The Aromatherapy School
Aromatherapy Monograph / Essential Oil Monograph
Yarrow Essential Oil
YARROW / MILFOIL
FOLK NAMES: milfoil, thousand leaf, soldier's woundwort, staunchwort, blood wort, Devil's plaything, Margaret's herb, and many others
DESCRIPTION/HABITAT: The herb we know as yarrow is one member of a genus containing over 85 species. It is now naturalized in most temperate zones but is native to Eurasia. However, there is a closely related and essentially identical native species on the North American continent, Achillea lanulosa, which can only be differentiated by chromosomal examination (1).
In either case, it is an aromatic, hardy, rhizomatous perennial herb with one to several stems reaching up to about three feet in height. The leaves are very finely dissected, with a feathery, lacy appearance giving rise to the plant's folk name "thousand leaf". It bears several dense, generally white and occasionally pinkish white composite flower heads. Depending on location, flowering generally occurs between May and September and as the flowers rise and bloom, the leaves shrink back and become small. Many cultivars of A. millefolium having larger, more colorful flowers are grown as garden ornamentals but don't have the medicinal potency of the wild growing plant.
Generally, Achillea is said to enjoy well drained soil and full sun. However, in the Southern Appalachians where I live it can be found happily growing wild in the partially shaded edge zones at the border of the forest and even in the dense, poorly drained clay soils of abandoned lots, waysides, and people's yards.
Today, yarrow is widely grown commercially for dried herb and, mostly in Eastern Europe, for essential oil production.
HISTORY: Yarrow is an herb with an ancient and rich history. Fossilized yarrow pollen has been found in a Neanderthal burial that is over 50,000 years old (2). Together with other medicinal plants in bloom, the yarrow was apparently laid around the head of an elderly Neanderthal male who died of natural causes.(Note: some archeologists now dispute that the plants were intentionally placed and argue that rodents may have carried the pollen into the burial). Did these ancient hominids know the medicinal powers of this plant? We can only speculate as to the significance of these findings but, inarguably, yarrow has a very long history of use as a medicinal and magical herb.
The botanical name of the genus, Achillea, is a reference to the Greek hero Achilles, whose mother, the nymph Thetis, made him magically invulnerable to wounds, except at his heel. When Paris struck him with a poisonous arrow at this spot, he was instructed by Aphrodite to place yarrow on the wound, which was immediately healed. Chiron, the mythical centaur who was famed as a healer, also instructed Achilles in the use of yarrow for healing the wounds of battle. It's efficacy in this respect is echoed in some of it's old folk names such as soldier's wound wort, staunchweed, bloodwort, and others.
The renowned first century CE physician Dioscorides, who has been called "the father of phytotherapy", also wrote of the herb's usefulness for puncture wounds and slashes.
The English word "yarrow" is derived from the old Anglo-Saxon word "gearwe", which means "to make healthy". It was a sacred herb to the old Germanic peoples and was generally dedicated to the Goddess Freya. The Greeks considered it an herb of Aphrodite (Venus), although Western astrologers have traditionally called it an herb of Mars. Despite its strong association as an herb of battle and soldiers (hence a "man's herb"), it's most ancient and enduring history marks it as an herb of the Goddess in her many manifestations and some of the herb's older folk names reflect this: e.g., virgin's herb, Margaret's herb (for St. Margaret who was traditionally invoked for many women's illnesses), and herb de Notre Dame. Indeed, its has a long history of traditional use for many types of women's complaints, such as dysmenorrhea characterized by excessive bleeding, as well as for the treatment of venereal diseases and other urogenital problems.
Magically, yarrow was traditionally used by women in Europe and the British Isles as part of spells conducted to reveal the identity of their future husbands. It has also been used for divination in China since the 2nd century where its dried stems were used to generate the random patterns used in the I Ching.
