Saturday, July 24, 2010
Early in the year the tender feathery leaves of Yarrow appear low on the ground, by the wayside, in meadows, pastures and waste grounds- just about anywhere, in fact. As the year progresses the shoot appear and the soft leaves become tougher, almost prickly. In June the first flower heads develop; grayish white to pink umbels that seem to indicate a relationship to the carrot family. On close examination of their individual little flowers however, one realizes that one has been conned and that yarrow is in fact a member of the daisy family.
History and Mythology
AchillesYarrow derived its Latin name from the Greek hero Achilles, the son the Sea-Goddess Thetis and the mortal King Peleus. Thetis, attempting to make her son invulnerable, dipped him into the river Styx. But afraid to let the infant go completely, his ankles remained vulnerable where his mother had held him, the part that has become known as the 'Achilles heel'. She also wanted to make him immortal by the power of fire, but Peleus disturbed her in her ritual and so she fled back to her father, leaving the infant in Peleus' hands. Peleus gave him to Chiron, the centaur, who had a great reputation for educating young boys in the art of archery and healing. And so, Achilles went on to become one of the greatest, and *almost* invincible warriors, but in the end he died of a mortal wound to his Achilles heel. He was a great student of the healing arts though and Yarrow was his special ally. He used it to staunch the wounds of his fellow soldiers, which is how yarrow became known as 'Militaris'.
Yarrow has been revered as a powerful healing herb and magical plant for centuries. It was used in counter-magical practices to 'drive out the devil' of those who had become possessed. However, to be effective, the holy mass had to be recited over the herb 7 times and it also had to be drunk from an upside down church bell (!). The French name for this herb 'herb de St. Joseph' is derived from a legend according to which Joseph one day hurt himself while working on his carpentry. The infant Jesus brought him some Yarrow, which instantly staunched the bleeding and healed his wounds. Yarrow is indeed excellent for this purpose.
However, conversely it is also said to cause a nosebleed and a bizarre form of love divination is associated with this property in eastern parts of Britain. According to Mrs Grieves, girls determine whether their loves be true by sticking a yarrow leaf up into their nostrils while reciting the following rhyme:
Yarroway, Yarroway bear a white blow
If my love, love me my nose will bleed now...
Yarrow sown up in a little pouch and placed beneath the pillow was hoped to bring dreams of one's future husband if one recited the following charm before dozing off to sleep:
Thou pretty herb of Venus tree
Thy true name be Yarrow
Now who my bosom friend must be
Pray tell thou me tomorrow.
In China, Yarrow is also used for divination however, the practice is of quite a different order. The ancient oracle of the I Ching is traditionally cast with Yarrow stalks which are thought to represent the Yin and Yang forces of the Universe in perfect balance.
Yarrow was always part of the sacred 9 herb bundle. Originally a pre-Christian tradition, the church at first attempted to ban the gathering of herbs. But when it became apparent that this would be impossible to enforce, they sanctified the practice and even blessed the woman's herb bundles in the church on Maria Ascension day, the 15th of August.
Yarrow leavesA special soup of herbs is the traditional dish for Maundy Thursday, the Thursday before Easter. This soup contained 9 holy healing herbs, one of which is Yarrow. This soup was believed to ward off all sickness and disease and dispel all evil influences for the whole of the coming year.
The fresh young leaves of yarrow collected in spring add a lovely, aromatic flavor to salads and soups, or one might add it as flavoring to homemade beer. Before brewing was subject to regulations that mandated hops as the only herb legally allowed to be brewed into beer, the brew was a lot less homogeneous than it is today and many different herbs were used for their flavour and added effect. Yarrow for example, with its bitter, aromatic flavor was a favourite herb to add to Gruit beer, which is reputed to be more intoxicating than regular ale. However, its potency is more likely due to Ledum palustre, Marsh Rosemary, another herb that went into that particular brew. Modern versions of the recipe often replace this hard to find herb with regular rosemary, which however results in quite a different (and less potent) brew.
Yarrow has been distilled to produce an essential oil. During the process of distillation a compound known as azulene develops, which is not present in this form in the actual herb. Azulene gives the blueish color to both, Yarrow and German Chamomile, but of the two, Yarrow essential oil contains more of this powerful anti-inflammatory compound. Yarrow essential oil is used for woman's problems such as irregular and painful periods and to reduce excessive menstrual bleeding.
Yarrow is considered a harmonizing and balancing plant and can be used for emotional disturbances related to PMT or menopause. It is said to harmonize conflicting emotions and may be used for chakra balancing.
Aerial parts, young leaves, flowers
The young leaves can be harvested in the early days of spring when they are still soft, for use in soups and salads. Later they get too tough to be used fresh and should be dried. Leaves and flowers can be harvested until July/August when the plant is in full flower.
Flavonoids, volatile oils, tannins, a bitter glycoalkaloid,
Yarrow is a very useful medicinal herb. As already mentioned, it is a premiere vulnerary that staunches bleeding. The juice or dried powder can be applied to bleeding wounds. A strong tea may be taken for internal bleeding. Its anti-inflammatory action will reduce swelling and heal inflamed cuts or wounds. Internally, Yarrow acts as a soothing relaxant on the voluntary nervous system. It counteracts cramps and spasm of the stomach, abdomen and uterine system. At the same time, its bitter principles support the digestive system by acting on the gallbladder and liver. Yarrow also supports the urinary system and is an effective anti-inflammatory and diuretic in cases of urinary infections, such as cystitis. It is an excellent woman's herb that can bring on delayed menstruation, soothe painful periods and menstrual cramps and reduce excessive bleeding. The fresh juice is recommended as a tonic. Yarrow improves peripheral circulation by dilating the blood vessels. It is indicated for high blood pressure and angina pectoris. It is also one of the best herbs to induce a cooling sweat to reduce fevers. It can also be used for inner cleansing, e.g. prior to a sauna or sweat-lodge. Yarrow's overall cleansing and toning properties, combined with its anti-inflammatory action may explain its use in the treatment of rheumatism. Yarrow can be described as a tonic and alternative that over time will improve the overall function of all the main bodily systems, as well as being of excellent service in the treatment of acute problems.
Some individuals are sensitive to Yarrow and may develop allergic reactions on exposure.