move congested blood in the portal vein which, in turn, helps the liver. Matthew Wood talks about using it for colitis and diverticulitis because of it’s ability to tone and heal the mucus membranes of the digestive tract. It was also an old traditional remedy for bloody diarrhoea and dysentery.
Yarrow for the Reproductive and Urinary Systems:
Maria Treben considers yarrow “first and foremost… a herb for women” and quotes Abbe Kneipp in saying “women could be spared many troubles if they just took yarrow tea from time to time.” It is such a wonderful herb for the reproductive systems because it can both staunch heavy bleeding and stimulate scanty bleeding. It is also wonderful when there is congestion resulting in dark clotted blood and period pains. It is useful for vaginal infections or irregular discharge as well as spotting between periods.
Yarrow is a good urinary anti-septic and, when drunk as a warm or cool (rather than hot) infusion, the diuretic properties are emphasised making it a useful remedy for cystitis and urinary tract infections. It has also been praised for helping cases of urinary incontinence. Culpepper informs us that it “helps such as cannot hold their water.”
If we think about some of the ways in which yarrow might work we can start to draw together all these different facets of it’s healing ability. When you taste yarrow it is pungent and aromatic with quite a bitter aftertaste. The volatile oils which make it so aromatic and warming are dispersive in nature and therefore are one of the things that gives yarrow this wonderful ability to move congestion and stagnation, equalise the circulation and open up the skin. Volatile oils are also often anti-microbial. The bitterness balances it’s warmth with more cooling qualities and also stimulates the digestion. Though the bitter gets our juices flowing and the aromatic qualities get things moving, you can also tell yarrow is an astringent which is what makes it so helpful for toning blood vessels. It may seem like a plant of contradictions but yarrow is just another example of how wonderfully complex our herbs can be. They demand that we know them, rather than just a list of their actions, and that we let go of linear thinking and delve into the realms of experiential understanding instead.
Preparations are usually made from the areal parts including leaf, flower and some stem, though I usually leave out the toughest bits. They can then be used in a variety of ways:
Tea – Take hot for colds and flus and warm or cool for cystitis. Or use as a wash for grazes or rashes.
Tincture – For chronic congestion in the reproductive system and high blood pressure (teas could also be used here).
Baths - For skin irritations.
Sitz baths – For cystitis, vaginal infections, bleeding fibroids, haemorrhoids, post-partum healing, heavy periods etc.
Footbaths – For chilblains.
Infused Oil – For first aid healing ointments or soothing creams for irritated skins.
Poultice or Compress – Spit poultices for wounds and first aid situations, compresses for larger areas of grazed skin.
Wound powder – Finely powdered dried herb can be sprinkled on minor wounds.
Spray – The tincture or herb infused in witch hazel can be sprayed on to varicose veins to tone and move stagnant blood.
Flower Essence – Said to be protective for those who are overly sensitive to their environments and the emotions of others.
Essential Oil – A wonderful anti-inflammatory for skin conditions.
Please note, yarrow is best avoided during pregnancy.
Yarrow was also considered a sacred herb by many cultures of the world and has lots of interesting folklore attached to it. I’ll save that for another post though!