Yarrow is known to have been one of the nine sacred healing herbs of the ancient Celts and was gathered at the August festival of Lughnasa, where it was used in offerings to the Goddess and also saved for medicinal use later in the year. Maude Grieve wrote of its on-going use in the Highlands of Scotland, where it had long been used as a wound ointment, and in the Orkney Islands for dispelling melancholy. She noted also that it was one of the herbs "dedicated to the Evil One" in earlier days and having the folk names of Devil's Nettle, Devil's Plaything, and Bad Man's Plaything (3). These names were, of course, inventions of the Christian church and reflected the hysteria about witches and surviving remnants of the old beliefs rather than any ancient associations of the herb.
Yarrow also has a long and extensive history of use among Native American and Native Canadian groups, having been used by literally dozens of tribes across the continent, often as a cold remedy, analgesic, febrifuge, antirheumatic, to stop bleeding, and as a digestive/gastrointestinal aid. The Cherokee used it to stop bleeding, including menorraghia and internal bleeding; as a febrifuge; and as a sedative infusion for restful sleep. Among the Iroquois, it was highly regarded as a "blood purifier" and the Lakota applied chewed dried leaves to wounds. In truth, it was widely regarded as practically a panacea that might be used in the treatment of almost any illness of adults or children. It was sometimes used in the treatment of horses as well. It has been used by the Potowatami as a smudge to keep witches away; by the Kutenai as a perfume (leaves); and by others as an insect-repellant smudge. A number of related species have been used in various parts of North America. (4)
More detailed information on the traditional use of this herb by the Eastern Band of Cherokee has been provided by Cherokee author and teacher, J.T. Garrett, who writes that it was used along with witch hazel, hawthorn and wood betony to relax blood vessels, improve circulation and calm the heart. It has also been used for menstrual problems, sometimes together with black Cohosh; to reduce fevers; stop bleeding; and, with wintergreen, as a treatment for rheumatism.(5)
PARTS USED: The fresh and dried aerial parts (leaves and flowers) are most commonly used in modern herbal medicine and an essential oil is distilled from the dried leaves and flowers as well. There are references in the literature to use of the root in older times but this appears to be less common today.
HARVESTING: Tender and lush young leaves can be harvested in the spring while still juicy and again in the fall, when there is a second flush of leaf growth. These can be used fresh or dried but it is the flowering tops that are best and these should be harvested when fully open but still tender. After awhile, the flowers become woody and hard and have little medicinal value. Like the leaves, the flowers can also be used fresh or dried and can be combined with the dried young leaves harvested earlier and later in the year. As is the case with many herbs whose aerial parts are used, the smaller plants which have grown in adverse conditions of poor soil and heat are medicinally stronger than the bigger ones from the deep rich soils and cooler sites at the edge of the forest. However, harvest sites must be clean and free of soil contaminants and pollution from passing vehicles so vacant lots are not always a good choice in the city and I harvest most of my yarrow from the fallow fields around my home which have not been treated with chemical fertilizers and pesticides.
For essential oil production, the small leaves are typically harvested with the flowering tops in summer and the quality of the oil is affected by the proportion of the various parts distilled, i.e., flowers, leaves, and stems.
CONSTITUENTS: Yarrow herb is said to generally contain between .3% to 1.4% essential oil (see below); 3 to 4% tannins; flavanoids (apigenin, luteolin, isorhamnetin, rutin); alkaloids (betonicine, stachydrine, achiceine, moshatine, trigonelline, et. al.); phenolic acids (caffeic, salicylic); and coumarins (6).
Yarrow essential oil is notable for it's relatively high content (up to about 50%) of azulene, a powerful anti-inflammatory agent. The azulene content varies widely depending on the source and this is seen in the color of the essential oil, which can range from fairly dark blue, to greenish olive, to only very faintly blue or greenish. The best yarrow essential oils are distinctly blue but I have used those at the lighter blue end of the spectrum with good results. Those oils that have almost no blue tinge are of little value for therapeutic purposes. Other constituents of the essential oil include varying amounts of pinenes, caryophyllene, borneol, terpineol, cineol, camphor, thujone, et. al.
