Yarrow in the Garden
by Corinna Wood
first published in the Mountain Xpress, August 2012
Yarrow may not be in your herbal medicine chest yet, but it is one plant you don’t want to do without! It has legendary medicinal qualities — both for humans and the earth — and is quite lovely to boot. So if you’re curious about this extraordinary herb, perhaps a better introduction is in order …
Most of us, including the grateful honeybees, encounter Yarrow in early spring, as it is one of the early plants to flower and lasts well through the summer. Yet, you may have encountered Yarrow much earlier—in your childhood mythological studies. Botanically known as Achillea millefolium, it is named after the Greek God Achilles. One version of the legend is that to protect him from losing blood on the battlefield, his mother dipped him in a vat of this yarrow infusion, all except his infamously vulnerable heels, which were held in order for him to be dipped. The seemingly magical qualities purported by this legend may not be so far-fetched.
Yarrow, also known as nosebleed plant, soldier’s woundwort, and staunchweed, has a long history as a styptic, a substance used to stop bleeding. In fact, when I gashed my foot so badly that I had to step into the bathtub to contain the bleeding, it was yarrow – and my 9 year old son – that came to the rescue. He ran out to our yarrow patch to grab some leaves, which we chewed and placed on my foot as a “spit poultice.” Within 10 minutes the wound had stopped bleeding, and I continued to use the poultices over the next few days to speed healing.
Chewing on yarrow makes your mouth feel dry and puckery, revealing its strong astringent properties — the herbal term for drying or drawing. In addition to regulating bleeding, externally and internally, yarrow also helps prevent infection, has pain relieving properties, and has a mild stimulating effect.
Out West, Yarrow seems to grow wild everywhere, which is helpful, as it is known for improving and stabilizing the soil. Where I live, in the mountains of North Carolina, we mostly see it in gardens, although it does pop up here and there in lawns and roadsides. It is quite lovely, with delicate, feathery leaves and a tall, slender stalk producing a flat-topped cluster of white flowers — the cultivars also include pink and yellow blooms. (With deeply divided leaves and the cluster of white flowers, be certain not to confuse it with the much taller poison hemlock, which is in the Umbelliferae family as opposed to the Daisy family.)
If you don’t have it wild, you can find it at most garden centers, though it is very easy to grow from root division. I like it best as an edging or accent plant in the garden, and love to see the abundance of butterflies and other pollinators it attracts.
Yarrow is also great for the earth — as it is one of the six traditional biodynamic fertilizers in Rodolph Steiner’s system of organic gardening. Planted side-by-side with other plants, it helps replenish minerals like potassium and sulphur as well as attracting beneficial insects. The flowering tops can also be worked with to make a simple fertilizer “tea.” Simply fill a 5-gallon bucket with plant material, add water from hose, and let sit for two weeks!
Yarrow is a plant that is easy to grow, has a beautiful flower, is loved by the honey bee, improves soil quality, offers great medicine and is the story of great legends…what is not to like? I’m glad you two could meet.
Corinna Wood is founder and director of Southeast Wise Women. Her early initiation into the herbal world included an extensive apprenticeship with Susun Weed. For the last 25 years, Corinna has been practicing and sharing the Wise Woman Tradition, based in honoring of women and the Earth. Through two decades of teaching, as well as founding Red Moon Herbs in her home community, Earthaven Ecovillage, Corinna has opened countless hearts to the wisdom of the plants and their own bodies.