Yarrow: Achillea millefolium

Yarrow: Achillea millefolium

Everyone needs to get to know yarrow. It grows wild here through the summer and I harvest the flowers and leaves and dry them and make tinctures and sun oils for use throughout the year.  It is a wonderful helper plant, with many uses.

When I first noticed its feathery leaves growing abundantly and picked it, smelled it and crushed it in my fingers, it felt like a breath of fresh air. Yarrow has a lovely clean fragrance, gently floral and very slightly anti-septic (reminiscent of sticking plasters). Its scent is more pronounced in the leaves. I decided to pick some flowers and leaves, even though I didn’t know what I might use it for at the time – just following the trail of wondering.  Yarrow is good for that……

Yarrow

Yarrow’s ‘magical’ properties

When yarrow first caught me attention, with its lush feathery foliage tiny white flowers, floating like parasols in the breeze, I was certain it had a lot to offer. I have no hesitation in following my instincts. I get three clear indications when I question whether it is good for me to interact with a plant or substance:

  •  strong, clear ‘good for me’ with a feeling of eagerness and no hesitation or doubt, no mental chatter, my body just leaps joyfully towards whatever it is I’m asking about
  • a hard ‘no way’ often coupled with a feeling of repulsion, sometimes I will ‘accidently’ drop the plant or substance
  • nothing, no feeling at all. I’ve learned from experience that this also means that it’s not good for me, even though I might want it to be!

Very often, the first thing I’ll do with a ‘good for me’ plant is make a tea. I’ve never liked herbal teas, they always taste stale and smell musty to me, but I like teas from plants I’ve harvested myself. My current favourites are, red clover, Queen Anne’s Lace, pennyroyal and yarrow.

Yarrow tea

Yarrow tea, made with leaves and flowers that have been dried for an hour or so (or up to a year if it has been stored out of sunlight) has an immediate normalising effect on body temperature and makes you slightly thirsty (the astringent effect). It is a bit bitter (as are many herbs/plants) and so I sweeten it with little honey.

When you follow your wondering, you are led into the unknown, out of the matrix and directly into Gaia’s dreaming. This can happen so gently that you might not realize what is going on, until you look back on it later. Yarrow tea, made with dried flowers, helps me slip into the trance-like state of awake dreaming very easily.  One of its old names is Devil’s Plaything and a sure-fire way of identifying plants with psychotropic properties is to look for the devil in their folk lore names: Datura Stramonium, aka Devil’s Apple, Devil’s Trumpet; Belladona, aka Devil’s Cherries; Mandrake, Satan’s Apple and Devil’s Testicles. All these plants are known to have psychotropic properties, to be analgesic and have various other healing properties, as well as high levels of toxicity. In medieval times, anyone who practiced healing and enjoyed tripping was obviously in league with the devil!

Yarrow for colds and chills

Recently, I came back from the UK with a cold; probably because I didn’t take any warm socks and shoes when we went to Wales and my feet got cold and wet. Yes, you can catch a chill from sudden exposure to cold weather! Our bodies aren’t made to adjust instantly to the climatic and microbial extremes we can experience through the wonders of air travel. This kind of cold comes with a clear, runny nose, sensitivity to cold temperatures and a bit of a headache and may be the start of a sore throat. It commonly occurs with the change of seasons, which I experienced in the extreme in this instance. We tend to call it a head cold – wind with cold in Chinese medicine.

Yarrow tea is particularly good for this kind of cold, as it helps raise the body temperature to induce sweating. This may seem counter-intuitive with the sensitivity to cold, but sweating it out through the skin is the best approach for this type of cold, if you catch it quickly enough.

I made yarrow tea with ginger and went to bed, piling on four extra blankets and sweated it out. The cold was gone in a few days.

Yarrow was among the plants buried alongside a Neanderthal man, plausibly a shaman or medicine man, in the Shanidar cave in Iraq over 60,000 years ago. Does this suggest that maybe the Neanderthals were not as primitive as we have been led to believe? Yarrow has been helping us for a very long time.

