Summer is yarrow season for me. Once a mainstay of the meadow, it has spread into roadside verges, parks, and even garden lawns. If you look closely enough in amongst the grass you might catch a glimpse of a few feathery leaves that were not caught by the blades of the mower. Even in the city, I found it standing tall, flowers on the cusp of opening, pollinators standing by, growing in the car park of a Lidl.
This is a plant that has learned to adapt in grasslands across the country. It is easily distinguished by its feathery, dark-green leaves and the dense cluster of small, silver-white, occasionally pink tinged flowers that form a capitulum. The flowers have a strong scent that is sweet and inviting, much like a chrysanthemum, which also attracts many insects who rely on the plant as a food source.
In Gaelic it is known as Earr thàlmainn, and in Scots it carries many common names, Doggie’s brose, Meal and foil, Melancholy, Yarra, and Stanch-girse. If, however, you use herbs medicinally, you might know it in English as woundwort.
Its traditional use was to stem bleeding and during the Roman period it became known as herba militaris for its use in the treatment of wounded soldiers in the army.
It even entered Greek mythology as the herb in which Achilles is bathed by his mother and henceforth protected in battle, invulnerable to attack, except where Thetis held him by the heel – hence the phrase Achilles’ heel. The genus name, Achillea, is derived from this mythical hero and it is said that he would carry the plant with him to treat his soldiers in battle.
Yarrow has a particular association here with the Gaelic communities of Scotland. John Lightfoot noted in his description of the herb in 1777 in Flora Scotica that, ‘the Highlanders are said to make an ointment of it which dries and heals up wounds’.
And there are accounts that say young women would cut the herb with a black handled knife on a moonlit night and use it in a divination spell to foretell the future, often placing some sprigs under their pillow to help them dream of their sweetheart and determine if they would marry or not.
During the Middle Ages, yarrow was one of the most important herbs because, before the introduction of hops into beer brewing, it was used primarily to preserve and flavour ales. Its anti-bacterial properties prevented the build up of microbes which would have otherwise turned the ale sour. The herb acted as a key bittering agent in what would otherwise be a flavourless drink.
Today, it is used in much the same way it has been historically (minus the beer and witchcraft). Decoctions, infusions, and ointments are easy to create but a simple poultice can also be made, if you are short on time. Bruise a small amount of the fresh flowers and apply directly to an affected area, pressing firmly to release the healing compounds.
The wound healing ability of yarrow can be attributed to the anti-bacterial and anti-septic properties within the plant and the drying quality of the herb which helps to stem blood flow. Traditionally, it was also used to bring down a temperature, soothe a sore throat, and boost the immune system.
A hot infusion of yarrow tea made with the fresh or dried aerial parts of the plant will make you sweat and help to reduce a fever. Remember to save the strained herb as it can be applied to areas of inflammation in the body or to the forehead to relieve a headache. Use 1-2 teaspoons of fresh or dried herb and infuse in hot water for 10-15 mins, and consume 3 times a day.
If you want to forage yarrow, it can be found flowering in grassy areas from June until the end of August. Be sure to harvest responsibly, taking only what you need, so it can regenerate for future foragers who come across it. It can also be a wonderful addition to a garden but be careful as it self-seeds readily and could easily pop up all over your lawn.