Achillea millefolium or yarrow is a flowering plant in the family Asteraceae, native to the Northern Hemisphere. In Spanish-speaking New Mexico and southern Colorado, it is called plumajillo, or “little feather”, for the shape of the leaves. In antiquity, yarrow was known as herbal militaris, for its use in staunching the flow of blood from wounds. Other common names for this species include common yarrow, gordaldo, nosebleed plant, old man’s pepper, devil’s nettle, sanguinary, milfoil, soldier’s woundwort, thousand-leaf (as its binomial name affirms), and thousand-seal.
Yarrow has seen historical use as a medicine, often because of its astringent effects. Decoctions have been used to treat inflammations, such as hemorrhoids, and headaches. Confusingly, it has been said to both stop bleeding and promote it. Infusions of yarrow, taken either internally or externally, are said to speed recovery from severe bruising. The most medicinally active part of the plant is the flowering tops. They also have a mild stimulant effect, and have been used as a snuff. Today, yarrow is valued mainly for its action in colds and influenza, and also for its effect on the circulatory, digestive, excretory, and urinary systems. In the nineteenth century, yarrow was said to have a greater number of indications than any other herb.
It is believed that anti-allergenic compounds can be extracted from the flowers by steam distillation. The flowers are used to treat various allergic mucus problems, including hay fever. Flowers used in this way are harvested in summer or autumn, and an infusion drunk for upper respiratory phlegm or used externally as a wash for eczema. Inhale for hay fever and mild asthma, use fresh in boiling water.
The dark blue essential oil, extracted by steam distillation of the flowers, is generally used as an anti-inflammatory or in chest rubs for colds and influenza. For a massage oil for inflamed joints, dilute 5-10 drops yarrow oil in 25 ml infused St. John’s wort oil. A chest rub can be made for chesty colds and influenza. Combine yarrow with eucalyptus, peppermint, hyssop, or thyme oil, diluting a total of 20 drops of oil in 25 ml almond or sunflower oil.
The leaves encourage clotting, so it can be used fresh for nosebleeds. However, inserting a leaf in the nostril may also start a nosebleed; this was once done to relieve migraines. Harvest throughout the growing season.
The aerial parts of the plant are used for phlegm conditions, as a bitter digestive tonic to encourage bile flow, and as a diuretic. The aerial parts act as a tonic for the blood, stimulate the circulation, and can be used for high blood pressure. Also useful in menstrual disorders, and as an effective sweating remedy to bring down fevers. Harvest during flowering. The tincture is used for urinary disorders or menstrual problems. Prescribed for cardiovascular complaints. Soak a pad in an infusion or dilute tincture to soothe varicose veins.
Yarrow intensifies the medicinal action of other herbs taken with it, and helps eliminate toxins from the body. It is reported to be associated with the treatment of the following ailments:
Amenorrhea, anti-inflammatory, bowels, bleeding, blood clots, blood pressure (lowers), blood purifier, blood vessels (tones), catarrh (acute, repertory), colds, chicken pox, circulation, contraceptive (unproven), cystitis, diabetes treatment, digestion (stimulates), dyspepsia, eczema, fevers, flu’s, gastritis, glandular system, gum ailments, heartbeat (slow), influenza, insect repellant, internal bleeding, liver (stimulates and regulates), lungs (hemorrhage), measles, menses (suppressed), menorrhagia, menstruation (regulates, relieves pain), nipples (soreness), nosebleeds, piles (bleeding), smallpox, stomach sickness, toothache, thrombosis, ulcers, urinary antiseptic, uterus (tighten and contract), varicose veins, vision.
The salicylic acid derivatives are a component of aspirin, which may account for its use in treating fevers and reducing pain. Yarrow tea is also said to be able to clear up a cold within 24 hours. Yarrow has also been used as a Quinine substitute.
Yarrow was also used in traditional Native American herbal medicine. Navajo Indians considered it to be a “life medicine”, chewed it for toothaches, and poured an infusion into ears for earaches. Several tribes of the Plains region of the United States used common yarrow. The Pawnee used the stalk for pain relief. The Chippewa used the leaves for headaches by inhaling it in a steam. They also chewed the roots and applied the saliva to their appendages as a stimulant. The Cherokee drank a tea of common yarrow to reduce fever and aid in restful sleep.
Shakers used yarrow for complaints from haemorrhages to flatulence.
The English herbalist John Gerard is said to have recommended it for relieving “swelling of those secret parts”, but the 1597 edition of his Herbal does not include an entry for this species of yarrow but for Achillea ptarmica, and the entry for that plant does not include this phrase either.