Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)
by Krystal Thompson
“Thus, it is both cooling and warming, fluid generating and controlling. Remedies with contradictory but complementary properties are often of great utility since they are able to normalize opposing conditions. This is true for yarrow.” -Matthew Wood
Common Names: Milfoil, Old Man’s Pepper, Soldier’s Woundwort, Knight’s Milfoil, Thousand Weed, Carpenter’s Weed, Bloodwort, Staunchweed, Devil’s Nettle, Field Hop, Little Feather, Ya Luo, Warrior Plant.
Description/Taxonomy: Yarrow likes to commandeer. Roadsides, fields, meadows- any temperate location with a healthy amount of sunlight could be a welcome home for this quickly spreading perennial plant. It is common in North America but also native to both Europe and Asia. It is hardy, drought tolerant, and can be invasive. Much like the landscape that it commands, yarrow is beautiful to look at. It begins with an erect, angular and rough, woody stem that spurs alternately growing leaves with many finely cut, feathery segments. This detail is no doubt the inspiration for nicknames like Thousand Weed, as well as the plant’s species name, millefolium, translating roughly to “many segments of foliage.” Beautiful flower heads, with clusters of tiny white or pale purple blooms depending on location, open up from roughly May to September.
History, Ethnobotany, and Folklore: Yarrow has a long and varied history of use. Illustrating its worth even in the early centuries of our species, fossilized yarrow pollen has been found in burial caves that are dated up to 60,000 years old. It is difficult to say exactly what this wonder plant was being used for back then, but as some of its nicknames illustrate (Soldier’s Woundwort, Knight’s Milfoil), yarrow certainly has a rich history of use as a vulnerary, or a plant that stimulates wound healing. It is said that when the Greek hero Achilles was born, his mother held him by the heel and dipped him into a vat of yarrow tea to protect him from harm. As we know, he eventually died due to a wound on the ankle, where according to the lore the yarrow did not touch. Regardless of its use or non-use in his birth ritual, yarrow was certainly Achilles’s most trusted plant ally for the bleeding wounds of war. He used it to staunch and disinfect his soldier’s wounds, popularizing its use in his time and catalyzing its genus name Achillea. Similarly, it was once known as Herba Militaris, or the military herb (1). In American ethnobotany, the Cherokee, Iroquois, and Mohegan tribes use yarrow as a digestive aid and to treat a variety of types and cases of swellings (5).
Outside of medicinal benefits, yarrow also has a colored history of use in magic and lore. It is said to grow around the grave of Confucius, and that the most effective way to cast the I Ching is by using yarrow straws. An old Chinese proverb states that yarrow has the ability to brighten the eyes and promote intelligence, and it was generally thought to balance yin and yang and facilitate the meeting of heaven and earth (10). Much much later in history, western magic users would also cast yarrow in a top role for its use in divination. As a witching herb, it was used both to summon the devil and to drive him away (often found in Saxon amulets for protection). This is where some of its other nicknames such as Devil’s Plaything and Devil’s Nettle come from.
Yarrow is also a powerful insect repellant. Many people still rub yarrow flowers directly onto skin or clothing to repel mosquitos, but Native Americans in the pacific northwest traditionally hung yarrow in longhouses for this purpose, as well as sprayed a strongly brewed yarrow tea around salmon during processing to repel hungry and curious flies (10). Other Native American sources note that yarrow tea was used to cleanse an area where sick or dying people lay.
Parts Used: All aerial parts. The flowering tops are the most medicinally active as that is where we find the concentration of aromatic oils, though the leaves are higher in medicinal tannins. The root, dug in fall, is used for local pain such as toothaches.
Cultivation and Harvest: Yarrow should be planted in the spring in well-drained average to poor soil. Yarrow is not only drought resistant but actually thrives in hot, dry conditions. Wet soil will not be well tolerated. Keep in mind that the common species Achillea millefolium is invasive and will likely spread whether you want it to or not. Depending on conditions, most plants will grow between two to four feet tall. Be conscious of aphids, powdery mildew, and stem rot.
