When out in the car or on foot cast your eyes downwards towards the verges, small areas of wild grass at the side of the roads or on the curb sides. Perhaps even growing from the cracks and crevices at the foot of walls you might see the brilliant white, round, frilly flat heads of Yarrow (Achillea millefolium). At this time of year, Yarrow really comes into its own, and for some reason I’ve noticed a lot more of it this year in my area …screaming for me to take notice.
Growth and Cultivation
Sadly Yarrow doesn’t grow too well in my garden, I do have a few Yarrow plants but they seldom flower and only produce an abundance of it frilly leaves in the dappled shade. Yarrow needs open space and lots of sun to flower profusely, it is very much a meadow type herb and grows very well in my part of Kent along the roadsides, verges, parkland and even in the cracks between bricks and paving. She is a robust herb who self-seeds and spreads readily and if you can provide the right environment for her she will reward you with an abundance of both flower and foliage later in the year when summer begins its decline into autumn, Yarrow is therefore a superb source of late summer nectar. If you decide to grow Yarrow, seeds germinate readily, but you can also lift and divide clumps in early autumn to increase your stock.
There are a whole host of cultivated varieties of Yarrow which have been bred for height and colour in herbaceous borders. The wild variety is white but there are both deep crimson red and golden yellow varieties available commercially for the ornamental garden. These tend to produce much taller flower spikes (sometimes 4 foot) whereas the wild type which doesn’t seem to grow much taller than 12” around here. As the second part of Yarrow’s name suggests (millefolium meaning ‘thousand leaves’) Yarrow produces highly divided, very frilly leaves which are unmistakable once you know them. Yarrow is a member of the Asteraceae family which is a massive family and includes herbs like Chamomile, Calendula and Echinacea. Many people are allergic to the aster family of plants which are a massive contributor to hay fever symptoms and even a touch can cause dermatitis so do bare that in mind when handling Yarrow, if you know you have an allergy or intolerance to the Asters, probably best to play it safe and admire Yarrow from afar.
One of Yarrow’s old names ‘Woundwort’ or ‘Soldier’s Woundwort’ is a testimony to one of Yarrow’s most popular uses as a blood stauncher. The reason Yarrow’s Latin name is ‘Achillea’ is because Achilles, the legendary Greek Hero is said to have used Yarrow on the battlefield. I use Yarrow essential oil a great deal and I consider it one of my ‘first aid’ essential oils especially for treating cuts to the skin where bleeding is profuse…these aren’t always deep cuts, sometimes a simple paper cut can cause prolific bleeding. A mixture of Yarrow oil (to staunch bleeding), Tea Tree (to disinfect) and Lavender (to soothe and prevent scaring / speed healing) applied to a small piece of gauze soaked in hot water, wrung out thoroughly and applied to the wound is great. You can save time by having this mix pre blended in the first aid box.
Interestingly it is said that Yarrow leaves when rolled up and placed inside the nostril will either stop a bleeding nose, but also induce one…I have to say I’ve never tried, but it was apparently used this way to relive headaches by inducing blood flow from the head and thus relieving the pressure.
Yarrow is great at reducing fever. I also include Yarrow as part of a general cold and flu tea as it can be mixed with other cold and flu fighting herbs like Mullein, thyme (for Sore Throats), Elderberries and Horehound (for coughs), Hyssop to regulate mucus and catarrh as well as good old soothing honey. The more you learn about herbs, the more you appreciate that it’s often a combination of herbs working together that can be most effective, the art is in learning which herbs to combine to treat a range of symptoms…no two individuals are the same, and certainly not all illnesses are the same, sometimes not all flu like symptoms are the result of flu, sometimes its stress or the immune system generally which needs to be treated not just the surface symptoms. Nevertheless it’s great fun experimenting, and really rewarding…just be safe and always be cautious…if in doubt, leave it out and always consult with a professional.
A few herbs have very specific rituals and prayers associated with their gathering, we can learn a lot about a herb sometimes just from how much effort our ancestors put in just to gather it, Vervain, Valerian, Mandrake and Mistletoe are examples of Herbs which have very specific rituals of gathering. Yarrow is another, and there is a traditional charm used specifically for gathering Yarrow which also tells us that it is the first Yarrow plant of the year which is the most potent magically:
“Yarrow, Sweet Yarrow
The first that I have found
In the name of Jesus / Old Hornie
I pluck thee from the ground
By Fire and Earth, Wind and Sea
Grant the wish I ask of thee”
Whether you say Jesus, Old Hornie or whatever is entirely up to you, and whether you consider the first Yarrow plant to be the first you encounter or just the first you might be harvesting is pretty open to interpretation.
Yarrow is a feminine herb, traditionally associated with the planet Venus and all matters of the heart so Yarrow is well suited to all magical acts where love is the order of the day, whether it be finding love, strengthening love, blessing a relationship etc…Yarrow is your Gal! Take special notice of how in some instances the heads of white, wild Yarrow seem to ‘blush’ pink…just like a bashful young maid!
Yarrow’s primary use magically was in divination, especially divination to dream of your future love. Because of this the good Christian’s of yore gave Yarrow some dire folk names like ‘Devil’s plaything’ (which I kinda like).
It is said that if Yarrow flowers are picked whilst reciting the following verse, placed in a small flannel pouch under your pillow before bed you would dream of your future love:
‘Thou pretty herb of Venus’ tree,
Thy true name is Yarrow;
Now who my bosom friend must be,
Pray tell thou me tomorrow.
Fifty Yarrow stalks are traditionally used to create the hexagrams of the I ching, an ancient and complex divinatory system used predominantly in Chinese fortune telling, not massively dissimilar to geomancy. This is not a divination system I have tried but it does illustrate the reach and spread of Yarrow as a universally important herb.
Having spent a bit of time with Yarrow recently, I have come to consider Yarrow a gentle and comforting ally. Its leaves, being so soft, frilly and tactile and its renowned ability to gently heal bleeding wounds suggests to me that, magically, it would also be of benefit to heal emotionally and psychologically as well. At times of sudden shock or distress consider incorporating yarrow into an herb sachet which can be worn to help deal with the aftermath. I used it not so long ago in charm when they announced redundancies at work, just a small bunch of yarrow flowers picked in the correct fashion and left in a small vase somewhere in the office to exude her gentle healing properties, fortunately Yarrow dries very well so this small bunch could stay still looking as nice as the day she was picked until her job was done.
So that’s it…the last herb in the series. The study of herbs, their growth and application is a lifelong endeavour and having written this series of blogs I have realised that herbs can be tricky little buggers, just when you think you know a herb they reveal something new…they never stop teaching, their wisdom and potential is virtually infinite. My aim when writing these was primarily to inspire people to look outside their windows and appreciate the apothecary on their doorstep, you don’t need jars upon jars of herbs to learn about and work with plants, you need only step outside, learn to identify, study herbs as they change throughout the year and grow them if you are able. If you do this, and even if you do only this, you will already be well on your way to understanding how herbs can augment and enrich your life and magical practise. Enjoy!