Achillea, so we’re told, first
sprang from scrapings from Achilles’ spear.
In what sounds more like Greek slapstick
farce than the stuff legends are made of, Achilles lands at Mysia
on his way to Troy... There, Telephus, son of Hercules, decides to
hold him up with some opposition... but Dionysus causes Telephus to
trip onto Achilles’ spear... oooh whoops – don’t
forget to record it in the accident book...
Bur the wound won’t heal, and eventually Telephus
has to turn to an Oracle for advice. With typical oracular enigma,
he’s told that ‘the wounder will be the healer’,
so it’s back to Achilles, who agrees – in return for
help, not hindrance, in getting to Troy – to scrape some metal
off his spear... and the plants that spring from the ground where
it falls turn out to have amazing wound healing and blood-staunching
It’s said that the plant served Achilles well
when healing his own men on the Trojan battle field, but it isn’t
explained why the Greek hard-nut with a soft spot didn’t use
it on his own heel when fatally wounded by Paris...
Personally I feel the credulity of the whole story
is undermined somewhat because it actually features a MAN willingly
asking for DIRECTIONS ...
But in reality as well as in legend, Yarrow (Achillea
Milfolium) has long been valued for its ability to purge and heal
wounds made by iron. Alternative names – ‘Soldiers’
Woundwort’, ‘Knight’s Milfoil’ ‘Staunch
Weed’ and ‘Herbe Militaris’ - all bear witness
to its common use on the battlefield and the French know it as ‘herbe
aux charpentiers’ – the carpenter’s herb –
for its use in stemming bleeding from injuries caused by tools.
Confusingly it is recorded as being
used both for stopping nosebleeds and for causing them.... perhaps
an Oracle once announced with a wink that it was ‘good for nosebleeds’?
Whatever the truth, it has been recorded in use as a snuff substitute
and its relative – Sneezewort aka ‘Batchelor’s Buttons’
(Achillea ptarmica) - was actually used to induce ‘therapeutic’
Taken internally it act as a vasodilator and other
names for Yarrow simply relate to its association with the circulation...e.g.
‘Bloodwort’, ‘Sanguinary’ and it’s
welsh name – ‘llysiau gwaedlif’ – which
translates as ‘herb of blood flow’. It was considered
a good normative for the circulatory system and was also used to
regulate menstrual flow (for which reason it should not be used
by women who are pregnant).
It was also the active ingredient in a Scottish
salve for haemorrhoids, was much used to draw fever through causing
perspiration and was prescribed as a tea in the treatment of colds,
flu and even consumption. In the Orkneys it was even used as a treatment
for melancholy... possibly in conjunction with the magic words ‘cheer
up or we’ll get the pile ointment out...’?
In the garden, its ‘hot’ leaves have
the power to speed up the decomposition of compost heaps and it
is reputed to stimulate the natural defences of plants rooted nearby.
It is also said to enhance their perfume, flavour and medicinal
actions and yellow and green dyes can be extracted from it. I grow
cultivated varieties rather than the native form simply because
they do not share its extremely invasive habit.
In animal spousery it has been used for sheep scab
and also as a drench for cattle suffering from digestive problems
– although how one actually TELLS when a cow has a stomach
upset has left me puzzled...
Some use it as a salad ingredient
and in savoury cooking, but I prefer the less astringent flavour of
its relative the ‘English’ mace – Achillea ageratum
(not to be confused with the mace sometimes found in fruit cake recipes,
which is actually the dried membrane which covers nutmegs).
In the world of the ‘other’ it is mostly
associated with divination, yarrow stalks most famously being the
traditional tools used for casting the Chinese I-Ching (Book of
There is also a tradition that says that it is unlucky
to bring Yarrow indoors, and having once decided to make my own
set of authentic I-Ching stalks by drying them slowly in the fireside
oven, I can understand why... Certainly the vitriol expressed towards
me by members of my usually loving family as the temperature rose
and its ‘scent’ permeated the house can have done little
for cosmic karma...
It was obviously a valuable herb for women for not
only could it help you find your husband, it could keep you safe
from being harmed by him and ensure he had a long - and active -
In Ireland there’s a tradition of digging
up a complete piece of sward containing a plant of Yarrow and sleeping
with it under your pillow to induce dreams of your husband to be...
In Devon a piece of Yarrow plucked at midnight from the grave of
a man who had died young was reputed to have the same power and
other similar spells of marriage divination involve tickling the
nose with Yarrow – the future being foretold variously by
whether you sneezed or your nose bled... I also rather like the
tradition which says that carrying a piece of Yarrow can protect
you from being hurt by a member of the opposite sex.
Finally it has been included in potions for longevity,
although its folk names ‘Old Man’s Pepper-pot’
and ‘Bad Man’s Plaything’ probably relate to Yarrow’s
spicy reputation for being a latter-day Viagra rather than to it
actually leading to a longer life...The Gaelic names for closely
related Sneezewort – cruaidh lus or meacan ragaim –
mean, respectively, ‘hard weed’ and ‘stiff plant’.
It must be stressed that like most
plants with medicinal properties, Yarrow should only be used in moderation
and prolonged use of even small doses can cause headaches, increased
sensitivity to sunlight and skin irritation... before the stampede
to the garden centre starts