Some legends say that Achilles – that hero of Greek myth – was dipped in water containing yarrow juice when he was a baby – and that was the source of his immortality. Unfortunately his mother was holding him by the heel so it was left untreated; a fatal mistake! He also made great use of the herb to help cure the wounds of his fellow soldiers.
This story explains why the scientific name of yarrow is Achillea. Yarrow’s scientific name was given to it because in Greek mythology Achilles used yarrow to heal. Every time we see yarrow growing we can remember it’s legendary power to heal wounds. There is more information here, or here, on the link between yarrow and Achilles.
The full scientific or binomial name for Yarrow is Achillea millefolium. In Latin, mile is a thousand, and folium are leaves (think of foliage). The leaves are very distinctive. They are soft, fernlike and finely divided.
Yarrow has been used by many cultures for thousands of years. Evidence has been found in the teeth of a 50,000 year old person from Spain.
Traditionally it is used to stop bleeding – both internally and externally. It is also used to control infections() and reduce fever. It is good for for many other things too! There is a much deeper explanation, and some warnings against excessive use, here.
As a gardener, I love it for the small flowers that attract the predatory wasps, lady birds and hoverflies that help control pests in my garden. Bees like it too! The common variety has white flowers, but pink and red varieties are also cultivated and can be bought from garden centres.
I regularly add leaves and/or flowers to herbal tea mixes for their beneficial effects.
Yarrow is also used as a component to pasture mixes on farms. It does not have the dry matter production that plantain or ryegrass has – but it does have help keep livestock healthy! Here is some information from Massey University.
One of the old names for yarrow is ground hops. It was one of the herbs used to flavour beer before hops were commonly used. Grut, or gruit, was the name of the beer, and is reputed to have euphoric and aphrodisiac effects!
The story of the introduction of hops into beer, and the exclusion of other herbs is fascinating! One version is that the church wanted to introduce hops into beer, because they reduced male “performance” and tended to make people sleepy, and therefore less likely to sin. This was much preferable to the to the effects of the herbs in traditional gruit!
Here is quote about Linneaus contained in the link above: “Linneaus called the plant galentara, ‘causing madness’, and this plant ‘which the people of Lima sometimes use in their ale stirs up the blood and makes one lose one’s balance.’. . . Yarrow is in no way innocent when mixed with ale.”
So how did the old witches of Europe use it? One description I have heard of is to boil it up and eat it as a green vegetable before visualisation and other journey work. One of the blogs linked to above very clearly warns against eating boiled yarrow because of the possibility of “dangerous hallucinations”!
A quick check of the internet shows a range of magical uses in spells and its use as a tea before divination. And its use in love spells. I can’t help but wonder if there is a link to the supposed aphrodisiac effects of gruit?
So yes – yarrow is an amazing herb that deserves more attention, instead of trying to eradicate it from our lawns!