Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)
Woundwort, Bloodwort, Herb Militaris, plumajillo, Nosebleed Plant, Old Man’s Pepper, Devil’s Nettle, Sanguinary, Milfoil, Biranjasipha, Field Hop, Ya Luo
About This Plant
This aromatic and hardy, herbaceous perennial dances across the countryside in every state in the U.S. and every province of Canada, as well as all over the globe. It often grows in the mildly distubed soil of grasslands, open forests, cities, pastures and roadsides. It stands erect with one to several sometimes woody stems that grow up to three feet high with feathery, fern-like leaves arranged spirally on the stems. Showy, flat flowerheads rise above composed of many tiny, tightly-packed clusters of whitish flowers. It flowers late May thru late Summer. It’s lace-like leaves and/or stems are often covered in fine hairs. It has a spreading rhizomatous growth form.
Butterflies and insects are attracted to its sweet scent, similar to tarragon, anise or chrysanthemums. Several cavity-nesting birds, including the common starling, use Yarrow to line their nests. It is believed the plant inhibits the growth of parasites in the nests. The roots of Yarrow contain secretions that strengthen and help protect the other plants around it and help them become more disease resistant.
Yarrow is from the Asteraceae family and its species name, millefolium, is Latin for thousand-leaf. It is native to regions of the Northern Hemisphere including Asia, Europe, and North America. It is both native and introduced to the United States. Its genus name, Achillea, comes from the mythical Greek character Achilles who carried it with his armies to treat battle wounds. It was said to have sprung from the shavings of Achilles sword. The Kew Botanic Gardens of London recognizes over 150 different species of plants in the Achillea genus. A. millefolium is the species most often used by herbalists.
Yarrow has long been revered for its healing abilities and has been honored as a sacred herb. It has been found in Neanderthal graves in Iraq which date back to 60,000 BCE. Druids used the plant stalks in their rituals to foretell the future. A leaf held against the eye was believed to give second sight. The Chinese also used the stalks during ritual divination using the I Ching. The Navajo historically considered Yarrow a “life medicine” and chewed the plant for toothaches and used infusions for earaches.
Even poets have sung Yarrow’s praises.
“I see—but not by sight alone,
Loved Yarrow, have I won thee;
A ray of fancy still survives—
Her sunshine plays upon thee!
Thy ever-youthful waters keep
A course of lively pleasure;
And gladsome notes my lips can breathe,
Accordant to the measure.”
Seeds can be started indoors six to eight weeks before the expected last frost date. Press the seeds into moist soil but do not cover them, as the seeds require light for germination and temperatures from 64-75 degrees Fahrenheit. Seeds should germinate in 14-21 days. Seeds can also be directly sown outdoors once the threat of frost has passed. When yarrow first emerges from the ground, it produces a basal rosette of fluffy, fern-like leaves, making it easy to identify.
Yarrow can be transplanted out in Spring or early Summer once all threats of frost have passed. Space plants between 12 to 24 inches apart.
Yarrow is hardy in USDA zones 3 to 9. It grows best in well-drained soil in open, sunny areas such as lawns, fields, and meadows. However, it will also grow in the partial shade of open woods, roadsides, and trailsides. When grown in partial shade, Yarrow may grow leggy. When grown in rocky, sandy soil, Yarrow is medicinally stronger than when grown in rich soil–its bitter and aromatic compounds seem to concentrate in dry soil conditions. The plant will not tolerate soil that is constantly wet. It has a relatively short life span in some situations, but vigorous, healthy plants can be encouraged by root division in the Springtime every other year. It spreads by rhizomatous roots and can become invasive, pushing out its neighbors, so plant responsibly. Once established, the plant is virtually care free.
Once seeds are ripe, they can be collected simply by placing a container below them and tapping the flowerheads with your hand until the seeds fall out. Another way to collect seed from Yarrow is to place a brown paper bag over the seed head once the seeds are ripe and secure it lower down on the stalk with a piece of twine. Snap the stalk off with the seed head inside and leave it in a dry place for a week or two to make sure the seeds have completely dried out. This way, the tiny seeds will be collected in the bottom of the bag. Knock the stalk against the side of the bag to free the last of the seeds.
- Food source for many species of insects
- Ornamental flower arrangements and drying
- Companion planting–Yarrow is useful in terms of attracting beneficial insects while repelling some pests
- Insect repellent
- Used to flavor beer, prior to the use of hops
- Used to combat soil erosion
- Native plant gardens, butterfly and wildlife gardens, xeriscaping
- Dying wool–depending on the mordant used, the color may be green to yellow
In Scandinavia, Yarrow has been used for centuries in brewing beer and as a spice. The flowers and leaves can be dried and ground and sprinkled in small amounts onto food. Yarrow is bitter and will stay bitter, no matter what you do to it. It is not recommended for stocks or broths as it will impart its bitter flavor into them. It can be mixed with other soft herbs like tarragon, chervil or parsley. High heat will destroy its flavor, so you don’t really want to cook with Yarrow, but rather add it once the food is removed from the heat, as you would chives or parsley.
Yarrow is one of the world’s oldest medicinal plants and has been used since ancient times in Ayurvedic, Chinese, Native American, and European medicine. It contains silica which can help in repairing damaged tissues. It also contains anti-inflammatory and antiseptic oils as well as astringent tannins and resins–all of which makes it an excellent choice for wound healing. Various Native American tribes made infusions from Yarrow to heal sores, boils and other skin problems. It has diaphoretic actions and helps to move toxins out of the body via sweating which helps the body to break fevers while the antiviral and antibacterial actions support systemic recovery. Its astringent qualities makes it a good choice for facial washes or shampoos. Its bitter qualities make it useful for digestive complaints. Some Ojibwe people sprinkle a decoction of Yarrow leaves on hot stones and inhale it to treat headaches.
According to ancient traditions, Yarrow reaches its peak of power on the summer solstice and should be harvested then. However, if you prefer to harvest it throughout the summer, just be sure you’re picking at the height of flowering. When making teas and tinctures to be taken internally, typically the leaves, stems, and flowers are used. For salves, ointments, and other topical uses, typically the leaves alone are used.
Yarrow should be avoided in pregnancy because it is a uterine stimulant.
Yarrow is native to temperate regions of the Northern Hemisphere in Asia, Europe, and North America. It is actually both native and introduced to North America.