Growing up in Western Pennsylvania I was familiar with yarrow (Achillea millefolium), also a common plant here in Northeastern California, where I now reside. This Old World native has adapted well to a wide variety of habitat types and is now found throughout most of North America. A member of the aster family, yarrow is a perennial that can spread by rhizomes as well as seeds. It thrives best in dry to moist well-drained soils, often invading gardens, fields and pastures. Yarrow spreads vigorously, so depending on one’s focus it can be considered a wildflower or noxious weed. These plants were in our pasture (Lookout CA).
In different locations, yarrow can be only a few inches tall (flowering in mowed lawns) or can reach three or four feet in height. Usually it grows to a little more than a foot in height and has several stems. The leaves are finely divided and fernlike (the species name millefolium means “thousand leaves”). The lower leaves have petioles (stems) while the upper leaves do not. The inflorescence (think sunflower or daisy) consists of 10-30 cream colored disc flowers surrounded by about five white to pinkish ray flowers that are clustered in small white heads that have a flat-topped appearance. The stem is covered in thick wooly hairs. An aromatic plant, yarrow has a pleasant, distinctive odor, perhaps a bit reminiscent of mothballs, especially when crushed.
Fresh yarrow has a bitter taste and therefore is not considered particularly edible although dried leaves are often added to teas and impart a minty taste. Yarrow contains thujone (also in absinthe) which can be toxic if consumed in large quantities over a long period of time. Go easy on the tea!
Different cultures have used yarrow throughout history for a variety of medical maladies. Achilles supposedly used yarrow during the siege of Troy to treat his soldiers’ wounds. (For this reason the genus is named after Achilles – Achillea.) An extract of yarrow boiled in water applied to injuries stops bleeding and aids in the healing process. Alternatively the crushed leaves can be used to pack a serious wound. Yarrow contains large amounts of Vitamin K, the blood clotting Vitamin, so there is some basis to this ancient treatment.
Yarrow extract is an expectorant and analgesic and for that reason is used to treat colds, coughs, sore throats and bronchitis. Others people use the infusion during childbirth or to treat baldness.
A beer can be made using yarrow instead of hops. Yarrow beer is reportedly much more intoxicating than beer from hops.
Crushed yarrow leaves rubbed over the skin act as a temporary insect repellent. I have tried to thwart mosquitos with yarrow and had little success. Care must be taken though since yarrow can cause dermatitis in some people with sensitive skin.
Yarrow was used in magic spells and divinations and to conjure up the devil. I cannot speak to that folk-lore. Nor do I have experience with yarrow’s very different use as a love charm. Supposedly if one sewed an ounce of yarrow in a piece of flannel and slept with it under their pillow after reciting the proper incantation, a vision before waking the following morning would reveal one’s future husband or wife. For anyone interested I will leave you with the words to intone:
“Thou pretty herb of Venus’ tree,
Thy true name is yarrow,
Now who my bosom friend must be,
Pray thou tell me tomorrow.”