Yarrow was the first plant I fell in love with. I recall picking bouquets of feathery leaves and starry flowers from the banks of the Columbia River as a young girl. The smell was complex and invigorating – an invitation into a world that expanded my human parameters. Since then, yarrow has been a constant friend & teacher. Through striving to know it, I have delved into physiology, plant ecology, history & spirit medicine. The mystery and complexity of one plant is enough to spend a lifetime exploring.
Other names: Squirrel’s tale, millefoil, warrior plant, thousand leaf, Achillea millefolium, A. lanulosa, A, alpina.
Identifying Yarrow: Yarrow is a perennial herb with finely divided, feathery looking leaves. Umbellate shaped flowering tops have numerous white 5-petaled flowers with yellow stamens. They are clustered on a long straight stalk. The whole plant is wonderfully aromatic and reminiscent of chamomile and pinon pine. It tends to form deep-green soft mats with strong interconnected roots. Flowers can reach a foot high. Millefolia means thousand leaves.
Where it Grows: You can find yarrow all over the globe in fields, yards and sandy soils. It grows from rocky beaches to alpine meadows. Plants that grow on wind swept sea cliffs and mountainsides have the strongest medicine. American Achillea lanulosa looks identical to the European A. millefolia and high elevation A. alpina. The only way to tell them apart is by looking at their chromosomes!
When and How to Harvest: All parts of yarrow are useful. The flower is most commonly used and should be gathered when it is fully open and but not yet turning brown or yellowish. The flower is higher in aromatic oils, whereas the leaves are higher in tannins. Leaves can be harvested any time of year but is most potent in spring and early summer. The root is used for pain including toothaches and is best harvested in fall. Dry yarrow in baskets or paper bags.
Dosage: Tea: 1 tablespoon of chopped flowers or leaves per cup of boiled water, steep 10-15 minutes, and drink up to 3 cups a day. Drink hot to break a fever. Tincture: fresh plant with 1 part herb by weight to 2 parts alcohol (50-80% alcohol). For the dry plant use 1 part herb to 5 parts alcohol (40-50% alcohol). Use 10-40 drops to 4 times a day.
Yarrow has been revered as a healing herb since ancient times. In China, yarrow sticks were used to reawaken the spiritual forces of the mind when divining with the I-Ching. The plant was thought to balance yin and yang forces and to make possible the meeting of heaven and earth.
When the Greek hero Achilles was born, his mother held him by the heel and dipped him in a vat of yarrow tea to protect him from harm. He eventually died by a wound on the ankle where the yarrow had not touched. Throughout the Trojan wars, Achilles used yarrow to staunch bleeding of his soldiers. Yarrow was revered as a sacred and magical herb during the middle ages but much of its knowledge was lost during the burning times.
Native American traditions around yarrow mirror ancient Asian and European uses, as well as modern therapeutics. References could take up at least 10 pages. Many Native People in the Pacific Northwest used dried yarrow and yarrow tea to keep away flies and mosquitoes. Twana elder Bruce Miller said the plant was boiled to purify an area where sick people lay. It was also drunk as a tea to induce sweating during flu-like symptoms, to purify the blood, and to ease bloody diarrhea. The Teton Dakota People call yarrow “medicine for the wounded.” “Warrior plant” is another common name among native communities across the United States and Canada.
Yarrow is a complex medicine to understand. For instance, yarrow is used to both bring on menstruation and stop excess menstrual bleeding. If you understand yarrow’s physiological actions and energetics, you will understand how this is possible… but remember that it could take years. It is worth it. Yarrow is a medicine chest in itself. I think of it as being cooling, anti-inflammatory, bitter and antimicrobial. It induces sweating and affects the blood and circulation. Let’s explore its many uses:
First Aid: Yarrow is named “warrior plant” for good reason. It stops bleeding both externally and internally. When you get a wound, it helps blood platelets stick together and form a scab. Herbalist Matthew Wood describes how yarrow sucks up blood from wounded tissue and draws it back into the vessels. I have seen the powdered dry herb or the fresh herb poultice stop bleeding from deep cuts and wounds almost immediately. This, combined with yarrow’s anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial properties, makes it a perfect first aid remedy. A yarrow tea bath or topical application with the ointment or oil can be useful for rheumatic joints and varicose veins. The root is an old time remedy for tooth aches and can be preserved in rum or brandy, then chewed as needed. Yarrow is specific against Shigella and other bacteria that cause infectious diarrhea.
