One of the nice things about this time of year, despite the heatwave and the parched grass is the ray of light poking through in the shape of flowering Yarrow ( Achillea millefolium ). Flowering from June until September, Yarrow is an aromatic perennial that can attain a height of 3ft, though more commonly seen at 2 – 12inches, with panicles of white flowers and lacy green leaves. Occasionally you will come across plants with pink flowers, these will be growing on acidic soil whereas the white flowered yarrow thrives on calcareous soil.
Widely known for over 6000 years ( though the earliest find is from 60,00 years ago where it was found in a grave in modern day Iraq) yarrow has a long and distinguished history in the fields of folklore and herbal medicine. During the Trojan war it is said that Achilles learnt the benefits for applying yarrow to wounds from Chiron the centaur and when Achilles asked the gods for protection before going into battle, he was picked up by the ankle and immersed in a vat containing yarrow tea and making him invulnerable. However, where the gods had held onto the ankle , this was the only part of his body not immersed and became his weak spot – the Achilles heel!
The use of yarrow in treating wounds right up until world war one has given it two of its many common names – soldiers’ woundwort and staunchweed. Other common names include: Allheal, angel flower, bloodwort, devils’ nettle, green arrow, herb millitaris, knights’ milfoil, old man’s mustard, sanguinary, thousand weed, bad mans’ plaything and many more.
In ancient China, yarrow sticks were used in divination rituals of the I Ching system and in the west it was thought to protect against evil spirits and even ward off the devil, though in Wales it was considered bad luck to have yarrow in the house as this would encourage the devil to enter. In the 17th century it was used as an herbal snuff and also eaten in salads. Across the globe, yarrow has been added to various alcoholic beverages and is still used this way in some Scandinavian countries.
Widely used in Western, Ayurvedic and Chinese herbal medicine, all the aerial parts of the plant are used to treat a variety of conditions including; fevers, colds, period problems, digestive disorders, hypertension, wounds, earache, measles, as a poultice, for stomach ulcers etc, as well as being used as a general tonic and stimulant.
Within the garden, yarrow makes a welcome addition to any naturalistic planting scheme, wildflower meadow or herb garden. It is resistant to drought and will quite happily reseed itself year after year. Germination from seed may be slow and the seeds require sunlight to germinate. It can also be propagated by cuttings or splitting the clumps. In very rich soil, yarrow may become tall and leggy and may require staking. Yarrow is a useful plant as it improves the health of surrounding plants as it contributes phosphorous, calcium and silica to the soil.
So next time you go for a walk and spot the yarrow flowering, or think about removing it from your pristine lawn, allow your mind to drift back to Achilles and the folklore associated with this plant.