Yarrow is a common flowering plant with a delicate beauty that belies its historical reputation as a medicine for soldiers and its toughness as a perennial. Tiny white, pink, purple, or yellow flowers perch above feathery foliage of this member of the aster family. The leaves appear fernlike and delicate. One of the names of the herb, “milfoil,” comes from the French mille feuille, referring to the plant’s “thousand leaves.”
Though fragile in appearance, yarrow is a hardy plant. Native to Europe and Asia, it has naturalized in North America. It’s tolerant of colder climates and sometimes escapes even the most well-intended cultivation. It can often be found growing in meadows, grasslands, and roadsides.
Yarrow’s History & Achilles Magic
Yarrow’s taxonomic name, Achillea millefolium, is clearly in honor of Achilles. In mythology, Achilles had become an accomplished healer under the guidance of Chiron. Chiron taught Achilles to use yarrow to stop the bleeding of his fellow soldiers during the Trojan War. Yarrow developed a reputation as a warrior’s herb after this, often referred to as “knight’s milfoil,” “military herb,” “bloodwort,” “staunchweed,” “sanguinary,” and “soldier’s woundwort.”
Dioscorides recommended rubbing the crushed plants on wounds in the first century to staunch bleeding. Yarrow was used for this purpose throughout the Middle Ages. Given its association with fighting, yarrow developed something of a reputation as a handy herb for brawlers.
Well into the seventeenth century, the herbalists John Parkinson and Nicholas Culpeper advocated its use for many internal and external ailments, including swelling, ulcers, hemorrhoids, and “violent bleeding.” Meanwhile, yarrow was still being used as a wound poultice, and was carried by field surgeons at the time of the American Civil War. In the nineteenth century, yarrow was prescribed for menstrual issues, diarrhea, and dysentery. Beyond being applied externally to wounds, it was sometimes taken internally as a tea to treat internal ailments.
Yarrow also has associations with magic and fortune-telling. In China, yarrow stalks are traditionally used for divination with the “I Ching”. The stalks represent the optimal balance of yin and yang forces in the universe. The Druids reportedly used yarrow to predict the weather. In the Hebrides, holding yarrow against the eyes was said to give mystical vision. In Eastern Europe, the herb was used to predict true love. If one tickled a nose with yarrow, and the nose bled, then one had surely gained true love.
Yarrow suffered an association with witchcraft in Europe, where it was sometimes known as “the devil’s nettle” and included in charms. It was used in St. John’s Day celebrations, where it was burned to purify people and animals. As part of these workings, yarrow was added to amulets and arranged above doorways and stables to ward off bad fortune.
Modern Health Research
A few clinical trials have been undertaken to determine whether or not various species of yarrow possess health benefits. Yarrow might have some beneficial effects on hyperlipidemia and hypertension, though results sometimes took six months to manifest.
Yarrow, in combination with several other herbal extracts, showed some hepatoprotective properties in a small double-blind, placebo-controlled study of 36 patients with liver cirrhosis. Other research has demonstrated that a chloroform extract of yarrow could have anti-inflammatory effects in the context of wound care…a finding which seems to support some of the mythology surrounding the herb.
Is yarrow the cure-all that ancient records suggest? It’s unlikely, as even Achilles himself seemed to fail to use yarrow to staunch his own fatal wound to the heel. But yarrow is showing many surprising benefits that are consistent with historical use. In this myth, there may be a grain of truth.
Asgary S, Naderi GH, Sarrafsadegan N et al. 2000. Antihypertensive and antihyperlipidemmic effects of Achillea wilhemlsii. Drugs Exptl Clin Res.: 26(3):89-93.
Balick M. 2014. Rodale’s 21st-Century Herbal. Emmaus, Pennsylvania: Rodale Books.
Brill S, Dean E. 2002. Identifying and Harvesting Edible and Medicinal Plants. New York: HarperCollins.
Bruton-Seal J, Seal M. 2012. Backyard Medicine. New York: Castle Books.
Castleman M. 2009. The New Healing Herbs. Emmaus, PA: Rodale.
Foster S, Johnson, RL. 2006. National Geographic Desk Reference to Nature’s Medicine. Washington, D.C.: The National Geographic Society.
Gomez MA, Saenz MT, Garcia MD et al. 1999. Study of the topical anti-inflammatory activity of Achillea ageratum on chronic and acute inflammation models. Z. Naturforsch: 54c(11):937-941.
Huseni HF, Alvian SM, Heshmat R, et al. 2005. The efficacy of Liv-52 on liver cirrhotic patients: a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled first approach. Phytomed.: 12(9): 619, 624.
Leaf Mother Herbal Database, https://leafmother.com/
Sams, Tina. 2015. Healing Herbs: A Beginner’s Guide to Identifying, Foraging, and Using Medicinal Plants. Beverly, MA: Fair Winds Press.
Thomson Healthcare. 2007. PDR for Herbal Medicines. Montvale, NJ: Thomson Healthcare.