Affects on the Blood: Yarrow has been used throughout history to influence the blood. It both activates blood platelets and breaks up coagulated blood. It thins the blood and moves congestion in the portal vein, the pancreas and the lungs. This may help reverse “thick blood” that occurs with a sluggish liver or poor pancreatic function due to high insulin levels or low digestive enzymes. In these conditions, the blood has more fats and other compounds that do not move as fluidly through blood vessels. This causes more strain on the heart and impacts gas exchange in the lungs, thereby causing stress throughout the entire body. In this circumstance, yarrow may feel calming and even ease anxiety or insomnia.
The Digestive System: Yarrow is a bitter herb that stimulates digestion. It is one of the bitter herbs in Vermouth and is used as a hops substitute in beer brewing. Eclectic physicians used yarrow for feeble conditions of the digestive tract including, “precarious appetite, passive looseness of the bowels, and consequent nervous prostration.” Translation into our modern time… yarrow treats poor appetite due to low digestive secretions and general inflammation that makes tissues not function well.
Circulation: Yarrow brings blood to the surface of the body, thereby inducing sweating. It may lower blood pressure by moving blood to the skin and easing the burden on the heart. It is specific for hot, dry, constricted skin.
Colds and Flu: Yarrow fights infection, stimulates sweating and lowers fever. Through thinning the blood and increasing circulation, it also helps congested people breath better. One of Janice Schofield’s favorite cold remedies is putting yarrow leaf and flower on hot rocks in a sauna while drinking hot yarrow tea. Sweat will soon flow profusely. A classic cold and flu remedy is a combination of yarrow, peppermint and elderflower drunk hot. Yarrow has been used successfully to treat asthma attacks through thinning the blood and increasing blood flow in the lungs.
Women’s Health: During birth, midwives and herbalists use yarrow for hemorrhage. Yarrow stops the flow of blood and prevents painful clots. It is often used in after birth sitz baths to cool and heal tissue. Yarrow is used for both initiating menses and for stopping excessive flow. You might say that yarrow helps the blood to do what is appropriate. It can be helpful for restlessness from hormone shifts and is useful during menopause. It seems to stimulate function of the uterine tissue but tonifies the structure and cools down inflammation. This may be what the ancient Chinese were talking about when they said that it “reconciles opposing forces and brings balance.”
Skin Health: yarrow is used to protect the skin from excessive sun or wind. It makes a wonderful facial steam that improves complexion. The aromatics in yarrow open the lungs or sinuses and cool inflamed tissue.
Yarrow is used for physical and spiritual protection – especially to clarifying boundaries. It is specific for those who are easily influenced or drained by others or their environment. Yarrow Special Formula by FES is used for shielding people from environmental allergies, nuclear radiation and other forms of environmental stress. It was developed in response to Chernobyl and can be used when undergoing radiation or flying on airplanes, X-rays, etc. Anne McIntyre says that “By ‘astringing’ the boundaries around a person and preventing their energy from ‘bleeding’ into their environment, it acts to strengthen and solidify the self, the essence, allowing and enhancing their ability to heal, teach, counsel or follow their chosen path.”
Yarrow oil is a beautiful blue-green to sky-blue color and contains the compound azulene. It has anti-inflammatory, cooling and anti-infectious properties. The oil is massaged into the forehead or the neck for headaches. 2-3 drops of yarrow essential oil per ounce of St. John’s Wort oil is a wonderful remedy for sunburn. Yarrow oil is used in salves or lotions to sooth acne, eczema and psoriasis.
Yarrow is said to reconcile opposite forces and is used in times of transition when emotions become overwhelming. The scent is used to help someone through the highs and lows of life, bringing a strong matrix of balance.
The homeopathic remedy is also used for hemorrhage and varicose veins.
Yarrow is an excellent insect repellent. Friends in Alaska say that rubbing yarrow flowers on your skin or clothes will keep away their hummingbird sized mosquitos. Native People in the Pacific Northwest traditionally hung yarrow in longhouses to repel insects and the tea was sprayed around salmon during processing to repel flies.
Not for extended use during pregnancy. It should be used carefully or avoided for coagulation disorders.
Cook, William H. The physio-Medical Dispensatory. Eclectic Institute, Original 1869.
Fischer-Rizzi, Susan. Complete Aromatherapy Handbook. Sterling Publishing, 1990.
Gladstar, Rosemary. Herbal Healing for Women. Fireside, 1993.
Katz and Kaminski. Flower Essence Repertory. The Flower Essence Society, 1996.
McIntyre, Anne. The Complete Floral Healer. Sterling Publishing, 1992.
Moore, Michael. Medicinal Plants of the Pacific West. Red Crane Books, 1993.
Schofield, Janice. Discovering Wild Plants. Alaska Northwest Books, 1989.
Wood, Matthew. The Book of Herbal Wisdom. North Atlantic Books, 1997.