I’ve been getting a lot of questions about Yarrow lately, so I decided it was time for a more comprehensive Yarrow post. It’s a very important medicine, and in many regions, right now is the time to harvest it.
First, a little background. This plant has many names:
Yarrow is a common plant around the world in the northern hemisphere: North America, Asia, and Europe. I’ve seen it growing all across Turtle Island. Every person who works extensively with plant medicines has favorite plants that they work with, and catch-all remedies that they use to treat many ailments. Yarrow is one of my favorites.
It starts off as a patch of feathery, deep green leaves on the ground. Later in the season, it forms a flower stalk. The buds will open to reveal an umbrella-like cluster of white flowers. (To me, these white flowers smell kind of buttery, but not everybody agrees on that.) In this picture, you can see a bunch of yarrow plants in full bloom, and one in the front where the bud is just getting ready to open:
I was first introduced to its medicinal properties by some mentors of mine in British Columbia, a couple of St’át’imc medicine people, Wayne Smith and Rita Wells of Q’aLaTKu7eM/Samahquam/Battiste-Smith Indian Reserve. They work with the flower tips, which they told me are the “extra-strength part.” I learned from them that if you feel a cold or other illness coming on, you can drink a few cups of yarrow flower tip tea to fight off the illness. For years, this was the only way I used yarrow. It is still my go-to cold-prevention tea. It forms a beautiful, bright yellow tea. Some people find it a tiny bit bitter, but I think it’s a very pleasant tea.
The tea is a remedy for more than just fighting off colds, though. I have also noticed over the years that this tea settles an upset stomach. And later on, I learned from Linda Black Elk that it can be a blood purifier.
Linda also taught me the 2 Lakota names for this plant: Ȟaŋté čhaŋȟlóǧaŋ, and tȟaópi pȟežúta. Each of these names has something to teach us about this plant.
Ȟaŋté čhaŋȟlóǧaŋ: This name can help us to identify the plant if we’re not sure. Literally, this translates to “hollow-stemmed cedar.” The leaves kind of resemble cedar leaves (a much less woody version of cedar). And the stems of this plant, especially the stalks that the flowers grow on, are hollow.
Tȟaópi pȟežúta: This is a really important one. In fact, I think this name describes how most people know Yarrow. It’s also the most important way to think of this plant in an emergency situation. This name translates to “wound medicine.” It has styptic action — meaning, it can stop bleeding. If you ever find yourself cut and needing to stop bleeding, look for yarrow.
If you’re trying to stop bleeding in a hurry, the best styptic part of the yarrow is the leaves, although the flowers can work, too.
How I have learned yarrow to stop bleeding in the field:
Have the patient chew up a handful of leaves. Then put the poultice of wet, mashed leaves on the wound to encourage blood clotting.
(If you’re indoors and have a jar of yarrow leaves, you can also wet the leaves and mash them up, or even apply them as a dry powder to the wound.)
I’ve used yarrow effectively to stop bleeding on cuts and puncture wounds on many occasions. The latest was just over a month ago — I accidentally caught the palm of my hand on the exposed tip of a nail, and it tore my hand up pretty badly. I immediately poured hot water over some dried yarrow leaves to rehydrate them, mashed the leaves, rinsed the wound, and packed the leaves onto the cut, before bandaging up my hand. It was a painful, jagged cut, and I didn’t it think would heal well, but now I only have a tiny scar. One of my projects for later this season will be to make a yarrow wound powder and salve for my first aid kit.
Linda tells a story of the day she was out with a friend, when yarrow really saved the day. The friend dove through the barbed-wire fence of a buffalo pasture to avoid a charging bull, tearing a deep gash in his thigh in the process. She and the others picked a bunch of yarrow leaves for him to chew, packing it into the wound as they rushed him towards the truck, and then the hospital. When they got to the hospital, she reports, the gash had entirely stopped bleeding, and the doctor asked how they had cauterized the wound in the field. If I remember her story correctly, they had trouble convincing the doctor that they didn’t actually cauterize it, but just used this amazing medicinal plant. I believe that interaction led to developing a relationship with the doctor, who had pretty recently immigrated from India, and was curious to get to know and appreciate the medicinal plants we have in the Great Plains.
