The common yarrow, simply called yarrow (Achillea millefolium) is a popular herbal plant found throughout Europe, parts of Asia and North America as well as other temperate regions of the world. Yarrow has been used over time as food, herbal infusion and medicine. Folk medicine recommends it particularly for stopping blood flow from wounds or nosebleeds. Up to this day, yarrow infusions and extracts are recommended as alternative treatments for various ailments and medical conditions characterized by an abnormal loss of blood.
The herb boasts astringent, diaphoretic, anti-inflammatory, anti-hemorrhagic as well as restorative properties and has been in use since ancient Greek and Roman times. What does yarrow look like? Overall, yarrow is a tall, slender-looking flowering plant with long, thin, green stems and feathery, fine, green leaves. The largest leaves are at the bottom of the plant and may grow up to around 20 cm in length, but become smaller as they go up.
The plant produces cluster of tiny, white or pink flowers, grouped together in a sort of umbrella-like manner. Small hairs may be present on the stems and leaves. Yarrow has tiny seeds, similar to strawberry seeds. While the original Achillea millefolium plant, also used for medicinal purposes, has white flowers, pink cultivars have also been developed and are quite popular among gardeners and landscape gardeners. What does yarrow smell like? Achillea millefolium flowers have a mildly sweet scent reminiscent of chrysanthemums, while the leaves boast peppery undertones.
Other common names for yarrow include: nosebleed plant, sanguinary, soldier’s woundwort, thousand-leaf, hundred leaved grass, old man’s pepper, knight’s milefoil, milefolium, noble yarrow, yarroway, carpenter’s weed, field hops, bloodwort, etc. Yarrow is a member of the Asteraceae family and it thus related to sunflowers, daisies, dandelions, calendula, Echinacea, chamomile, arnica and chrysanthemums (see them all here). This also means that it is a potential allergen, so check for daisy family allergies before you use yarrow in any preparation.
Over the course of its discovery, yarrow has been used as food, herbal infusion, cattle feed and medicine. Considering it is tolerant of drought, the plant can be employed in agriculture with the aim of combating soil erosion. Herbal infusions, bitters and liquors as well as cooking oil (yarrow essential oil) are main products obtained from the plant.
The leaves used to be dried and used as seasoning, hence the alternative name old man’s pepper. Young leaves were employed as a culinary vegetable and cooked similar to other leafy greens. Dried leaves and especially flowers are used to make herbal infusions, while yarrow essential oil is obtained from the flowers alone.
As far as its health benefits are concerned, traditional medical practices employed the plant for a great variety of illnesses and conditions ranging from respiratory infections to hemorrhage and gastrointestinal problems. Here are 10 of the most notable purported uses of yarrow:
1) Reduces bleeding of any sort: wounds, nosebleeds, uterine etc.
2) Boasts diaphoretic effects, promoting swating and reducing fever.
3) Natural diuretic, useful for maintaining kidney function and promoting weight loss.
4) Exhibits antispasmodic effects and may thus be useful for muscle spasms, abdominal cramps etc.
5) Relieves indigestion and associated abdominal cramps, nausea etc.
6) Encourages bile flow and promotes good digestion due to its bitter constituents.
7) Boast antimicrobial properties, hence its use for wound healing and respiratory infections.
8) May improve sleep quality by relieving insomnia.
9) Natural anti-inflammatory.
10) Tonic with regenerative effects.
Yarrow owes its curative properties to its naturally-occurring chemical constituents. Yarrow essential oil has been found to contain up to 82 biologically active constituents, including: alpha-pinene, cineole, bornene, sabinene, allo-ocimene, eugenol, menthol, camphor, limonene, azulene, chamazulene, beta-sitosterol, stigmasterol, campesterol, sesquiterpene lactones, flavonoids (apigenin, luteolin, rutin, etc.), polyacetylenes, coumarins, amino acids (alanine, histidine, lysine, glutamic acid, aspartic acid) etc.
Yarrow chest rubs are used in colds, flu and other respiratory infections to promote sweating and reduce fever. Chamazulene is one of several powerful anti-inflammatory compounds found in yarrow essential oil which help reduce inflammation related to muscle pain, abdominal cramps or wounds. It has also been suggested it possesses anti-allergenic properties, hence the use of yarrow for nose congestion as a result of seasonal allergies.
Achillein is a glycoside that encourages bile flow and thus contributes to good digestion, hence the use of yarrow for digestive problems such as dyspepsia. Achilletin is believed to stop bleeding, while achimilic acids have been shown to inhibit the proliferation of a line of leukemia cells in in vivo studies (mouse P-388 ).
While toxic, thujone, a constituent found in too low amounts in the plant and its oil to cause any serious side effects, has been shown to boast antibacterial, antifungal and immunity boosting properties, hence the use of the plant for the treatment of respiratory and other kinds of infections, especially by Streptococcus aureus and Candida albicans. Borneol, cineole and the sesquiterpene lactones in yarrow exhibit anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial and antiseptic properties.
Yarrow also contains tannins, compounds that impart a bitter taste and are responsible for the astringent and antihemorrhagic properties of the plant, recommending it for wound healing, dysfunctional uterine bleeding, hemorrhoids etc. The flavonoids in yarrow not only boast antioxidant activity, but also exhibit antispasmodic effects. Similarly, each chemical constituent in the plant holds various health effects and contributes to its use for the treatment and management of a wide variety of ailments.
If used according to recommendations, yarrow is an excellent medicinal plant. I admit I use it for dysfunctional bleeding and I am happy to say that my condition has improved significantly with only two cups of tea a day. However, remember to always ask your doctor’s advice before using any medicinal herb to treat an existing condition.
Side effects and toxicity. Like most medicinal plants, yarrow is to be avoided during pregnancy because it may increase miscarriage risks. Similarly, new mothers should discuss any use of medicinal plant with a medical professional as compounds in herbal plants are passed into the mother’s milk and can affect the baby’s health.
The herb also contains several compounds that may induce side effects and toxicity, provided large amounts of plant-based products are consumed. For example, sesquiterpene lactones, along with a few other constituents have been found to cause contact dermatitis and may elicit mild to severe allergic reactions in particularly sensitive individuals. Thujone, a natural antibacterial, is also toxic if consumed in large amounts. Regardless of this, yarrow is considered safe for use by adults, provided they abide by the professional recommendations given.