Notes from the Apothecary: Yarrow
One of my favourite wild plants, yarrow is found right across North America, Europe and even as far east as China. The feathery leaves give way to clusters of beautiful, tiny flowers that are loved by bees and other pollinators. Most commonly they are cream or white, but there are many coloured varieties too, including some incredible bright red species that are currently adorning my local park.
The plant’s formal name is achillea millefolium. The first part refers to the association with Achilles, who was taught by the centaur Chiron to use the herb to staunch the bleeding of his soldiers. The second part refers to the thousands of tiny leaves which make up each soft, green arm of the plant.
The Kitchen Garden
Eat The Weeds tells us that the leaves can be enjoyed in salads, cooked as a vegetable and added to soups and stews. A tea made from leaves or flowers of yarrow is refreshing and has a unique, pleasant fragrance, as well as having some medicinal benefits which we will look at later. Apparently, the plant can also be used in beer brewing, which is something I would love to experiment with! Here is a recipe for a beer which includes yarrow, however be cautious with any recipes you find online. For example, with this particular one, I would leave out the wormwood, as wormwood can cause convulsions and kidney failure. Be cautious with the ground ivy mentioned too, as it contains an oil which is an abortifacient. It’s important to know about your herbs (and who you might be giving them to!) before you start cooking and brewing with them.
The first century botanist, Pedanius Dioscorides, described yarrow in his Materia Medica as being “excellent for an excessive discharge of blood, old and new ulcers, and for fistulas [ulcers].” This connection with staunching blood is repeated in many tomes, and throughout mythology and folklore. Culpeper concurs that it is ‘an healing herb for wounds’ but also states it can cause a nosebleed if taken like snuff… as most things can!
There is much more detailed information in the reliable Mrs. Grieve’s Modern Herbal, which tells us first and foremost some of the astonishing common names for achillea: Old Man’s Pepper, Nose Bleed, Bad Man’s Plaything, Sanguinary and Devil’s Nettle, to name but a few. Mrs Grieve tells us that the whole plant may be used, but other sources say only the parts above ground.
Grieve covers other attributes including the herb being a diaphoretic, astringent, tonic, stimulant and mild aromatic. She notes that the tea of the plant is good for colds and fevers, and a decoction of the whole plant may be helpful with bleeding piles. The plant is even indicated for reducing baldness!
The plant is also widely used in Native American medicine. The Zuni chew the flowers and roots, and apply the juice prior to fire-walking, presumably to reduce or prevent burns. The Navajo people use yarrow for toothache and earache, while the Cherokee use it to aid sleep.
A 2014 study indicated that achillea may be effective at delaying the onset and severity of auto-immune diseases. However, this was only indicated in mice, and no human testing has been completed as far as I am aware.
The Witch’s Kitchen
The Chinese form of divination, I Ching, is often thought of as a toss of three coins, but traditionally the hexagrams were (and still are) formed by tossing yarrow stalks. The practitioner would ideally pick their own yarrow, close to their home or a place special to them, as this makes the ch’i of the plant more in tune with the practitioner. Even if you don’t feel that Eastern philosophies particularly align with your path, it’s useful to note the association with divination and prophecy.
The association with divination is noted in older herbals, such as the aforementioned Mrs Grieve’s, and she also notes an association with ‘The Devil’ which, with more enlightened minds, we can translate as an association with the supernatural and the magical.
These two spells appear in her book:
“…there is a curious mode of divination with its serrated leaf, with which the inside of the nose is tickled while the following lines are spoken. If the operation causes the nose to bleed, it is a certain omen of success:
‘Yarroway, Yarroway, bear a white blow,
If my love love me, my nose will bleed now.’
An ounce of Yarrow sewed up in flannel and placed under the pillow before going to bed, having repeated the following words, brought a vision of the future husband or wife:
‘Thou pretty herb of Venus’ tree,
Thy true name it is Yarrow;
Now who my bosom friend must be,
Pray tell thou me to-morrow.’
—(Halliwell’s Popular Rhymes)”
A piece of Scottish folklore holds that pressing the leaves to your eyes would give you second sight, yet another indication of the plant’s prophetic powers.
In some parts of Ireland, yarrow is thought to be protective against the fair folk, however in other parts the plant is said to be loved by them. I guess it’s worth remembering that all the fae are different with their own likes and dislikes! I always loved Terry Pratchett’s image of the elves riding yarrow stalks like broomsticks. Like the elf, the plant is delicate looking and beautiful, yet actually very strong and full of mysterious power.
Home and Hearth
Strew yarrow stalks or flowers around the threshold of your home or sacred place for protection. Sweep the surfaces of your altar with yarrow leaves to ritually cleanse and imbue your space with magic. Place yarrow at the eastern corner of your altar or sacred space to represent the element of air, through its aroma and pale colour. Fragrant plants such as yarrow can even replace incense if you like.
Place a sprig of yarrow blossom under your pillow before sleep, and write down any dreams you have. You may be surprised how many of them are related to events which occur over the coming days!
I Never Knew…
The Anglo-Saxons made amulets out of yarrow to protect against, amongst other things, robbers and dogs.
All images via Wikimedia Commons.
About the Author:
Mabh Savage is a Pagan author and musician, as well as a freelance journalist. She is the author of A Modern Celt: Seeking the Ancestors and Pagan Portals: Celtic Witchcraft. Follow Mabh on Twitter, Facebook and her blog.