Monday, February 4, 2013

Herbal Medicine: Yarrow

Yarrow, Achillea millefolium by Walter Siegmund

Today I am going to introduce you to a likely familiar face and it is my hope that you will learn something new about its virtues.  I have seen Yarrow growing almost every place I have traveled, from the chilly, windy peak of Mt. Hood to the boggy beaches of New England and beyond.

Yarrow, Achillea millefolium, is a common plant found the world over and everywhere it grows it has been used medicinally.  The wild white variety is the official medicine.  Gardeners are familiar with intense yellow and red flowering yarrow, but they are not used in herbal medicine and better suited for dried flower arrangements.  Sometimes the white variety is tinged with a pink hue.

Armies of old knew this plant well.  The leaves and flowers of this plant may be chewed and used as a poultice for wounds.  Yarrow is a hemostat, anesthetic and antiseptic.  Thus is stops the bleeding by stimulating the blood flow to the surrounding capillaries, numbs the pain and keeps the wound clean.  Yarrow has come in handy for more kitchen whoopsie-daisies than I care to remember and is invaluable in the wilderness.

Yarrow, Achillea millefolium by O. Pichard

If there ever was an herb to have in a first aid cabinet, this is it.  You can keep powdered Yarrow on hand for wounds, or I like to infuse honey (which is bacteriostatic and powerful in wound healing in and of itself) with Yarrow leaf and flower and I refer to this as my "herbal 'neosporin.'"  I coined that term, you heard it here first.  (Don't worry Neosporin®, I'm not selling it or marketing it under that name.)  It heals wounds so nicely.  The anesthetic effect takes a bit longer to take effect than poulticing with fresh Yarrow, but it gets the job done.

Like many external hemostats, Yarrow "normalizes" blood internally.  That is, it will check internal bleeding or dissolve blood clots/stagnation internally, depending on what action is needed.  It is really fabulous in menstrual complaints.

Not to be outdone by its already marvelous powers, Yarrow is a stimulating diaphoretic.  It is warming and opens up the periphery of the circulation and the pores, allowing an illness to sweat out or a fever to break, as needed.

The stimulating properties of Yarrow have been capitalized in other ways.  Peoples in various parts of the world are known to use powdered Yarrow as a stimulating snuff (it's good for nose bleeds, too, that way I hear), and before the days of sedating Hops in beer, Yarrow was used in many brews for its bolstering effect and preservative virtues.  

The dried stems of Yarrow are traditionally used when casting the I Ching.  There are also old folk incantations that were coupled with Yarrow to bring visions of future mates or to determine if love was requited. 

Achillea millefolium is a plant everyone should know.  Because no matter where you go, cuts and scrapes happen.  And when you know this plant ID positively--you will wonder how you ever went through life without it.  Take the away the sharp pain from a cut?  Remove the throbbing dull ache of a burn?  All while keeping the wound clean??  Why wouldn't you, if you could?

Just a note to the wise...

Be sure you know how to differentiate Yarrow from Poison Hemlock, Conium maculatum--it's deadly.  It's the plant that killed Socrates.  They really look nothing alike.  Yarrow grows maybe a foot tall with a rigid stem and leaves made up of innumerable little hair-like leaflets (this is where millefolium comes from in its Latin name).  Hemlock grows much, much taller (5 ft.+), has a mottled stem with reddish flecks on it and a large umbels of flowers, with leaves almost shaped like a dainty flat leaf parsley.  But to the careless armchair botanist who gives little thought to employing observation and intuition...or a child--it could be a deadly error.

Poison Hemlock,
Conium maculatum
Deadly.
Image sourced through Wikipedia and originally from [http://plants.usda.gov/java/profile?symbol=COMA2] : William & Wilma Follette @ USDA-NRCS PLANTS Dat

This information is not intended to be a replacement for advice from a licensed medical professional.  It is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.


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