Healing with yarrow

The legend of yarrow is remembered in its botanical name: Achillea Millefolium. This roughly translates as ‘Achilles’ Plant of a Thousand Leaves’. Achilles is said to have used it to staunch his soldiers’ wounds on the battlefield and it also known as staunchweed.

The medicinal properties of yarrow have been well studied and are summarised in this article (which everyone seems to quote without referencing):

A few weeks ago, Izzy got a deep gash on her shoulder after chasing a fox. I don’t know whether the fox bit her or whether she caught herself on a branch in the woods.  After I’d cleaned the wound, I saw that it was about 3cm long and a centimetre deep, pulling open because of the location on her shoulder. Dean thought it needed stitching, but it would have been next to impossible to get Izzy to the vets, so I packed the wound with dried yarrow powder. I did this twice a day for the next week or so as the wound dried out and scabbed over, then re-opened slightly because of her activity. Within three weeks it was completely healed, with no scarring.

Yarrow is styptic and hemostatic (stops bleeding), astringent (makes tissues contract), antiseptic (inhibits bacterial growth), vulnerary (helps tissues heal), anti-inflammatory, and slightly anesthetic. I use it powdered, dried in teas, in tinctures and salves. It is an essential element of the Gaian Medicine Cabinet

Powdered yarrow: to stop bleeding and aid wound healing

Take 6-10 white flower heads. Dry the heads for 2-24 hours, depending on the weather. Grind the heads in a coffee mill and store in an airtight jar. It remains effective for a year or two if kept sealed and in the dark. It has a lovely fresh clean smell.

Use by applying directly to any bleeding wounds and it will stop the blood flow almost immediately and help the wound heal.

Yarrow tincture

Tincturing is a method for extracting the active ingredient from the plant, so that it can be used in liquid form and easily stored. Most tinctures will remain effective for at least a couple of years, if stored in a cool dark place. I add a teaspoonful to teas, when I don’t have the fresh or dried flowers.

I make yarrow tincture from fresh flowers at their peak and the top few leaves of the plant only. I pick what I need on a dry sunny morning (yarrow blooms from May to October here) and let the heads dry for an hour or so before using them, to let any critters get out of the way. I don’t wash the plants, because everything I use is wild and organic and it’s very clean here.

I use Orujo for tincturing, which is the local spirit distilled from the solids left after the grapes are pressed for wine. It is usually over 50% or 100˚ proof. We get ours from a neighbour, so I’m not sure how strong it is, but it seems to work well enough.

Prepared yarrow
Prepared yarrow

Yarrow flower essence

All healer plants work on multiple levels and flower essences, being subtler, work on the energetic rather than the physical levels. Yarrow is a wound healer, so the flower essence works to heal ‘wounds’ in the psyche and energy field or aura.

Flower essences work very well with dogs. Just recently we adopted another dog, Freya, after Riley died. Freya had been found wandering the streets in a town in southern Spain. We don’t know anything about her previous life, but she was very skinny, covered in fleas and ticks and had lots of scars around her face and neck. She had obviously had a loving home before, because she is the cuddliest dog we’ve ever had, but she must have had to fight for her survival on the streets. She settled in immediately with Tulku (our male dog) but she and Izzy (our other female) were not quite sure of each other; they couldn’t work out the pecking order. Izzy is terribly sensitive and thought she had to take over Riley’s role, although that wasn’t what she wanted. Freya wasn’t taking any chances if Izzy came near her food and they both wanted to protect Tulku, who wanted nothing more than to play with them both at the same time.

I’ve been giving yarrow flower essence to all three a couple of times a day to help them with the transition into their new pack. Tulku didn’t need it, but he loves to take any kind of supplement or medication (seriously, he starts making sucking noises as soon as I get a dropper or syringe out). Izzy and Freya haven’t obviously bonded yet, but they can sleep on the same couch and the three of them all go off for a walk together often enough. It’s only been three weeks as I write this and they are becoming more comfortable with each other every day.

