Friday, 23 January 2015

Medieval Plants: Common Yarrow

A column looking at medieval plants and what they were use for. (Archive)

By O. Pichard source
Latin name: Achillea millefolium
aka: nosebleed plant, devil’s nettle, devil’s plaything, bad man’s plaything, soldier’s woundwort, bloodwort, allheal, millefolium,, milfoil, old man’s mustard, stanchweed, field hops, etc.

The Latin name for this bitter plant is said to come from a legend from the Trojan war.  Achilles, having been taught by the centaur Chiron, used this plant to stop the bleeding of his comrades on the battlefield.  The second half of its name comes from the feathery leaves that have mille folium, a “thousand leaf” form.  The English name, yarrow, comes from the Saxon, gearwe, which means healer (Ricola).

From ancient times up through the American civil war the plant was used to treat wounds on battlefields.  Crushed, it could be inserted into the nostrils to stop nosebleeds.  (Kowalchik, p.516-518).  

Hildegard von Bingen suggested using yarrow cooked with fennel as an aid for insomnia (when squeezed out and wrapped around the head) (93).  She added fresh dill to it in her nosebleed recipe, advising that the herbs be put around the forehead, temples and chest (97).  Drunk, it could help heal internal injuries and bring down tertian fever (141).  Yarrow was also added to mixtures that helped women with their menses (138).

In addition to the usual use for treating wounds, Pliny says the plant could also help with bladder issues, asthma and toothache (v5, p61).  

According to wikipedia, it was part of an herbal mixture known as gruit, used in the flavouring of beer before hops.

Given all the healing information I found about the plant I was a bit surprised it made the magic bed of the garden rather than the medicinal bed.  The only information I’d found for its use in magic was an offhand comment that it was supposedly used by witches in incantations (Kowalchick).  So I googled yarrow and witchcraft and came across the Witchipedia website, where I got the following information.  The plant was said to assist both in the summoning and driving away the devil.  In fact, yarrow was used in Christian exorcism rituals.  It was also used as a protective herb, hanging over cradles to protect babies, strewn across the threshold of a house to prevent unhelpful spirits from entering and put in Saxon amulets.

I’m sticking to the medieval European uses of the plant as that’s where my interest lies, but the plant has been known and used in China for over a thousand years.  Native Americans also used it for medicinal purposes.


Hildegard von Bingen. Physica: The Complete English Translation of her Classic Work on Health and Healing. Trans. Priscilla Throop. Rochester: Healing Arts Press, 2011. 

Kowalchick, Claire and William Hylton, Ed. Rodale’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of Herbs. Pennsylvania: Rodale Press, 1998.

Pliny. Natural History v. 1-6. Trans. John Bostock and H. T. Riley. London: Henry Bohn, 1851.

1 comment:

Karin said...

This is growing in my front yard, first b/c it was already in the garden when i got here, but i didn't know its name and second b/c it grows in sandy soil which is what is in our other flower plot. It also grows as a weed on my street. This year the yarrow plants didn't flower. What's up with that? Was it just too hot for them?