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Yarrow { past and present medicinal uses}

Updated on August 9, 2015


Image taken in Amiens -France
Image taken in Amiens -France | Source


Yarrow belongs to the Asterales order of plants and the family Asteraceae { formerly the Compositae { Daisy family} and it is given the genus name of Achillea.. This is said to derive from the Greek Achilles { of the heal fame} who supposedly treated his soldier's wounds with it;others say it was discovered by one of the Chirons the loyal followers of Achilles. The specific name of millefolium literally translates as a thousand leaves and alludes to the many segments of the leaf which has a feathery appearance.

One of its common names of Milfoil is a corruption of the specific name. it is sometimes referred to as 'nose bleed'. In days gone by the leaves were introduced up the nostrils, by means of their short hairs , they act as a mechanical irritant and cause it to bleed, thus affording relief from ' megrim' ,Gerard {1500's} informs us.

The other common species of Achillea is A,Ptarmica the Sneezewort which often grows alongside the yarrow in the wild. They have somewhat similar flowers but the foliage differs greatly being more simple and toothed along the margins.

Linnaeus { Flora Suecica page 229} observes that the Dalecarnian's { Dalecarlian's} Sweden, are accustomed to infuse the leaves and flowers of this plant in beer ,while in the state of fermentation, with a view to increase its intoxicating affects.It is also said to have been used in some parts of Africa for the same purpose. Batsch,employed it in tanning.

The country title of 'old man's pepper' alludes to its use as a condiment to the salad, though it hardly merits the distinction but for a slight pungency exerts in the young leaves. other country names from archaic times include names that are associated with the evil,such as Devil's nettle,Devil's play thing, Bad man's plaything and it was used for divination in spells.

Here we look at the species and its past and present medicinal {and other} uses . As always we commence with a description of the subject under review.

Components of Yarrow

Kohler's Medizinal  Courtesy of the BHL
Kohler's Medizinal Courtesy of the BHL

Description of Yarrow

The root of this species is perennial in nature,creeping,cylindrical,with a few slender ,white or pinkish subterranean shoots and several descending fibres. the stem is erect,simple and smooth below ,but towards the summit somewhat striated, woolly and branched,tinged with reddish purple at times and averaging about one foot in height.

The foliage is arranges alternately and vary in length from three to six inches they are about one inch broad, the radical leaves are the longest and have membranous,short rather sheathing stalks . The stem leaves are smaller and clasp the stem at the base. They are composed of many segments very finely cut giving the leaf a feathery appearance.

The flowers are like miniature daisies coloured white or pale lilac at times, formed in flattened, terminal, loose heads.{Cymes}.Each flower has a central disc and ray florets{which many call the petals} which are spreading, ligulate and white or purplish,and they generally number from seven to ten.

They flower from June to September.Yarrow is rich in honey and attract many insects.

Ode to the yarrow

" Green Yarrow,Nature's simplest child,

Thy leaves of emerald dye,

And silvery blossoms undefiled,

On rugged path, or barren wild,

The traveler passes by'With reckless glance and careless tread,

Nor marks the kindly carpet spread

Beneath its thankless feet;

So poor a meed of sympathy

Do generous herbs of low degree

From haughty mortals meet"

" But though a resting place hast found'

Which none disputes with thee;-

The silent churchyard's lowly bound,

where sweetly on the hallowed ground,

Thou growest wildly free;

Age mantling o'er each nameless mound'

Thy graceful foliage creeps around ,

And thy pale blossoms wave,

Wet with the dew's descending shower,

Beneath the Yew's funeral bower,

And mourner's in the autumn hour,

Behold and bless the gentle flower,

That decks the peasant's grave"

{ The poem was by Agnes Strickland who noticed that yarrow was very common in church grounds in days gone by.}

In some parts of England it was used for weaving bridal wreaths and has been celebrated in flower lore.

" Thou, pretty nest of Venus' tree,

Thy true name it is Yarrow.

