Wednesday, July 31, 2013

alberta herbal: yarrow

Yarrow, along the Maligne Canyon trail, Jasper, July 2013.

Note the feathery leaves, too, divided pinnately into segments (not visible in the first photo). Very important for identification, because other white-flowered plants are very poisonous (e.g. water hemlock)

This is yarrow (Achillea millefolium). 
Parts to use: leaves, flowers to a lesser extent
Uses: clotting wounds (esp. nosebleeds), easing menstrual blood, improving general blood circulation, treating colds (esp. with fever), treating internal bleeding (ulcers, etc.) 

Yarrow—its cluster of whitish-green flowers, feathery leaves, tough and grasping roots—is a plant very dear to me. Not only for its myriad uses, but because it’s one of the very first plants my dad taught me to identify. Yarrow grows extensively throughout Western Canada, in the grasslands, parklands, mountains, and the boreal; it will also tenaciously takes over roadsides and ditches (and gardens, when you buy those alpine wildflower seed mixes…) and so we encountered it often on the trails we walked when I was young.

I happened to meet yarrow when in need of one of its key healing qualities –  it is high coumarins, compounds which contain vitamin K, and thus has the ability to clot blood. I used to get terrible nosebleeds when I was young, especially on hot dry summer days. I remember standing in the shade on a lakeside, anxiously pinching my nose while my dad brushed aside bushes nearby and gently plucked a few unfurled yarrow leaves. He crushed them up first with his fingers, and then gave them to me. “Just chew them up a little, get them wet with some spit,” he told me, “that will activate them”. I did as told—the leaves were aromatic, spicy and bittersweet. Then he rolled them up into a little pack, and placed them up my nose. I was fascinated by this experiment. In about five minutes, my nosebleed had stopped and I was left with a sweet earthy smell even after I removed the mass of leaves. Intrigued, I paid even closer attention as he named the plants and told about their many properties, and stories of times he’d used them out in the bush.

And so yarrow always reminds me of my father, and the care he took to teach my sister and me about what was growing around us, and how this healing knowledge has remained with us. My sister, who lost interest early on in camping and living outdoors, remarked recently that she did appreciated these teachings nonetheless, and was pleased she could still pick out yarrow when she saw it on the sides of the road.

Due to its aforementioned clotting abilities, yarrow is also called ‘woundwort’. The scientific name is Greek, after Achilles, because there are stories that a centaur gave him the plant before he headed into battle. Millefolium for a thousand leaves, and another name in English, ‘thousand-seal’. In medieval Western Europe, its flowers have been a constituent of gruit (a beer flavouring mixture) and its young leaves a tender, bittersweet spinach-like potherb.

My grandmother also knew yarrow (derevij or krivavnyk in Ukrainian). Yarrow tea made using the fresh (or dried) flowers and leaves and mixed with mint was good for colds, she said. Its anti-inflammatory properties could help reduce a fever. Its styptic properties also helped with internal bleeding, and could also ease bloody diarrhea ("People in the Old Country took it," she said, as when she grew up in Western Ukraine, cholera epidemics were still a great threat). My grandma drank tea from her garden yarrow to help with a stomach ulcer as well. She told me that above all, yarrow is simply ‘good for the blood’ and improved circulation. Most importantly, it can she first told me about drinking plain yarrow tea as a remedy for regulating menstruation. Its ability to regulate the blood means that it can help ease both heavy bleeding and also stimulate a scant period.

To make a yarrow tea, you can use the leaves (and flowers – but I usually just use leaves).

If it’s fresh, two long leaves will do it, and if dried, use 1 tsp. for each cup of boiling water. Steep it for 10 minutes either way (if you cover the lid of the cup, you trap more of the goodness in). It becomes bitter easily, so don’t oversteep it – be sure to strain out the leaves. Adding a bit of lemon and honey can make it more palatable. Good for colds, fevers, and also for reducing some of the pain and blood flow during a heavy period – or bringing on a stubborn one.

And, as noted, you can use the dried powdered leaves to stop bleeding as well, but fresh chewed leaves do work just as well and can be pressed again cuts and wounds (alone or as part of a poultice) as well as placed in the nostril as I found out early on. It has never failed me once.

*Some notes of warning – I’ve heard of a few people who have had skin reactions to yarrow (potentially due to taking drugs that cause photosensitivity), so be cautious of that.