Indigenous Turtle Islanders aren’t the only culture that has a long-standing relationship with Yarrow. The scientific (Latin) name, Achillea millefolium, alludes to several more stories and identifying characteristics.
The second part of the name, “millefolium,” translates to “thousand leaves.” Have you ever counted each of those feathery needles on a yarrow leaf? I haven’t — but while I think it’s probably closer to a hundred than a thousand, I can easily see why it got that name.
The first part of the Latin name, Achillea, is a reference to Achilles. Even if you’re not familiar with the Greek story of Achilles, you probably have heard of the Achilles tendon in your heel.
This is how the story has been explained to me:
When Achilles was a child, his mother dipped him in a bath of yarrow tea, so that he would be invincible — not able to be killed in battle, and shielded in protection. But when she dipped him in the bath, she held him by his heels. So his heels, the only part of his body that didn’t get soaked in this protective medicine, were his vulnerable point.
Related to this story, I’ve heard of people of European descent working with yarrow on a spiritual level for protection. I’ve also heard practitioners from these traditions say that they work with yarrow spiritually to help them reinforce their own healthy boundaries. A few months ago I heard the 12-year-old daughter of one of my herbalist teachers describe herself as “feeling yarrow-y.” At the time, she was snuggled under a blanket on a comfortable couch next to her mom, feeling safe and warm, shielded from danger, imagining a big umbrella of yarrow growing up above her head.
There are so many other applications for this plant. Yarrow can also treat a sore throat. An Anishinaabe medicine woman I know recommends it to help with Lyme disease. Linda Black Elk also describes it as a diuretic, and documents it stimulates on urination and sweating.
I know some people who work with yarrow around regulating their menstrual cycles. I do not have personal direct experience with this, but I know people who have consumed yarrow tea when they were in a situation that they needed to stop menstruating. However, I have also known people who have used this plant to bring on menstruation.
In a first aid podcast, I heard from the New York-based herbalist 7Song that he uses yarrow soaks (a bath in a small tub for the affected area of the body) to combat infection. And this plant monograph gives some other interesting uses that I didn’t previously know about, such as using the root to soothe the pain from a toothache.
This is a wild plant that can also be cultivated in a garden. If you have any space at all to garden, I highly recommend making space for this infinitely useful plant. Yarrow grows in a mat (branching out from one individual to a whole colony), and a surprising number of individual plants can grow in a small space.
It’s worth noting that there are some non-native ornamental varieties of yarrow plants (Achillea aegyptiaca), which have paler, sage-gray leaves with a slightly different shape. It is my understanding that these are less medicinal, so I would recommend growing wild yarrow instead. Wild yarrow usually has white flowers, occasionally with a touch of pink. (California has several endemic indigenous yarrows with different colors of blossoms, such as the Channel Islands red yarrow — but I am just getting to know these, so I cannot comment on their medicinal value.) The white-blossomed, indigenous yarrow is the surest bet. It propagates well if you dig up a single individual in a colony, and is easy to keep alive. (For more on gardening with yarrow, California cultivars, and medicinal uses, I recommend this blog post by a very knowledgeable elder I’ve met who runs a native plant garden in Livermore, CA.)
In many places across Turtle Island, yarrow is in bloom right now. If you are harvesting the flower tips, now is the time to do it! I recommend cutting the whole long stalks, washing them, then drying and storing the leaves and flowers separately (since you will probably want to use them for different purposes).
If you are harvesting it for the leaves, it’s probably best to get them sooner than the end of the summer, especially if live in a drier climate. By the end of the summer, the leaves tend to dry up and fade away, dying back to the roots, which will regenerate a plant and flower stalks the following year.