Archaeologists have found evidence of yarrow in Neanderthal burial caves, suggesting this herb’s association with humans for at least 60,000 years. Native to Europe and Asia, this pungently scented perennial has naturalized throughout North America and other temperate regions of the world. Look for its white, yellowish, or pink flat-topped flower heads and fernlike foliage in sunny, open places, such as along roadsides and in fields.
One of the plant’s common names, milfoil (from the French mille feuille, meaning “1,000 leaves”), refers to its feathery leaves, which are divided into thousands of tiny leaflets.
The genus name Achillea is derived from the legendary Greek hero Achilles, who reportedly used the herb as a styptic to treat his troops’ bleeding wounds during the Trojan War, which also explains its ancient name, “military herb.”
Common Names: Milfoil, Yarrow
Description: Perennial, 1 to 3 feet tall, with feathery gray-green foliage and erect stems; broad, flat flower heads composed of numerous white, yellowish, or rosy pink florets; aromatic
Hardiness: To Zone 3
Flowering: Summer to early autumn
Parts Used: Leaves and flowers
Range/Habitat: Europe and Asia; sunny meadows and roadsides
At one time, yarrow was used as a substitute for hops in brewing beer. You can use small amounts of yarrow leaves to flavor salads, soups, and egg dishes.
Yarrow leaf contains a complex mixture of chemical substances. Two of them, achilletin and achilleine, increase blood coagulation, which encourages the healing of wounds. Flavonoids in the plant stimulate gastric secretions to improve digestion. Yarrow also may have anti-inflammatory and antispasmodic properties, and it has been used to treat menstrual and stomach cramps.
Caution: Yarrow should not be taken during pregnancy. People who are allergic to other members of the family Asteraceae, such as ragweed, may experience skin inflammation and itching when exposed to yarrow.
An excellent garden plant, yarrow attracts butterflies, resists deer, and tolerates drought. The showy, long-lasting blooms add color to perennial borders, cutting gardens, and informal cottage gardens. The flowers also dry beautifully, making them ideal for everlasting arrangements and wreaths. Popular cultivars include ‘Apple Blossom’ (soft pink blooms), ‘Summer Pastels’ (burgundy blooms), and ‘Paprika’ (red blooms with gold centers).
Valued for its ability to heal and cleanse the skin as well as to firm connective tissue, yarrow is an ingredient in many cosmetic products. The flowers also yield a yellow dye to wool mordanted with alum. Use the flowers and leaves together to dye iron-mordanted wool an olive shade.
How to grow it
Yarrow flourishes in rich, well-drained soil and full sun. Plant root divisions in spring or fall, or sow seeds in spring. Because the long-blooming flowers attract beneficial insects, such as ladybugs, consider planting yarrow in mixed flower borders and in vegetable gardens to help control pests. To propagate yarrow, divide the roots of 3- or 4-year-old plants in either spring or autumn. For medicinal use, harvest yarrow while it’s in bloom; the plant’s leaves, flowers, and stems can be used fresh or dried.
An Herbal Band-Aid
It’s possible that an herbalist first brought yarrow to North America, wishing to grow this important plant for its medicinal properties. It certainly has taken root in its new home and is now very common, especially in pastures, meadows, and along roadsides. Native Americans recognized yarrow’s ability to heal a variety of conditions. They made an infusion of the whole plant to treat fevers and colds, and they applied the leaves to skin to heal boils, open sores, swellings, burns, cuts, sprains, and eruptions.
Also known as “nosebleed,” yarrow at one time was applied inside the nose to stop bleeding. But early European herbalists noted that putting the rolled-up leaves inside the nose had the opposite effect—it caused bleeding, which was a technique used in those days to treat headache.
Next time you are wandering through a field and happen to cut yourself, grind up a few yarrow leaves and apply them to your wound, just as people have done for hundreds of years. Be careful, though: If you are allergic to other plants in this family or if your skin is sensitive to the sun, don’t use it.