Yarrow / Achillea millefolium / Asteraceae Family
The yarrow in my garden stays green throughout the winter, though the fresh growth is very small. This is the perfect time of year to start dividing yarrow plants here in our growing zone, so I thought I’d share this yarrow monograph with you today. Parts of it are taken from our Summer Foraging course and from the yarrow profile from our Herbal Aromatherapy™ Certification Program, so you’ll be getting a little glimpse into both of those classes today. (The Certification Program will be opening soon!)
Yarrow is an herbaceous perennial that can grow to 3’ tall or so in good soil. You’ll often find it growing along the side of the road or a path, in fields and meadows, and in places where the soil has been disturbed in the past. It likes to grow in full sun but can also do quite well in part shade. I’ve found that it blooms happily in both settings.
The fern-like basal leaves are very deeply lobed and divided so that they almost look like lacy green feathers and they are very aromatic if you rub them between your fingers. Along the flower spikes, the leaves are alternating. In our growing zone, the plant will keep some smaller basal leaves throughout the winter, but the flower spikes die back after the frosty season starts. Flower clusters are borne at the end of the 2-3′ tall flower spikes (1′ for first year plants and some varieties will grow taller than the 3′) and the wild varieties, which are the medicinal ones, will have white flowers in our country and sometimes cream to light pink varieties in other parts of the world. The richer colors – purples, reds, oranges, yellows, etc. – are cultivars bred for their color and are not used medicinally. I grow both the species and the cultivars and the cultivars are nowhere near as potent as the species, so I reserve the cultivars for the pollinators and use the white for medicine.
Yarrow propagates itself through seed, spreading rhizomes and underground stems, so it can spread quickly and is easily multiplied. I sometimes find it growing wild as a single plant or a cluster of two or three small plants. If you’re foraging and you find it in such small numbers, it’s best to leave it rather than wildharvest it. If you carry some seed with you, you can sprinkle a bit near where you find it growing to help encourage the patch to spread. Yarrow is very easy to grow from seed and to multiply through root division. Even small pieces of the rooted rhizomes will take root and continue growing. Last winter I took two 1-gallon sized plants and divided them into about 30 plants that now fill a raised bed full of happy yarrow blossoms!
The flowers and leaves are both used therapeutically. You can harvest the leaves as needed throughout the year, but I do love the vibrancy of the leaves in early spring for drying and storing. Leaves and flowers can be used fresh to make compresses and poultices for wounds and injuries and to help stop bleeding and relieve pain.
Harvest the flower stalks the day the flowers fully open and are looking vibrant. Cut the stalk all the way down to the base of the plant and either dry on the stalk before removing the leaves and flowers or run your hand down the stem to remove the fresh leaves and flowers so you can dry them off the stalk. Yarrow dries very quickly, so you’ll probably be able to move it from your drying racks to a storage container within a few days. Spread in a single, even layer to dry in a space with good airflow.
Yarrow starts blooming mid to late spring and through the summer. In our area, the stalks die back in the winter (we did have one overachiever keep blooming through January this year) and some of the basal leaves remain, looking like a little feathery nest.
Yarrow is an important pollinator plant, so never harvest all the flowers from one wild patch. Leave plenty behind for the native creatures in its habitat and for others who might need to make use of it as well.
Yarrow is so easy to grow that it’s a good idea to plant a patch of it in your own garden if you’re able to. It spreads easily, so keep it contained if you don’t want it to run around the yard. It makes a lovely lawn replacement (or addition) and can be planted instead of monocrop grasses. It’s easy to mow and can be kept quite short and tidy. Our local Master Gardener’s extension has planted a yarrow lawn in one area of their gardens and it looks quite beautiful shorn!
I like to plant yarrow with violets, alpine strawberries, plantain, selfheal, St. John’s wort, and Roman chamomile. They seem to exist quite happily with each other. A few plants will easily give you enough plant material to stock your apothecary for the year once they’ve matured. If you plant their seeds early enough (I’d say by February at the latest), they’ll flower for you in their first year.
Yarrow leaf and flower can be used interchangeably, though I find that the flowers have a stronger energetic effect. The plant has a distinct styptic quality (it’s very astringent) that can be useful when trying to stop bleeding or weepy sores and rashes, but the flowers can also be used to help stop what I call “energetic seeping.”
When you feel like you’re giving too much of your energy away to help someone else or you’re not quite feeling centered because you’re dealing with a hard thing that requires you to be strong for someone else, you can sometimes feel like your energy is just seeping out of you and it’s exhausting. Yarrow is a good ally in such cases, and I find that the flowers are especially suited for this.
Yarrow leaf and flower can both be brewed as a tea, steeped 5-10 minutes, and taken to help improve circulation and reduce fever. It’s not one that you’ll want to take regularly because it contains a constituent called thujone, but it’s a great plant for acute, short-term situations. I like to pair it with ginger and cayenne in a circulation-stimulating tea. The leaf can lean toward bitter and its flavor is improved when paired with other herbs, but the flower is has a very distinct floral taste that is strong but not unpleasant.
I like to use yarrow in compresses and poultices to help reduce pain and swelling and disinfect the skin when dealing with injuries; think strains, sprains, and minor cuts, scrapes and bruises. Yarrow is both vulnerary and anti-inflammatory, with some pain-relieving and antimicrobial effects that can make it very helpful in such situations. It’s a wonderful plant to keep in your first aid kit and in your foraging kit. I like to dry the leaf, powder it finely with a mortar and pestle, and keep the powder on hand in a small tin in my kit so I have it when it’s needed for minor wounds.
I’ve had to make use of yarrow right in the garden a couple of times. It’s helpful if you’ve been stung or bitten by an insect, but it’s also invaluable if you’ve accidentally cut yourself with your pruners (like me!). You can pack the leaves right on the injury as you make your way into the house to take care of the wound to help relieve pain and stop the bleeding. I’ve done this several times and it works every time! You can also bruise the leaf a bit to help release some of its juice and I’ve found that to be quite helpful as well.
Yarrow can also be used to make herbal liniments and the tincture can be used as a strong medicine when dealing with bleeding, injury or pain. A pint-sized jar of tincture will likely last you for many years and is an effective, sustainable way to make use of this plant’s medicine.
I also really like to use yarrow flower essence to help as more of a tonic for empath-types who find that they are sensitive to the hurts and pains of others and feel that they are easily drained of energy after being around others. It can also be a useful ingredient in post-trauma flower essence blends.
The dried leaf and flower can be infused into carrier oil and used to make massage oils, salves, balms, ointments and creams to help with inflammation and pain, bruises, and minor (or already closed) wounds.
Avoid long-term or regular internal use because of its thujone content. If you have an allergy to other Asteraceae family plants, proceed with caution.
Look-Alike Plants in the US
Yarrow really doesn’t look much like these plants once you’ve gotten to know it, but for a beginner, it’s important to be aware of these other plants that you could possibly mistake for yarrow.
How do you like to use yarrow? Do you grow it? Do you grow the species or the cultivars? Tell me about your experience with it in the comments section below. I’d love to hear from you!