Now who thy blossom found must be,

Pray tell thou me to-morrow"

Flower crab spider on yarrow flowers

Taken in Frankfurt ,Germany.
Taken in Frankfurt ,Germany. | Source

Past medicinal uses and historical notes

The foliage has a weak fragrant smell and an astringent taste. The flowers when rubbed between the fingers ,produce,a stronger, more aromatic odour, and a bitterish ,warm,somewhat pungent taste. The watery infusion of the flowering tops has a yellowish colour.The flowers ,yield by distillation, an essential oil,on which their odour depends. The oil has been likened to that produced by Chamomile.

Its virtues of being a styptic and a wound herb and its astringent properties was first recognized by the ancient Greeks. They were later revived by Stahl,Hoffman,Buchwald { specimen.Med.Pract.page147 }, and Chomel { Uselles.tom ii page 197} who recommended it in haemorrhages often from the stomach, lungs and uterus,and in dysentry. It has also been called diuretic and anti-rheumatic.

Hoffman states that a calculous affection was completely removed by it,and according to Gunner,it is much relied upon in Norway for the cure of rheumatism. Ettmuller, commended its use in seminal weakness and sexually transmitted diseases. Externally a strong decoction of the leaves had been employed to stop bleeding at the nose,as an application to piles, and as an injection in leucorrhoea. { a yellowish discharge from the vagina}.

The flowering tops, boiled in water,also formed a useful anodyne {pain relief} fomentation,with or without chamomile. The bruised herb or an ointment made of it, was commonly used by poor people and applied to fresh cuts,bruises etc. It was believed that the aqueous decoction or extract is tonic and advantageously employed to strengthen the stomach and promote appetite,especially in 'hypochondriacal' patients.

a tincture of Yarrow was made in the following manner ---

Take of yarrow flowers three ounces, alcohol,sixteen ounces. Let the mixture stand {digest} for three days then strain off with pressure, and pour The liquid upon the flowers of yarrow weighing another two ounces. After sufficient digestion strain again and filter. this was recommended in hysteria,nephritic pains and rheumatism at the dose of 50-60 drops.

The distilled water was considered by some to a useful vehicle for other medicines.

Millspaugh 'American Medicinal Plants {1887} stated that yarrow is an abundant weed in old dry pastures, along roadsides and in fields in the northern parts of America extending in this country high in the cold latitudes. Among the Pah-Ute Indians, according to Dr.Edward Palmer,this palnt was much used in a decoction for weak and disordered stomachs.

Millspaugh goes on to say that millefolium has been dismissed from the US.Ph. In the Ecletic practice it is used as an infusion, tincture or the essential oil. the whole plant should be gathered when flowering begins,exclude all old and woody stems, then chop and pound in to a pulp;then in a new piece of linen press out thoroughly all the juice and mix it by brisk succession with an equal part by weight of alcohol. Allow the mixture to stand for eight days in a dark cool place and filter. This tincture,thus prepared, should be transmitted by light of a clear reddish orange color. Its odor peculiar, that of malt yeast,pungent and agreeable,like the fresh plants;to the taste acrid and slightly bitter and shows an acid reaction to test papers"

Millspaugh, also explains how he obtained oil of Achillea -" the oil is readily obtained by aqueous distillation of the plant. that from the flowers and green parts of the herb has a beautiful dark blue color and a specific gravity of 0.92. That from the achenia is greenish white,while the root from either colorless or slightly yellow. The oil from the green parts,if cold, is of a bitter like consistence, strongly odorous, and with a taste similar to that of the herb itself.

Hence we have a sample of its importance and usage in herbal medicine. However the above information is for an historical interest and not meant as a guide to self medication.

Yarrow flowers

Originally appeared on Flickr  uploaded by russavia
Originally appeared on Flickr uploaded by russavia | Source

Modern day uses

Being astringent {binding} yarrow is an excellent anti-diarrhoea infusion. It may be produced by infusing one teaspoonful of flowers for each glass of water.The recommended dose is two cups per day. Just chewing the washed foliage can also come to an immediate rescue.The same infusion is recommended by some herbalists to lower blood pressure in the same dose. { anyone taking medicine for blood pressure must seek the advise of a doctor or professional herbalist before using additional herbal preparations.}

It is also thought good in the treatment of varicose veins.The plant helps blood circulation, strengthens the veins and reduces the swelling,due to its anti-inflammatory properties of Azulene and Salicyclic acid. By steaming a handful of flowers in hot water and breathing in the vapour the plant helps the symptoms of colds and flu.

