Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) is a drought-tolerant perennial with feathery, fern-like leaves and tiny flowers that are spread out over large, flat heads. A number of showy yarrow hybrids have been bred to display an entire rainbow of colors, however; if you’re growing yarrow for its medicinal properties then stick to the traditional white-flowered heirloom, which most resembles its wild and hardy ancestors. Yarrow often grows in the disturbed soil of roadsides and along fields and meadows. A popular choice for pollinator gardens, yarrow can become invasive because it spreads by both its creeping roots and dropped seeds.
Yarrow’s genus name, Achillea, comes from the Greek mythological warrior Achilles. Legend says that Achilles used yarrow in the battlefield to help heal his soldiers’ wounds and to stop the bleeding, which also explains why yarrow’s other common names include soldier’s woundwort, knight’s milfoil, and herbe militaris. As a battlefield herb, yarrow was picked fresh, chewed or mashed, and then applied directly to the wound as a poultice.
Yarrow is well known for its vulnerary (wound healing) and diaphoretic (perspiration inducing) properties. Applied topically as a poultice or rinse, this antimicrobial, styptic, and astringent herb helps promote the growth of healthy tissue while protecting against infection and preventing blood loss. Taken internally as an infusion or tincture, yarrow’s diaphoretic properties cause a light sweat, which helps cool the body and reduce fevers. A uterine stimulant and antispasmodic, yarrow is also traditionally used for relieving painful and delayed menstruation (but should be avoided by pregnant woman).
All of the herbs in this recipe are safe diaphoretics that will induce a sweat to cool the body, break a fever, and eliminate toxins. Elderflower is also an expectorant, which will help release mucus from the lungs, and catnip is an anti-catarrhal, which will help prevent more mucus from forming.
Combine the herbs and steep ¼ cup tea blend in 1 quart hot water for 15 minutes, covered. Strain and drink warm, taking small sips over the course of a few hours. To help induce a sweat, also wrap yourself in a warm blanket and put a hot water bottle at your feet.
Yarrow is a fantastic choice for a medicinal herb garden, especially one that’s being established by a beginning gardener. Yarrow is easily grown from transplants or started from seed and is hardy from USDA zones 2 to 9. I purchased yarrow seed from Strictly Medicinal Seeds when I started my medicinal garden and was impressed with the germination rate. The seeds are light-dependent germinators, so cover them with only a sprinkle of soil – if at all – and keep them moist until they sprout, which should take between seven and 14 days. When established, transplant to a well-drained, sunny location after all danger of spring frost has passed.
I spaced my yarrow seedlings 12 inches apart and by the end of the first year they had already expanded to fill the 3-by-4 foot bed. My yarrow bloomed its first year and has proven its evergreen status by remaining one of the few green spots in my Zone 5 winter garden.
Part of the reason I love growing yarrow is for its hardy, no-fuss nature. It doesn’t need to be watered often, if at all, and I’ve never had any problem with pests. Although pests stay clear, pollinators flock to the tiny white flowers and, more often than not, I’m gifted with the site of butterflies or bees buzzing around my yarrow patch. Consider planting yarrow as a companion plant in your vegetable garden.
To harvest, hand-cut yarrow a few inches above the base when the plants are in the early stages of flowering. Garble to separate the flowers and leaves from the large stalks, and then either use the herb fresh or dry it for storage. Yarrow’s potency and aroma hold up well in storage and will keep for a year or more.
Yarrow grows wild in every U.S. state and Canadian province. It blooms from late April to early July in the south and from mid July to mid September in the north. There are two other white-flowered perennials — both of which are also in the parsley family (Apiaceae) — that you may confuse with yarrow: Queen Anne’s lace and Hemlock.
Although very similar at first glance, yarrow differs from Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota) in both its flower and its leaves. Yarrow’s white flowers form in clusters at the tip of its many branched shoots; whereas Queen Anne’s lace has a flatter umbel that’s attached to one main stem. Yarrow also has feathery, fern-like, finely divided leaves (hence its species name millefolium, which means “a thousand leaves”), and Queen Anne’s lace, on the other hand, has fewer leaves and they look like flat carrot or parsley leaves. Queen Anne’s lace is edible and its roots are considered survival food by many. So, if worse comes to worse, you’ll have the wrong plant but you won’t get sick.
Another plant with flowers that resemble yarrow is Hemlock (Conium maculatum), which is one of the deadliest plants in North America. Ingesting even a tiny bit of hemlock can be fatal, and it’s the plant that supposedly poisoned Socrates. Bring a guidebook with you and don’t ingest anything that you even question as possibly being hemlock.
One way to tell the difference between yarrow and poison hemlock is the stem — yarrow’s is a little bit fuzzy and green, whereas hemlock’s stem is completely hairless and often has purple splotches near the base. Hemlock can also get much bigger than yarrow, up to 8 feet tall, and has significantly more foliage, which is flat and parsley-like.
The YouTube video "yarrow, poison hemlock and Queen Anne's lace - a close look at the differences" is a helpful resource for comparing the three plants side-by-side.
Hannah was inspired to write this blog post during her time enrolled in The Herbal Academy’s online school where she worked her way through the Entrepreneur Herbalist Package. She is managing editor for Heirloom Gardener and senior editor for Mother Earth News. Read all of Hannah's posts here.