A City Herbal
Lore, Legend, & Uses of Common Weeds

by Maida Silverman
Paperback - 192 pages (1977)
Published by Ash Tree Publishing
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YARROW
* (Achillea millefolium)

~ Excerpt pp.162-168 - A City Herbal by Maida Silverman

Folknames: Yarroway, Milfoil, Thousandweed, Thousandleaf, Soldier's Woundwort, Knight's Milfoil, Carpenter's Weed, Bloodwort, Staunchweed, Sanguinary, Nosebleed, Devil's Nettle, Devil's Plaything.

Location: Roadsides, grassy strips, waste places, vacant lots.

Botanical Description: Yarrow is a plant whose habits are rather variable. One or several stiff stems may grow from the root. They are usually between one and two feet tall but are occasionally shorter, and may be smooth-or rough-textured. The leaves are larger at the base and progressively smaller toward the top of the stalks and are arranged alternately. They clasp the stems at their bases and are delicate and finely divided, resembling feathers more than leaves

Yarrow blooms from June to September in the eastern part of the United States. Flowers are in flat-topped clusters at the ends of the stems. The individual "flowers" are very small, with fine white "petals" and a yellowish center. This "flower" is actually two separate, distinct male and female flowers. The female flowers are in the yellow center surrounded by five white "petals," each one of which is a male flower.

The entire plant has a strong, pungent odor and a bitter taste. If Yarrow is eaten by cows (as occasionally happens) it gives a very unpleasant taste to milk products and makes them inedible.

Yarrow is a perennial, reproducing by seeds and from underground runners. It is native and widespread in the United States and grows throughout Europe and Asia as well.

There is a variety of Yarrow that has beautiful purple flowers. It is grown in gardens and is called Ornamental Yarrow. This color is sometimes (but rarely) found in wild plants as well.

Illustration by Maida Silverman
Note: colorized for this website

Historical Lore, Legends, and Uses: Legend has it that Achilles was taught the medicinal virtues of Yarrow by the centaur Charon, who was skilled in herb lore. Achilles used the herb to heal his solders' bleeding wounds, and the herb was named in his honor, though some might feel it should have been named after Charon. In any event, Yarrow has an ancient and honorable reputation as a wound herb, particularly efficacious for stopping the flow of blood. This belief was alluded to in the folknames, most of which refer to this property. The specific name, millefolium, refers to the minutely divided leaves and is reflected in names such as Milfoil and Thousandleaf, a literal translation of the Latin world millefolium.

Yarrow was said to be "excellent to stop inward bleeding." Yarrow was dried, powdered, and mixed with Plantain or comfrey water (both were famous wound herbs) or used by itself fresh, as a poultice for wounds that would not stop bleeding. These preparations were said to immediately stop the flow of blood. Dried and powdered Yarrow leaves, if dropped into the nostrils, stopped nosebleed. A decoction of Yarrow in white wine was drunk as a remedy for too copious menstruation. For the same purpose, large amounts of the fresh plants were boiled in water, and the patient sat over the beneficial steam to absorb it.

Oddly enough, this stauncher of blood could actually cause nosebleed if a fresh leaf was inserted in the nostril and twisted. This was sometimes purposely done, it being believed at one time that nosebleeds cured headaches.

Yarrow was a favorite wound herb of the Anglo-Saxons. They also employed it to heal burns and the bites of poisonous snakes and insects. The fresh leaves were chewed to relieve toothache.

Dr. William Coles, a seventeenth-century physician, prescribed the flowers and juice of the plant taken in goat's milk or the distilled water of the whole plant as being "good for loose bowels, even more so if a little powdered coral, amber or ivory is added." (This last recommendation was medically worthless but highly popular in Cole's time, particularly among the rich-the only ones who could afford it. Everyone else had to be content with the unadorned herbs. Actually, they were probably better off. Powdered gems certainly did no good, and in some instances may have done some harm.)