Yarrow insect repellent

There are many references on the internet to a US Army study that allegedly found a yarrow tincture insect repellent to be more effective than DEET. DEET is toxic stuff [http://www.naturalnews.com/029136_deet_toxic.html] that no one should ever put on their skin – have you ever considered that your skin absorbs substances as easily as your gut? So why would you put anything on your skin that you would not consider eating?

The references to the mythical US Army study made me conduct my own study with yarrow tincture as an insect repellent. I didn’t do it it scientifically, I just diluted some yarrow tincture with water and sprayed it around. It smells lovely and does keep some flies out of the eating area, but it also has a cumulative effect; the more you use it the more it keeps bugs away. I haven’t tried it specifically for mosquitoes, but it is very useful generally.

(We use a home-made pyrethrum spray as a really effective bug, tick and flea killer. I don’t like to spray it around more often than necessary, because pyrethrum is also a neurotoxin, although it is much less harmful to mammals than insects and an organic substance is easier for the body to deal with than anything synthetic. Pyrethrin is generally used in reference to the synthesized version.)

Very little research is done on natural compounds, as it’s not sufficiently profitable, but I found this study stating that yarrow has been shown to repel mosquitoes.

Abstract: An ethanol extract of Achillea millefolium L. showed repelling properties against the mosquito, Aedes aegypti L. “

 Yarrow In the compost heap

 “Yarrow works in the compost heap in the same way as used medicinally in the human body: it can remedy the weaknesses of the astral (soul) body.”

Rudolf Steiner

We compost as much as possible, as a matter of choice and necessity. We don’t have any rubbish collection where we live and we don’t have a sewage system or septic tank – we have a compost loo. I’m very interested in anything that that helps the composting process.

This statement by Rudolf Steiner had me wondering why yarrow is identified as working in the compost heap in the same way as it does in the body, as opposed to any other healing plant. I did a bit more research and discovered that yarrow is known as a compost accelerant because of it’s ability to concentrate both sulphur and potassium, along with other micronutrients such as copper and phosphates.

I’ve started putting some dead yarrow heads, as well as the leftover plant matter from tincturing, in the compost pile and we’ll see how it goes.

Yarrow around the vegetable beds

In addition to helping the compost heap, I think that yarrow works in the earth in the same way as it does in the human body. It’s root runners help balance temperature in the topsoil, just as its tincture does in the blood. It spreads happily bringing lushness to the beds and is easily dug up when it’s time to replace it with something else.

Yarrow attracts beneficial insects and pollinators and is a great companion plant, because of its antibacterial and antifungal properties. It is considered to be of special benefit to aromatics, but I’ve put it all around the veggie beds and find that it generally makes everything grow stronger. It looks beautiful too!

Yarrow around the broccoli
Yarrow around the broccoli

Yarrow as a natural fungicide

I haven’t tried this, as we haven’t needed it, but I came across this recipe for a fermented yarrow fungicide

[http://www.growtheplanet.com/en/blog/learn/article/486/fermented-extract-of-yarrow-a-natural-fungicide] just as a friend asked if I knew of anything that might help his goji berries!

Further resources

Matthew Wood on Yarrow, from the Earthwise Herbal

 A study of White Yarrow by Jane Ellen of the Flower Essence Society

“Yarrow is always the greatest boon, wherever it grows wild in the country — at the edges of the fields or roads, where cereals or potatoes or any other crops are growing. It should on no account be weeded out… In a word, like sympathetic people in human society, who have a favourable influence by their mere presence and not by anything they say, so yarrow, in a district where it is plentiful, works beneficially by its mere presence.”
– Rudolf Steiner.

Wasp Attack

A couple of weeks ago, I disturbed a wasp nest.  Wasps attack immediately when they feel threatened and I was stung 10-15 times on my arm, hand and leg.  I couldn’t get away because of the long grass and brambles.  It didn’t hurt much initially, so I carried on working.  Then I started to feel a ferocious itching and burning in my groin, which I knew was lymph and I decided to head back to the cabin.  Before I got back my scalp, palms and the soles of my feet were on fire.  Within minutes my whole body was covered in a painful red rash and I jumped in the shower and turned on the cold water to try and give myself an adrenaline boost.  It didn’t seem to work.

