Yarrow's erect stalk, covered with appressed hairs, rises 1/2 to 4 feet (45 to 120 cm.) tall. The narrowly oblong leaves, with finely dissected segments (hence one of the common names, thousand leaf) along the stem, form a basal rosette spread along the ground. The white or grayish-white flowers, numerous and small, form on one or more branching heads in the form of a corymb or cyme. The root is slender and branched.
Found in Europe and the Americas, forty species belong in the yarrow genus.
Achillea millefolium contains a volatile oil with cineol, a tannin, achilleine, achilletin, ivain, aconitic acid, stachydrin, choline, and glycocoll betaine. (Merck) B-sitosterol and achillin, a lactone, were isolated from this species by Tewari Srivastava and Bajpai. Three new flavones were isolated from this species by Falk et al. in 1975, and there is a bitter caledivain.
Khafagy et al. have characterized santolin, the bitter principle of A. santolina growing in Egypt. The pharmacological properties of santolin are similar to digitalis.
In many systems of medicine, including Indian (Ayurvedic), European, Egyptian, and Amerindian, yarrow has been used as a tonic and stimulant to induce perspiration and reduce fever. It has also been considered a diuretic, astringent, emmenagogue, and vulnary. (Christopher) Its pungent aroma has a quality I describe as "medicinal," and my students agree for the most part, although agreement on odors is even more difficult than agreement on tastes.
In Alaska, Natives boil yarrow and put it, while hot, on swollen infections. (de Laguna) They make a hot pack out of the cooked or raw wet leaves, then put the pack on an ache, pain or sore. Priscilla Kari reports that the Tanainas dry the leaves and pound them into a powder, then put the powder on a sore, cut, burn or blister. (This use of the powder for burns or cuts was described to me by an herbalist who lives in Ambler, Anore Jones.) Tanainas also boil or soak the above-ground yarrow plant in hot water. Then they give this tea to a new mother; it cleans one out like chamomile. In Kenai, yarrow is a medicine for stuffed-up sinuses: boil the plant in water and inhale the steam.
Yarrow is the herb tea of my choice for the common cold, especially if the hot tea is sipped slowly while inhaling the vapors of the tea and a decongestant such as balm of Gilead. The victim should be comfortably wrapped in a blanket with the feet in a hot footbath of strong ginger root tea. (Viki, my friend and neighbor, makes a refreshing tea using mint from my garden with yarrow.) Other herbalists have emphasized the use of yarrow tea for colds.
For piles a yarrow fomentation gives relief, no doubt due to its astringent properties. A douche has been used for leucorrhea and other vaginal problems since yarrow is drying and binding. Even today the Aleuts pluck the leaves, roll them between their palms, and place them over open cuts as a coagulant. (Smith) Leaves are also crushed and stuffed into the nostrils for nosebleeds. However, I find myself sneezing a lot when I am crushing dried yarrow plants.
In regions adjacent to Alaska, Gunther has much to say about A. millefolium:
Its aromatic properties were recognized by the Swinomish in its use as a bath for invalids, and the Quileute boiled the leaves in the room where an infant was sick to make the air smell pleasantly. The Cowlitz soak the leaves for a hair wash.
For a stronger use Makah women eat the leaves raw to produce sweating at childbirth, boil them and drink the tea to purify the blood, and drink a stronger solution to heal the uterus after birth.
The Klallam use a similar tea during childbirth and for colds as well, mixing it for the latter with wild cherry bark. The Quinault boil the roots for tuberculosis and also use the tea as an eyewash. The Cowlitz and Squaxin believe the same tea is effective for stomach trouble. The Chehalis boil the leaves and drink the tea to stop the passage of blood with diarrhea. Before the coming of the whites they were subject to this illness from eating too much raw meat, according to one informant. The Skagit and Snohomish also use this diarrhea remedy.
The plant is used as a general tonic by the Quinault, by boiling the roots. The Lummi boil the flowers and drink the tea to relieve body aches, and one informant feels she did not get mumps from her children because of this use. This drink produces sweating, as does the Makah preparation used at childbirth.
Yarrow is also used as a poultice, the Klallam chewing the leaves and putting them on sores. The Squaxin smash the flower to use the same way. The Quileute lay the boiled leaves on rheumatic limbs and reduce fever with them ...
In other parts of the world, Highlanders of Scotland still make a yarrow ointment to apply to wounds, piles, and the skin of sheep. SimmoniteCulpeper inform us that yarrow, also called soldier's woundwort and carpenter's weed, is an herb of Venus, famous for its wound-healing properties. When Linnaeus gave the genus its name, he was obviously knowledgeable about its mythological connection (this plant was presumably used by Achilles to heal the wounds of his soldiers in battle). I have often quipped that it doesn't seem to work well to heal the heel.
A Barefoot Doctor's Manual of China includes A. sibirica, which acts as a carminative and stomach tonic, clears meridian passages, and reduces inflammation. Achillea santolina was used by the Bedouins of the Egyptian desert. They say they use it in a steam bath to relieve rheumatic pains. It is one of the aromatic plants I often use on the rocks in my sauna.
The effect of yarrow on body temperature was investigated in India by Falk et al., who administered achillin to rabbits and subsequently measured a fall in rectal temperature. The mechanism is unknown, but the alkaloid reduces clotting time in rabbits. (Spoerke)
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Copyright © 1987 by Eleanor G. Viereck