Coles mentions that ointments containing Yarrow were used to heal ulcers, wounds, and running sores "by signature-the many incisions upon the leaves resembling those wounds, or if your fancy will have it, more like unto hair: it stops the shedding if the head is bathed with a decoction thereof." He describes another more unusual use for Yarrow: the juice was injected by syringe to cure a distressing ailment known as the "the excoriation of the yard {penis} caused by pollution or extreme flowing of seed, and any inflammation or swelling caused thereby, as has been proved by some single or unmarried persons, who have been very much oppressed on this account."

In nineteenth-century Britain, one physician observed that Yarrow "though generally neglected" was a fine medicine for excessive menstrual bleeding, bloody fluxes generally, and bleeding piles. It was an excellent diuretic and healed ulcers of the kidneys and urethra. The best part was the young shoots. The doctor remarked that foreign physicians still esteemed Yarrow for treating hemorrhage.

In America, Yarrow was well known as a medicinal plant to native American peoples. The Delaware and related Algonquin tribes prepared a tea from Yarrow which they used fore treating liver and kidney disorders. The Lenape pounded Yarrow roots with a stone and boiled them with water to make a remedy for excessive menstrual flow. Yarrow was extensively employed by a number of other tribes. The Ute name for it meant "wound medicine," and it was used by them as such, and the Piute drank Yarrow tea to cure a variety of stomach disorders.

The Pennsylvania Dutch knew Yarrow as Schoof Ribba. They prepared a "sweating tonic" from the whole plant to reduce fever, and a tea made with the leaves was supposed to have a beneficial effect on the liver and gall bladder. Horses were fed Yarrow to cure them of intestinal worms.

The nineteenth-century physician-botanist Dr. C. S. Rafinewque recommended an infusion or extract of the whole herb for menstrual problems and dysentery. Rafinesque believed that American Yarrow was stronger in its action than the European variety, and he mentioned that the American plants were exported for medicinal use abroad.

Yarrow tea was a popular remedy for influenza. It was thought to induce copious sweating, thus reducing the dangerously high fever of this disease. Yarrow tea was considered a good general remedy for severe chest colds as well. The dose was one ounce of the dried herb to one pint of boiling water. It was strained and drunk warm and sweetened with honey or sugar. Sometimes a dash of cayenne pepper was added.

Yarrow is still official in Central Europe as a tonic and stimulant.

The British Herbal Pharmacopoeia (1971 edition) lists Yarrow as an "antipyretic, diaphoretic…astringent and diuretic." Modern herbal doctors employ it to treat fevers, amenorrhea, and diarrhea.

Perhaps because of its pungent (and to many unpleasant) odor, Yarrow was said to be one of the devil's herbs and was probably called Devil's Plaything and Devil's Nettle for this reason. In any event, it has been long associated with magic and witchcraft. As is so often the case, however, the plant could actually be employed to give protection against the very same spells that it was an ingredient of.

Yarrow was strewn across the threshold of a house to keep out evil influences and was worn to guard against evil spells. Country people tied sprigs of it to a baby's cradle to protect the infant from witches who might try to steal away its soul, which they believed to be a real possibility in cases where there had been a delay in baptizing the infant.

To ease childbirth, Yarrow that had been gathered on St. John's or Midsummer Eve (June 21, the summer solstice, a day of great and powerful magical significance since very ancient antiquity) was given to a woman in labor. She held it pressed to her right side, but it had to be taken away as soon as the child was born.

A strange Anglo-Saxon charm "for a fiend-sick man or demonic, when a devil possesses the man or controls him from within with disease" is recorded in one of the tenth-century leechbooks. The charm proceeds to describe the thirteen herbs needed, one of which was Yarrow, to be made into a "spew drink" (to cause vomiting-that is, the "vomiting out" of the evil) to be drunk from a church bell. Seven Masses were then sung over it, and garlic (an ancient protector against evil spirits) and holy water were added.

Not only was this mixture to be drunk from a church bell-and one wonders exactly how this was accomplished-but the brew was to be added to everything the sick man ate or drank. Psalms 119, 67, and 69 were sung over it, it was drunk out the church bell, and the Mass priest afterward said a benediction over the sick man. This was a complicated ritual, and from it one may infer that demonic possession was believed a reality and received serious attention. One wonders how frequently this procedure, with its peculiar combination of pagan and Christian elements, was resorted to.