Dean found an anti-histamine, which I was reluctant to take, but I could see he was worried.  By this time, my face was really swollen and the pain was intense.  I put me feet in a bucket of cold water and had Dean rub me all over with St John’s Wort oil to try and cool me down.  Then my throat started to close and Dean wanted to know if we needed to go to the hospital.  I had a moment of fear and thought: take me now or make this go away and the swelling in my throat began to ease and the pain became more bearable.  I was still nicely swollen two hours later when Claudius and Michelle showed up, but managed to get out of bed a bit later so we could go out to dinner.  It took several days for all the swelling to go completely.

Since then I’ve been wondering why I had such a strong reaction and why did I not want to take the anti-histamine?  I don’t like pharmaceuticals and consider them to be more harmful than beneficial in most cases, excepting emergencies; and this was an emergency.  I don’t think Sophia set up this experiment with the intention that we should succumb so easily to insect stings either, although poisons definitely have their place.  However, histamine is not a poison, it is a neurotransmitter, so why do we need to shut it off?

A neurotransmitter is a chemical that is released by neurons in the nervous system and crosses the synaptic gap between neurons, to be received by another neuron in order to generate a specific reaction. The constant stimulation of neurons causes reactions in the body which are specific to the type of neurotransmitter that is passed.  Histamine’s role is to produce an immediate inflammatory response as part of the immune system that comes into action when your body is under attack.  Histamine causes the blood vessels to swell, so that white cells can get to the problem area quickly, that sounds like a good thing.  Over-reaction, like mine, is considered to be the result of histamine intolerance, due to the body not being able to break down histamine properly.  We always have a small amount of histamine circulating in the body and when I was stung, more was released at the site of the the wasp stings, flooding my body.

The exact composition of wasp venom is unknown.  From the wasp’s perspective, it stings to paralyse other insects that it wants to eat, or to warn off larger animals like me.  Wasps have been around for longer than humans and they are very effective predators, see Wasp Warriors.  However, it is not the poison that causes the allergic reaction.  Wasp venom contains a protein enzyme called hyaluronidase, which speeds up the dispersion through the body of any injected substance, by reducing the viscosity of hyaluronic acid that cushions the cells and increasing tissue permeability.  (Yes, hyaluronidase is used to break down hyaluronic acid based cosmetic fillers after people have had too much of it pumped into their faces to make them look younger!)  My allergic reaction was caused by the combination of hyaluronidase and histamine, which generated a systemic inflammatory response and the anti-histamine probably helped in this situation.  Adrenaline also stops the production of histamine, which is why people who know they are highly allergic carry Epipens.

But why do I have too much histamine in my body?  There are many  foods that contain histamine (and these foods are often involved in food allergies) but my intolerance most likely stems from the fact that I was on Zantac for 25 years, because of a stomach ulcer.  Zantac/Ranitidene, like its cousins Tagamet and Pepcid is a histamine blocker.  It targets the H2 histamine receptors, which are found in the stomach lining, heart, uterus, vascular smooth muscle cells and white blood cells.  It stops these cells responding to histamine, so that there is no inflammatory response from food or drink that would normally cause irritation.  The body naturally responds by producing more histamine, causing a permanent overload.  In addition these drugs, and others, actually deplete the levels of diamine oxidase in the body, which is primarily responsible fro breaking down histamine in the digestive tract.  I weaned myself off Zantac in 2010 and have had no pain or bleeds since and I’m able to eat and drink more liberally than I ever was while on Zantac.  I now need to look into how to reduce my baseline histamine levels – more on that in another post.

Apparently, most people who get an allergic reaction to wasp stings do not get it for bee stings, or vice versa.  It’s one or the other, so that’s a relief!