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Portrait of Yarrow (Achillea millefolium), herbs, yarrow, herbalism, botanical, materia medica

Updated: Jul 3, 2023

Achillea millefolium, commonly known as yarrow, is a versatile and intriguing plant woven through human history, culture, and folklore. This perennial herb is native to the Northern Hemisphere's temperate regions, flourishing in meadows, grasslands, and along roadsides. Its ability to adapt and thrive in various environmental conditions has played a significant role in its widespread distribution and long-standing relationship with humans.

Portrait of Yarrow

Yarrow's botanical name, Achillea millefolium, pays tribute to both its legendary association with the Greek hero Achilles and its distinctive foliage. The feathery, fern-like leaves create a delicate backdrop for the dense, flat-topped clusters of small, white or pale pink flowers. These flowers typically bloom from late spring to early autumn, attracting pollinators such as bees, butterflies, and other beneficial insects.

Ancient Greeks used it to staunch bleeding and treat wounds, while traditional Chinese medicine harnessed its potential as a remedy for various ailments. Native American tribes utilized yarrow for its anti-inflammatory, analgesic, and antiseptic qualities, making it a staple in their herbal pharmacopoeia. Modern research has revealed the presence of compounds such as flavonoids and sesquiterpene lactones, which lend credence to some of the plant's historical medicinal uses.

In ancient China, it was used in divination practices with the I Ching. In European folk magic, yarrow was believed to provide protection, enhance psychic abilities, and facilitate love and reconciliation.

There are over 100 species within the Achillea genus, with Achillea millefolium being the most widespread and well-known. Numerous cultivated varieties, or cultivars, have been developed to showcase a wider range of flower colors, such as yellow, red, and purple. These cultivars are popular in gardens for their vibrant blooms, low-maintenance requirements, and attractiveness to pollinators.

Wild Yarrow Flowers

What is in the name?

Achillea millefolium is the scientific name for the plant commonly known as yarrow. The name has two parts: the genus Achillea and the species millefolium.

Achillea: This part of the name refers to the Greek hero Achilles. According to Greek mythology, Achilles used yarrow to treat wounds and heal soldiers during the Trojan War. The name Achillea was given to the plant genus to honor this association with Achilles and its reputed healing properties.

Millefolium: This part of the name is derived from the Latin words "mille," which means thousand, and "folium," which means leaf. It refers to the finely-divided, feathery leaves of the plant, which create the appearance of having thousands of small leaflets.

Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus is credited with formally naming the plant Achillea millefolium in his influential work Species Plantarum, published in 1753. However, various cultures knew and used yarrow long before Linnaeus gave it its scientific name. It was commonly referred to by different names in multiple languages, such as the Old English term "gearwe" or the German term "Schafgarbe."

Before the arrival of European colonists, many indigenous cultures in North America recognized and utilized yarrow for its various medicinal properties. Each of these cultures had their own name for the plant in their native language:

The Navajo called it "Tłʼiish Tłʼiishchii," which translates to "one that is made into a poultice."

The Hopi referred to it as "Ponch qö'öna," a term that relates to the plant's use in traditional smoking mixtures.

The Ojibwe knew it as "Mashkodewashk," and the Cree referred to it as "Wihkwaskwahtik."

In terms of its English name, 'yarrow,' it is believed to be derived from Old English 'gearwe,' which was later influenced by the Anglo-Saxon words 'earh' (meaning 'arrow') and 'yaro' (describing the rough, leathery texture of the plant's leaves).

The English name could also be connected to the old Norse word 'ǫr' for yarrow, possibly through a Norse etymological influence on English. The Anglo-Saxon term 'earh' could have its roots in the Old Norse 'ǫr.'

Yarrow's relationship with the Greek hero Achilles also impacted its folk names in other languages. For example, in Spanish, it is often called "hierba de Aquiles" or "mil hojas," mirroring the scientific nomenclature.

Other Names:

Other names for Achillea millefolium include common yarrow, soldier's woundwort, nosebleed plant, devil's nettle, and thousand-leaf, among others. These names often reflect the plant's historical uses, its appearance, or its associations with various cultural and spiritual beliefs.

Yarrow leaf

What are the Spiritual Uses or Associations?

In Celtic folklore, yarrow was believed to be connected to the fae, or fairies. Planting yarrow near one's home was thought to attract the fae, bringing blessings and protection. Yarrow was also used in charms and amulets to communicate with fairies or to gain their favor.

In some Native American cultures, yarrow was considered a sacred plant. For example, among the Miwok people of California, a decoction of yarrow leaves was used to cleanse and purify individuals and ceremonial spaces. The Zuni people of the Southwest would chew yarrow leaves and rub them onto their bodies as part of a ritual to protect against malevolent forces.

Yarrow has also been associated with St. John the Baptist in Christian traditions. In some European countries, yarrow was traditionally harvested on St. John's Eve (June 23) and used in rituals and decorations during Midsummer celebrations. The plant was believed to provide protection and blessings for the home and those who lived within it.

In contemporary witchcraft and neo-pagan practices, yarrow continues to be utilized for its protective, healing, and divinatory properties. It is often incorporated into spells, rituals, and amulets for psychic development, spiritual cleansing, and attracting love. The plant's historical associations with various cultural and spiritual traditions contribute to its ongoing popularity in modern spiritual practices.

These examples showcase the diverse cultural and spiritual connections yarrow has inspired across time and geography. While some of these associations may be unique to specific cultural contexts, they all underscore the enduring significance of Achillea millefolium in human imagination and spirituality.

Yarrow Flowers

Applying the Doctrine of Signatures

(This is for speculative and creative purposes and should not be taken as fact.)

Applying the Doctrine of Signatures to yarrow (Achillea millefolium), we can observe some characteristics that may hint at its traditional uses based on its appearance. Yarrow has delicate, feathery leaves and clusters of tiny, white-to-pink flowers. The flowers are often tightly clustered together, giving an impression of strength in unity. The feathery leaves suggest a connection to the respiratory system, as they resemble the fine branching structure of the lungs.

The plant is also known to staunch bleeding and promote wound healing. Its ability to quickly form a dense mat of roots that hold the soil together is an indication of its wound-healing properties. Furthermore, the tiny flowers in tight clusters might suggest the plant's astringent and wound-sealing properties.

There is so much more to learn about this plant, and I am grateful to have done the research and grow this amazing botanical in the plantLust Botanical's garden. I look forward to its emergence every Spring and hope to be producing hydrosol or even essential oil for the plantLust collection soon.

Keep loving and learning about plants!

Keywords: herbs, yarrow, herbalism, botanical, materia medica

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