ACTIONS AND USES IN WESTERN HERBAL MEDICINE: As noted above, Yarrow herb is a versatile medicinal plant with a wide range of actions and uses. It's energy is cold and dry and its commonly described actions are as an astringent, vulnerary, diaphoretic, anti-inflammatory, hypotensive, diuretic, antimicrobial, emmenagogue, digestive, and hepatic. Dr. Christopher also described it as a tonic and alterative and said that because of its tonic action it will never weaken a patient (7).
Yarrow's reputation as an herb that is useful for healing wounds is well justified, although it is fair to say that in modern times it's use in this regard has declined as most people, in the United States at least, are treated medically for serious wounds and there are also fewer of us slashing at each other with swords these days. Nonetheless, modern herbalists still use it for lesser wounds and even for more serious ones when the need arises and it is, of course, still useful in this regard. Several good anecdotal accounts of the use of yarrow as a vulnerary are provided by Matthew Wood in his book, The Book of Herbal Wisdom: Using Plants as Medicines (8). I especially like his description of its use in a "spit poultice", which is how my grandparents frequently used many herbs, including yarrow, which we chewed and applied to hornet, wasp and yellow jacket stings (the other old standby remedies for stings in the South are tobacco juice and ribwort). In all fairness to modern developments in germ theory, however, one may want to think twice about putting something that has been in someone's mouth into a wound.
1. Matthew Wood, The Book of Herbal Wisdom: Using Plants as Medicines, 1997, North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, Ca. pg. 65.
2. Ralph. S. Solecki, "The Implications of the Shanidar Cave Neanderthal Flower Burials", presented at the May 24, 1976 meeting of the Section of Anthropology of the New York Academy of Sciences and quoted in David Lee, Nature's Palette: the Science of Plant Color, 2007, University of Chicago Press, pp 3-4
3. Mrs. M. Grieve, A Modern Herbal in Two Volumes, Vol. II (I-Z), Dover Edition, 1971, Dover Publications, Inc., New York, p 864 (originally published in 1931 by Harcourt, Brace, and Company).
4. Daniel E. Moerman, Native American Ethnobotany, 1998, Timber Press, Inc, Portland, Or., pp 42-45.
5. J.T. Garrett, The Cherokee Herbal: Native Plant Medicine from the Four Directions, 2003, Bear and Company, Rochester, Vermont, pp 105, 145-146, 199, 248.
6. David Hoffmann, Medical Herbalism: The Science and Practice of Herbal Medicine, 2003, Healing Arts Press, Rochester, Vt., pg. 523.
7. John R. Christopher, School of Natural Healing (20th Anniversary Edition), 1996, Christopher Publications, Springville, Ut., pg. 235
8. Matthew Wood, The Book of Herbal Wisdom: Using Plants as Medicines, 1997, North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, Ca. pg. 69.
*This information is provided for educational interest and is not intended to diagnose, treat, or cure any disease.
Copyright © 2010 Joie Power, Ph.D. / The Aromatherapy School | All Rights Reserved
Dr. Power is a retired board certified neuropsychologist and former Assistant Professor of Surgery/Neurosurgery at the Medical College of Georgia, where she performed intra-operative cortical mapping with renowned neurosurgeon Herman Flanigan, M.D. She has over 20 years of clinical experience in both in-patient and out-patient settings and during her years of practice has also been both a practitioner and student of alternative healing methods, including herbal medicine, aromatherapy, Reiki, Chinese Medicine, and other energetic healing systems. Her extensive formal training and experience in the olfactory and limbic systems of the brain give her a unique qualification for understanding the actions of essential oils in the body. Dr. Power, founder of one of the earliest essential oil companies in the U.S. to specialize in therapeutic quality essential oils, is now a clinical consultant for Artisan Aromatics as well as an internationally known writer and teacher in the fields of aromatherapy and alternative medicine. Her approach to aromatherapy weaves together her solid scientific training and strong clinical skills with a holistic philosophy that honors body, mind and spirit. Dr. Joie Power is also the author of The Quick Study Guide to Aromatherapy and numerous published articles on aromatherapy and related topics.
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