Yarrow is best harvested when the flowers are entirely open and still full and healthy looking, and not discolored. If gathering from your own garden or from a healthy stand of yarrow, collect the aerial parts by cutting the entire stem halfway down. To dry, tie the stems in small bunches and hang in ambient temperatures away from direct sunlight. Once fully dry, separate the leaves and flowers and store them in an airtight jar away from sunlight and temperature variation.
Herbal Actions: Anodyne, anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, antiseptic, aromatic, astringent, diaphoretic, stimulant, tonic.
Constituents: Bitters, chamazulene, proazulene, saponins, tannins, fatty acids.
Energetics and Taste: Harmonizing and fluid between various energetics. Bitter, pungent/aromatic. Much like the harmonizing effect yarrow has on various blood conditions, so is it said to reconcile opposing forces within oneself. It is a great ally in times of transition when emotions are high, or when fluctuations between highs and lows are too intense.
In Flower Essence therapy, yarrow is utilized for spiritual protection, and indicated especially to those who are easily influenced or affected by others. It is a strong ally when one needs to build or solidify boundaries, both physical and emotional.
Meridians/Organs Affected: Small intestines, kidneys, endocrine system, spleen, lungs, and pelvic area including bladder and uterus.
Medicinal Use: Perhaps most famously, yarrow is prized for its benefits to wounds or minor bleeding. Its mild antiseptic and anodyne properties coupled with its ability to coagulate blood and stop bleeding make it the perfect ally in this case. These properties also make it useful in cases of hemorrhoids, post-partum care, bruises, and mouth sores, as well as internal bleeding (4). Yarrow beautifully harmonizes blood circulation and can be beneficial in cases of stagnation such as vericose veins or fibroids, as well as cases of overstimulated blood flow, such as hypertension. It is sometimes considered a skin tonic and can be used in a very effective facial steam to improve complexion through circulation and cooling inflamed tissue. Yarrow can also be protective against topical sun and wind damage.
Yarrow prepared as tea is a wonderful ally in the face of tough colds. Its diaphoretic action makes it especially useful at the onset of fever or in cases of obstructed perspiration (1). Diaphoretic plants “move the circulation toward the surface of the body, helping to cool it off through sweating, and increasing the immunological activity on the “front lines” of the body’s battle against the cold” (6). For these same reasons it is a common plant accompaniment to sweat lodges and other types of therapeutic sweating where the “front lines” of the battlefield can be physical as well as spiritual. Yarrow opens pores and purifies the blood, a great combination for eruptive conditions such as measles, chickenpox, fevers, etc. In TCM, yarrow’s benefits here would be described as tonifying Qi or releasing to the exterior (5). No doubt related to these indications, yarrow also has a reputation for being generally beneficial to kidney disorders.
Yarrow has an additional affinity for the pancreas and the lungs. It can benefit “thick blood,” which occurs when liver or pancreatic function is compromised due to high insulin levels or low digestive enzymes (10). Here, the blood contains more fats and other dense compounds that struggle to move freely through the blood vessels. This causes overexertion on the heart and improper gas exchange within the lungs, which puts stress on the entire body. Yarrow stimulates pancreatic function and boosts blood flow to help avoid these instances, but can benefit the anxiety or insomnia that may follow if thick blood does set in.
Yarrow contains flavonoids and bitter, aromatic compounds that increase saliva and stomach acid production, aiding digestion. It is actually one of the bitter herbs used to make Vermouth and has historically been used as a bitter hops substitute in beer brewing! Yarrow benefits general inflammation, especially in the digestive tract, and has been known to act on heartburn. It is approved by the German Commission E to support healthy appetite. It also acts as a muscle relaxant on both the uterus and intestine, soothing menstrual and stomach cramps (2).
