Versatile yarrow: medicine, food, and garden treasure

Achillea millefolium
Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)

Common Name: yarrow, milfoil

Family: Asteraceae (Aster, formerly Compositae)

Native to Florida

Perennial

Grow this plant for culinary and medicinal use! It has abundant skills from a vulnerary (stops bleeding) to a relaxing tea to added zing for salads. It’s easy to grow, native to Florida, and pretty as well.

The name ”yarrow” is reportedly of Scottish origin after a parish on a river of the same name in south central Scotland. Yarrow has ancient uses and was discovered in a stone-age burial site in Iraq dated to 100,000 years before the common era. The botanical name for yarrow supposedly derives from mythology: Achilles is said to have carried the herb with his armies to treat wounds.

Habitat: Loves to grow just about anywhere, but thrives in dappled sun; spreads easily mostly by rhizome but also by seed. Particularly likes to grow in colonies. Insects do not bother yarrow, likely because of its astringent quality. However, the above ground parts may succumb to rot during an exceptionally humid and rainy Florida summer. The attractive white flowers attract bees and butterflies. A. millefolum is the official medicinal plants and has white flowers; the multicolored varieties are ornamental. (A. ageratum and A. ptarmica also have medicinal uses.)

Parts used: Most commonly the leaves, flowers, and flowering tops are used. The roots were used by Native people for strengthening muscles. Additionally, Wood reported use of the root as a strong vulnerary (also see Moerman).

Harvest tips: Harvest flowers or entire flowering tops, when fresh in the late spring and early summer. Lower stems and older leaves are tough and dry. When a Florida winter is warm, yarrow may start blooming again at the first of the year.

Culinary preparations

Yarrow leaves can be added to salads for those who enjoy their peppery, bitter, astringent taste—young emergent leaves are the most tender). Leaves and flowers are used to flavor liqueurs. Young leaves can also be used to flavor meat, beans, or soups.

Forage chef Alan Bergo, however, cautions that yarrow loses its distinctive flavor if it is overcooked—and may even leave the herb’s bitter aftertaste in food. The best way to use it is as garnish near the end of the cooking process, as you would chives or parsley. He also favors yarrow as a garnish for paste, fruits, and even ice cream.

Beers, wines, and liquors have also been flavored with yarrow leaves and flowers.

Medicinal uses

External uses

Yarrow is Mother Nature’s premier instant wound dressing and was called soldiers woundwort This versatile herb stops bleeding, lessens pain, and prevents infections. It has strong vulnerary and styptic properties and can be used on small cuts and scrapes or packed into larger wounds. In addition to its astringent properties, yarrow also disperses congested blood, and can be used for bruising and blood blisters.

For minor cuts and scrapes, chew or otherwise macerate a bit of yarrow leaf and use it as a poultice. Cover it with adhesive tape or a bandage to keep it in place.

The essential oil, which is extracted through distillation, is dark blue and has an anti-inflammatory or in chest rubs for colds and influenza. An infused oil of yarrow can be used externally for bruises, chest congestion, varicose veins, and hemorrhoids. 

Internal uses

Herbalist Jim McDonald (www.herbcraft.org) suggests drinking the tea cold for its diuretic effects because drinking it hot favors the release of fluids through the skin rather than the kidneys.

Conversely, drink yarrow tea or infusion hot or warm for its diaphoretic properties to produce sweating and release fever. (However, if a fever is already very high, do not use diaphoretics.)

Herbalist Michael Moore suggested steeping the roots in whiskey and then chewing them for toothaches and gum problems. Gargling with yarrow soothes and tightens gums.

Actions and character

Astringent, vulnerary, decongesting, stimulating, relaxing, cooling, drying.

Some major constituents

Tannins, essential oil, alkaloids (including achilleine), resins, salicylic acid, inulin, phytoesterols, polysaccharides, flavonoids, saponins, fatty acids, minerals (including potassium, calcium, magnesium), and vitamin C.

Medicinal preparations

Tea, tincture, vinegar, oil, salve, and essential oil (steam distillation). Of course, the simplest preparation is the  unprocessed leaf as a wound covering or antiseptic for the mouth. Dried yarrow leaves, crumbled to a fine powder, can be kept handy for emergency uses if fresh plant is not readily available.

Cautions

Do NOT use during first trimester of pregnancy. Use under the care of a knowledgeable herbalist during last two trimesters of pregnancy. Some people are allergic to yarrow and other plants in the Asteraceae family.

Ryan Drum cautious that strong infusions of yarrow tea should consumed for more than two weeks therapeutically can result in liver toxicity. He notes this from personal experience and from one of his herbal teachers, Ella Birzneck.

To Learn More

Bergo, A. Cooking with Yarrow.  http://foragerchef.com/cooking-with-yarrow

Drum, R. Three Herbs. http://www.ryandrum.com/threeherbs.htm

Holmes, P. 1997. The Energetics of Western Herbs, volume II. Boulder CO: Snow Lotus Press.

Moerman, D. E. 1998. Native American Ethnobotany. Portland OR: Timber Press Inc.

Moore, M. 1993. Medicinal Plants of the Mountain West, 272-275.

Skwarek , T.1979. Effects of Herbal Preparations on the Propagation of Influenza Viruses. Acta Polon Pharm. XXXVI (5): 1–7.

Wood, M. 1997. The Book of Herbal Wisdom: Using Plants as Medicine, 64-83.

Wood, M. 2009. The Earthwise Herbal: A Complete Guide to New World Medicinal Plants, 51-57.

Image source: Wikipedia, Franz Eugen Köhler, Köhler's Medizinal-Pflanzen, 1887; public domain.

 

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