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The Sneezewort -don't Sniff at This Plant

Updated on August 7, 2015

Grassland habitat

Plants such as yarrow and sneezewort tenant grassland.
Plants such as yarrow and sneezewort tenant grassland. | Source

Notes from a Lancashire Countryman

A plant once used medicinally to produce sneezing is common during late summer months where it it may be encountered in grassland. The sneezewort, Achillea ptarmica is a member of the Asteraceae, the daisy family. {many of these are covered in many other of mu hubs-click on highlighted links.}.

The 16th century herbalist John Gerard stated in his herbal " that just sniffing the plant can cause a man to sneeze." Indeed the species name of ptarmica derives from the Greek word ptairo meaning to sneeze.

The rhizome {root system} was crushed and dried to produce a powder taken as a snuff that produced the violent sneezing that cleared snuffy heads. The rhizomes that form the root system is somewhat woody. From the root rises stems that attain the height of 20-50 cm. On these stems the lance shaped to linear leaves are arranged alternately with toothed margins. they tend to be clasping towards the base. Closer observation will reveal tiny hairs that adorn the veins on the underside of the leaves.

The leaves may be eaten raw in salads and have a slight peppery taste which adds warmth to cold salads, or they may be cooked. the foliage was once chewed to help alleviate the pain of toothache. The leaves were also dried and crushed to a powder to produce sneezing. They were also used as an insect repellent.

Sneezewort in grassland

Sneezewort flowers may be encountered among grasses during late summer.
Sneezewort flowers may be encountered among grasses during late summer. | Source
A closer view of the flowers reveals the white ray florets and the duller coloured central disc florets.
A closer view of the flowers reveals the white ray florets and the duller coloured central disc florets. | Source


The flowers are borne in loose clusters. They are daisy like with white outer rays a central disvc of tubular florets which are of a pale green or pale brown colour.

Achilles the genus name alludes to Achilles {of the heal fame} the character in Greek mythology whose soldiers used some plants in this group to heal wounds. There are over 80 species of flowering plants in this genus, but I suspect the most familiar to most people is the species Achillea millifolium the Yarrow. it is one of the oldest wound herbs. they are as popular present day as they have ever been, particularly at this time of the year when winter colds and flu viruses are prevalent in the U.K. and other countries in the northern hemisphere.

Wild Yarrow

Wild yarrow, note the red soldier beetles which are attracted to the plant.
Wild yarrow, note the red soldier beetles which are attracted to the plant. | Source


Yarrow was utilised in one treatment which was popular with country folk, and was still prevalent in my grandmothers day. Olive oil was warmed and a few crushed flowers added. This was left to steep while keeping the preparation warm. Small amounts of the resulting liquid was then poured into the ear and plugged with cotton wool. This combination was efficient at curing ear ache.

Yarrow tea has long been used to treat the symptoms of colds and flu. Yarrow is often used in conjunction with other herbs for this preparation such as peppermint, Echinaceae and elder flowers. These components are usually dried and mixed together. They are then infused with boiling water at the dosage of one teaspoonful per cup. One to three cups a day are recommended to be taken while the symptoms persist.

A plant that has been associated with medicine and culinary uses for this amount of time has inevitably picked up many country titles, some of these are listed to give the reader a sense of their many uses. They include-Soldiers woundwort, Military herb, Carpenters herb, Old man's pepper, Thousand leaf, milfoil, nose bleed and devils nettle.

Yarrow is a very drying herb {astringent} and was used to staunch bleeding. This astringent property was also employed to stop diarrhoea. It was used to promote appetite and alleviate digestive disorders. In Homeopathy it is employed to staunch internal bleedings. fresh leaves help to stop bleeding and are beneficial under a dressing to staunch blood flow.

Above Elder Flowers. Below Foliage of Yarrow

Elder flowers are often used in conjunction with yarrow in treatments for colds and flu.
Elder flowers are often used in conjunction with yarrow in treatments for colds and flu. | Source
Close up of yarrow foliage
Close up of yarrow foliage | Source

Medicinal uses

An infusion of the leaves was used to was a cleanse wounds it was a simple but effective home made preparation. The foliage is also utilised in home culinary preparations, they have a peppery taste.

In common with the sneezewort the yarrow tenants grassy situations but is more inclined to grow in dryer aspects. The plant may form large drifts where it is established. The erect stems are tough and wiry and usually adorned with hairs. The foliage is much divided with many fine leaf segments, which together give the foliage a feathery appearance. The whole leaf is stiff and very hardy. The many leaflets give rise to the plants species name of millefolium which translates as a thousand leaves. Numerous flowers are produced which together form flat topped clusters. In the wild they have white ray florets sometimes tinged with pink.

The flowers often give the impression of being somewhat dirty, this illusion is created by the yellow anthers turning brown as they are apt to do. They flower from June until October and may reach the height of 40-80cm.

Gardeners among us will be familiar with the many cultivated varieties that are available. These varieties can vary in colour from a deep purple through to a dull cream.

Cultivated Yarrow

Garden cultivars can produce an amazing array of colours.
Garden cultivars can produce an amazing array of colours. | Source

Sneezewort cultivars

Sneezewort, has also been cultivated and one variety known as "Billy buttons" with double flowers was once a great favourite in cottage gardens. As a naturalist I try to grow flowers which will attract a variety of wildlife to the garden. Both these two species and many others of the genus Achillea are good at producing interesting flowers and attracting wildlife. They are the food plant of many Lepidoptera larvae. primarily moths. The common pug and the lime speck pug moth are two such examples.

Some of the Many Species Attracted to Achillea

lime speck pug moth
lime speck pug moth | Source
Bucculatrix | Source
Coleophora | Source


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    • D.A.L. profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from Lancashire north west England

      darski, you must be in tune with nature. Thank you for your usual kind and encouraging comments. Love and best wishes to you.

    • Darlene Sabella profile image

      Darlene Sabella 

      7 years ago from Hello, my name is Toast and Jam, I live in the forest with my dog named Sam ...

      OMG you are never going to believe this but while reading your hub I could not stop sneezing, I swear this is completely true. Very weird indeed, um I would of thought that it would have been a pepper plant, LOL now I never heard of this, but of course reading your awesome hubs always teaches me so very much. Your photo are fantastic and an awesome and well written hub, rate up up love darski I need your help on an idea I have so email me when you get a chance. Darski

    • D.A.L. profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from Lancashire north west England

      DREAM ON, Thank you for being the first to comment. You are welcome.Best wishes to you.

      suziecat7, thank you too!Glad to have helped. Best wishes to you.

      timorous, thank you for your kind comments, I think the Pharma companies rely on the lack of knowledge and the fact that many people would rather go into a drug store than the countryside for their medicine. best wishes to you.

      SilverGenes, Sneezewort powder was one of the various powders used as snuff. But as you say they were carried frequently. And thank you for your appreciated comments. Best wishes to you.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      Is it sneezewort that people carried in little boxes as snuff? I have always wondered why they used it so frequently. Thank you for another very informative article and the photos are great!

    • timorous profile image

      Tim Nichol 

      8 years ago from Me to You

      Hi D.A.L. Isn't it amazing the things you can do with nature's bounty? It's sad that the big Pharma companies keep trying to suppress information like this. Well done. Love the close-ups too.

    • suziecat7 profile image


      8 years ago from Asheville, NC

      Interesting Hub. I learned something new. Thanks.

    • DREAM ON profile image

      DREAM ON 

      8 years ago

      I have seen these similiar plants and never gave it much thought.Thank you for opening my eyes up to nature.


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