The astringency of yarrow makes its infusions (or dilutions of its tinctures) great for spongy gums. When drunk cold or lukewarm, its diuretic properties are even more active, making a powerful combination with its astringency that benefits bladder infections. Further, its affinity for the bladder in combination with its astringent properties make it an exceptional ally for incontinence (4). Yarrow’s astringent properties are also well suited to respiratory tissues, which like the bladder are prone to swelling, leaking, and inflammation. Yarrow helps to restore tone to these tissues as well as to dry secretions, making it an excellent choice for nasal rinses. By both thinning the blood and increasing flow to and within the lungs, yarrow can be incredibly beneficial to asthma attacks (10). Unsurprisingly amidst this treasure chest of astringent benefits, yarrow can also soothe toothache. Fresh yarrow roots can be preserved in rum or brandy and chewed on in cases of need.
As a female care ally, yarrow benefits dysmenorrhea or painful menstruation by soothing uterine contractions and acting as an anodyne. It is also employed by herbalists and midwives during birth to soothe hemorrhage and protect from blood clots. Sitz bath preparations are also common as it is cooling and speeds the healing of tissues. Again, an example of yarrow’s incredible ability to act specific to one’s blood needs or constitution, it can be used for both initiating menses and stopping or slowing excessive flow (10).
In TCM, yarrow is indicated for moving Qi and blood, especially in cases such as angina, shortness of breath, abdominal cramping, headaches, and palpitations. Much like Western herbalism, it is generally kept on hand for reducing inflammation and resolving dampness.
Allies: Yarrow pairs beautifully with uva ursi for droopy bladder tissues and urinary tract infections. For other infections, pair with echinacea, chaparral, and oregon grape. For inflammation, pair with licorice, marshmallow, comfrey, and/or calendula. As a tropical bruise salve, yarrow is a wonderful addition to arnica, st. john’s wort, and calendula. And for colds, yarrow can be paired with peppermint and elderflower and drunk hot.
Cautions and Contraindications: Pregnant women should not use yarrow unless under the strict supervision of a qualified healthcare practitioner as its ability to relax the smooth muscle of the uterus could cause miscarriage. It can also produce photosensitivity, and should generally be used with caution by those with allergies or sensitivities to plants in the Asteraceae family.
Dosage and Method of Delivery: Tea: 1 oz of dried herb to 1 pint of boiling water, drunk warm or at room temperature in “wineglassful doses” a few times a day. Take care to cover your brew as it’s steeping so as not to lose its aromatic properties.
Topically, fresh poultices are common to stop bleeding, soothe wounds, and relieve bruising. One can also put dried, powdered plant material directly onto cuts to disinfect and quickly stop bleeding. Yarrow also lends itself well to soak (sitz bath, etc) and compress preparations. For young children and the elderly, soaking socks or bathing the hands and feet in yarrow tea can be a more gentle form of administration.
Yarrow essential oil sports a stunning blue hue, a coloric testament to its active compound azulene. It is commonly massaged into the neck and forehead for headaches, as well as included in salves and lotions for acne, eczema, psoriasis, and sunburn relief (10).
1. Grieve, Maud. A Modern Herbal. Dover Publications, 1931.
2. Ehrlich, Steven D. “Yarrow.” Complementary and Alternative Medicine, University of Maryland Medical Center, 2014.
3. Moore, Michael. Medicinal Plants of the Pacific West. Museum of New Mexico Press, 1993.
4. De la Foret, Rosalee. “Yarrow Plant.” Herbalremediesadvice.org, 2016.
5. “Yarrow (Ya Luo).” eastwesthealingacadamy.com, 2016.
6. Bergner, Paul. “Immune: Diaphoretics and Cold.” Medical Herbalism: Clinical Articles and Case Studies, 2001.
7. 7Song. “Herbal First Aid: Wound Care”. Natural School of Botanical Medicine.
8. Mcdonald, Jim. “Surviving Sinusitis and Other Catarrhal Catastrophes.” www.herbcraft.org, accessed online September 2016.
9. Gallagher, Kimberly. “Yarrow: One of the Best Herbs for Fever.” LearningHerbs.com, 2010.
10.Krohn, Elise. “Yarrow.” Wildfoodsandmedicines.com, accessed online September 2016.
11.“Yarrow: How to Plant, Grow, and Care for Yarrow.” www.almanac.com, accessed online September 2016.