It has also been uitlized against memory loss because of its rich choline properties.Externally the plant is used to treat skin afflictions the astringent properties are used with some effect to treat pimples eczema and other skin conditions. A decoction of a handful of flowers per litre {2 pints}of water is the preferred method. Soak a piece of cloth with the decoction liquid to the affected parts. this solution is said by some good to apply to an animal wound as a disinfectant lotion or to wounds inflicted on people from animal bites.

It has also been employed to help the swelling and discolouration of black eyes. Again a decoction being made from a handful of flowers to a litre {two pints} of water. Soak a cloth in the liquid and apply to the affected eye. It is worthy of attention that some people may have an allergic reaction to the skin when in contact with the fresh plant.

The flowering tops should be collected and dried in the shade and then stored in a sealed [Air tight] container once they have been cleaned and dried.

Yarrow for the treatment of cuts and wounds is applied in the form of an ointment available at drug stores and health shops. The dried flowers in tea-bag form. Capsules, tablets and powders containing yarrow for various ailments can also be purchased. Yarrow has little or no side effects if taken in the correct dose. however, please read the next paragraph carefully.

If you are taking conventional medicine for a particular ailment,contact your doctor or a professional herbalist for advise before taking any additional herbal preparation. If you are taking this or any other herb for the first time try just a little first to test your body tolerance. Should you have an allergic skin reaction stop taking the drug at once and the symptoms will quickly disappear. Large and long periods of use of yarrow can lead to a potentially harmful build up of a toxin called thujone.

Cultivatated yarrow may have lovely pink purple coloured flowers.


Yarrow and the garden

It is often sold as a garden perennial, however, it is usually an addition to the herb border.They are reliable plants that require little maintenance other than keeping them under control because of their creeping root stock. Should you want to move yarrow to another part of the garden division of the roots is the way. yarrow can be sown from seed.

The best method is to sow them in a pot or tray and lightly cover them.Germination generally occurs in two to three weeks but the process can be speeded up by covering the pot/tray with a clear plastic bag until germination occurs,as soon as this happens remove the bag.

They are versatile plants as regards to the type of soil ,their only requirements are,they are to be in a sunny aspect and the soil has good drainage. No plant food or fertilizer is required and they only need watering in times of severe drought They will not tolerate bone dry soils.

The only disease or pests that affect the plant is powdery mildew or Botrytis mould, both of which are relatively easy to treat with a fungicide. The large topped clusters are perfect for drying and cutting.They have the added bonus of attracting butterflies and other insects Yarrow also resists adverse conditions {with the exception of wet ground} and also makes a good compost activator. Many varieties are available to the modern gardener and this ancient plant deserves,in my opinion, a place in the garden for its beauty alone. The foliage of yarrow can be added when cooking meat dishes as one would use a bay leaf.


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    • D.A.L. profile imageAUTHOR


      4 years ago from Lancashire north west England


      Hi Deb, thank you. yarrow is so common and so useful both as a medicinal herb and for culinary purposes. Best wishes to you.

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 

      4 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      Yarrow is a very useful plant. Some treat it as a weed, but it is far from useless. Nice work.

    • D.A.L. profile imageAUTHOR


      4 years ago from Lancashire north west England


      Thank you for your kind comments. Do you mean the plant or plant products? Best wishes to you.


      Hi Devika I am sure you will have seen this plant. Thank you too. for your kind comment and vote up. Much appreciated.

    • DDE profile image

      Devika Primić 

      4 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      The Yarrow looks familiar and I must have seen it but did not take much notice. The flower is beautiful. Quite interesting about the Yarrow so helpful and always problem solver. Voted up.

    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 

      4 years ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      Very helpful and well done. What way should I get the herb in a market?


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