By Kiva Rose
I've always preferred sleeping under the open sky to being cooped up indoors. Even when I was just a toddler, I was so adamant about my sleeping preferences that my mother would frequently lay a blanket out on the back lawn for me to nap on. I loved the big trees swaying in the sky above and the lullaby hum of insects all about me, and I would even crawl off the blanket in order to sleep directly on the cool grass. One sunny afternoon she lay me down already asleep, and I woke from my nap to find myself face to face with lacy white flowers and soft feathery leaves brushing my skin in the breeze. In a still-sleepy state, I gazed at the rounded blossoms and breathed in the pungent scent. Upon returning to the yard, she found me with my face in the flowers and, as she tells the story, singing a quiet tune to the little blue-green plant.
I was just three when I learned the name of this prolific wildflower, yarrow. And I was only seven when a silver-haired Spanish grandmother on my city block first showed me how to use its fresh green leaves to soothe my perpetually abraded knees and elbows. I remember being slightly incredulous at her explanation that it would help stop the bleeding and keep the scrapes from becoming infected, but I was quickly convinced after seeing its remarkable healing effects. I was so won over that I began carrying a handful of wadded-up yarrow leaves in my pocket to use every time I fell out of a tree or off my bicycle.
Yarrow has been known by many names, but most are variations on woundwort, nose bleed, carpenter's weed, bloodwort, staunchweed and sanguinary, all referring to its well-known and fully deserved reputation for staunching and healing the wounds of soldiers, carpenters and reckless children. Yarrow's botanical name, achillea, is a reference to its use on the battlefield by the famed Greek hero Achilles, who was reportedly made nearly invincible by being dipped into a vat of yarrow tea at birth by his mother, Thetis. A few of yarrow's other names, devil's nettle, bad man's plaything and mother-die, refer to its European heritage as a witch's plant and its use as a tool of divination the world over. Here in New Mexico, it's known simply as plumajillo, the little feather that heals.
A truly versatile plant, yarrow vies with stinging nettle (see Body, Mind & Spirit, December 2005) for the number-one place on my list of top-10 herbs. Not only can this modest yet lovely flower cure just about anything that may ail us, it also grows almost everywhere, from roadside ditches to timberline meadows. Young leaves are a zesty addition to most salads and soups, and provide an always welcome dose of calcium, magnesium, phosphorus and silica, all healing minerals that aid in healing and maintaining nerves, tissues and bones. And it does us good just to grow it in the garden, as it has been proven to actively encourage the growth and quality of its companion plants.
Cool but peppery, Yarrow makes a delicious tea that can be drunk as a daily nourisher for the digestive, circulatory, female reproductive, cardiovascular, immune and glandular systems. It can also help to bring down high blood pressure, especially in the early stages of hypertension. Yarrow tea or tincture is useful as a bitter tonic for every kind of stomach trouble, including poor or sluggish digestion, flatulence, bloating, nausea, viruses, infections, constipation, diarrhea and ulcers. Try blending it with peppermint, lemon zest and a teaspoonful of honey for a soothing evening drink.
Especially beneficial to women is this plant's affinity for the female reproductive system. Able to regulate the hormonal cycle and menstrual flow, yarrow is particularly good for women who routinely experience heavy periods and accompanying cramps and water retention. Because of its strong effect on the uterus and its traditional use among the Native Americans as a contraceptive, however, I do not recommend using yarrow internally when pregnant or trying to conceive.
Well known as a preventative and cure for colds, flus and other viruses, yarrow is the plant I turn to when I first start to feel a bit under the weather. A favorite recipe of mine for preventing and treating cold and flu comes from an old formula: a strong tea made of equal parts yarrow, elderflower and yerba buena or peppermint. Taken as a bitter infusion at the first sign of illness, this will almost always halt all further progression of symptoms. This is due in part to yarrow's ability to cool fevers, stimulate the immune system, increase circulation, clear toxins from the body, soothe aching muscles and heal mucous membranes. A strong infusion consumed after a cold or flu has taken hold will not necessarily eliminate the illness but will help break a fever, lessen symptoms and speed recovery.
These same qualities also make yarrow a wonderful treatment for childhood diseases such as measles and chickenpox. The infusion can be used externally as a wash for the accompanying skin discomfort as well. To make an infusion, simply boil one quart of water per ounce of herb (or one cup of water to one tablespoon of plant). Pour water over the herb and let steep from one hour to overnight, depending on your tolerance for yarrow's bitter taste.
Externally, a poultice of yarrow can be applied to sprains or broken bones to quicken healing. And a spray can be made of the infusion for the purpose of averting bugs of all kinds, especially ticks, fleas and mosquitoes. A massage oil can be used on achy, sore or inflamed muscles and joints, or can be used to help clear up rashes, eczema or other skin irritations. Yet another remedy can be made by first drying the leaves and flowers, then crushing them, which will make a long-lasting and convenient powder to use for wounds, cuts, scrapes and nosebleeds. So think again next time you're tempted to pull this underused herb from your garden or lawn, and gather a little for salad or tea instead!
Almost two decades since I first discovered plumajillo, I'm still amazed by its power and beauty. This gentle plant is an easy one to learn from, providing us with the lessons of both resourcefulness and enchantment, allowing us to open up our awareness and notice the beauty and power of the little things we're often surrounded by but forget to notice.
Long known as a sacred plant by indigenous peoples of this continent, yarrow can be bundled and burned as a fragrant and purifying smudge. It is also traditionally used in the sweat lodge by some native tribes to encourage profuse sweating. In ancient Europe, it was said that if anyone were to hold a bunch of yarrow flowers over the eyes, they would be given the ability to see into the land of fairy. And indeed, our five-year-old daughter reports that she often sees the winged sylphs flitting about near the pretty white flowers.