Yarrow was a plant of Venus (this was odd, because most devil's herbs were plants of Saturn) and, as such, was frequently consulted where love matters were concerned. One famous love charm required that a handful of Yarrow be sewn into a flannel square and put under the pillow, and the following rhyme said aloud:

Thou pretty herb of Venus' tree,
Thy true name is Yarrow.
Now who my bosom fried must be,
Pray tell though me tomorrow.

One's future husband or wife would appear that night in a dream.

Another love divination was based on Yarrow's well-known ability to cause nosebleed. A Yarrow leaf was inserted in the nostril and gently rotated while the following was recited.

Yarroway, Yarroway, bear a white blow [flower].
If my love loves me, my nose will bleed now.
If my love do not love me, it won't bleed a drop,
If my love loves me, 'twill bleed every drop.

Another charm recited to ensure the appearance of a future husband or lover in a dream was common in the south of England. A girl picked a sprig of Yarrow from the grave of a man who had died young, reciting:

Yarrow, sweet Yarrow, the first I have found,
In the name of Jesus Christ, I pluck it from the ground.
As Jesus loved sweet Mary and took her for his dear,
So in a dream this night,
I hope my true love will appear.

She then took the plant home and put it under her pillow. This charm is an odd one, to say the least. It might even be considered blasphemous. After all, Jesus did not take anyone "for his dear," much less someone named "sweet Mary"! The Virgin and numerous saints were frequently begged to intercede for or otherwise come to the aid of lovers, but as far as I know, few love charms invoke the name of Jesus. I do not know the history of this particular invocation, or how ancient it is, but a possible explanation is that the charm is indeed a very old one, and the names of Jesus and Mary were substituted (as was the case with many other charms) at a later date, to replace the names of pagan gods and goddesses.

Yarrow was frequently included in wedding bouquets and garlands, where its presence was said to guarantee true love between the married pair for seven years!

There were other beliefs associated with Yarrow. The juice, if rubbed into the hair, made it curly. To dream of it after gathering the plant for medicine meant the dreamer would hear good news. In the Orkney Islands of Scotland, Yarrow tea was a cure for melancholy, while in the Hebrides, a leaf of Yarrow held against the eyes gave "second sight."

Yarrow was considered a beneficial medicinal herb among the Chinese. It was said to be useful in improving respiration, skin, and muscle tone and if taken for a long while was believed to increase intelligence. It is called shih in Chinese and is said to grow in exceptionally plentiful amounts at the grave of Confucius. According to a Chinese legend, one hundred Yarrow stalks grew from a single root. When the plant was a thousand years old, three hundred stalks would grow from the root. Such was the power of this plant that wolves, tigers, and poisonous plants would never be found near it.

Yarrow has special significance to the consulters of the I Ching. Stalks from a closely related species (Achillea sibirica) are the source of the famous "stalks of divination" to be used in consulting this oracle. These stalks were sold in parcels of sixty-four, and their length was very important. For the Son of Heaven (the emperor) the stalk were nine feet long; for feudal princes, seven feet; for high dignitaries and government officials, five feet long; and for graduates (probably of the mandarinate), three feet.

Suggested Uses: Modern herbal doctors employ preparations of Yarrow to treat pneumonia, nephritis, and Bright's disease.

Yarrow is a good companion plant in the vegetable garden. Its root secretions are said to be strengthening to other plants and actually make them more disease resistant. Yarrow is also said to keep ants and harmful insects away.


YARROW SKIN WASH

Yarrow makes an excellent skin wash, its astringency making it particularly beneficial to oily complexions. Pour 2 cups of boiling water over about 1 cup of crumbled dried flowering Yarrow tops, cool, and strain. Pat on the skin. This wash soothes chapping and minor irritations as well.

To dry Yarrow flowers: Gather freshly opened flowering stalks, breaking them off at the base. Tie in bunches of three or four and hang upside down to dry, in an airy place, away from direct sunlight. When they are thoroughly dry, remove the flower clusters carefully and discard the rest of the plant. Store the flower clusters in jars with tight-fitting tops, away from the sun.

* Excerpt from A City Herbal by Maida Silverman



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