Sunday, April 6, 2014

Plant Story-- Yarrow, Achillea millefolium, an Ancient Healing Herb

Achillea millefolium yarrow
Achillea millefolium yarrow
Yarrow, Achillea millefolium, is a familiar  wildflower with an interesting and confused history. A member of the very large sunflower family, Asteraceae, it is quite closely related to wild and cultivated chamomiles.

Yarrow was named Achillea millefolium by Linnaeus in 1753. The genus name is based on the idea that Achilles, Spartan hero and demigod in the Iliad of Homer, used yarrow to heal wounds. I wanted to include the exact quote and was surprised by what I found. The Iliad never mentions yarrow. The healing passage, paraphrased frequently as "Achilles used yarrow to heal his soldiers" is quoted below and is both quite vague and has the healing done by Patroclus. (Bk XI:804-848 Patroclus tends Eurypylus’ wound. Iliad A.S. Kline 2009 Read the whole passage: link )

    The wounded Eurypylus replied:...'help me to my black ship, and cut out the arrow-head, and wash the dark blood from my thigh with warm water, and sprinkle soothing herbs with power to heal on my wound, whose use men say you learned from Achilles, whom the noble Centaur, Cheiron, taught. ...’

       ... Patroclus lowered the wounded man to the ground, and cut the sharp arrow-head from his thigh. Next he washed the dark blood from the place with warm water, and rubbing a bitter pain-killing herb between his hands sprinkled it on the flesh to numb the agony. Then the blood began to clot, and ceased to flow.

Alternatively, Achilles is reported to have healed the festering spear wound of King Telephus of Mysia. This appears not in the Iliad but in other sources of Greek mythology (see citations). In any event, the spear wound of Telephus is cured by scrapings from the spear that caused the injury, suggested by Odysseus, not Achilles, and no mention is made of yarrow. (See whole myth: Telephus)

Both these stories appear in the Natural History of Pliny the Elder, written in Latin in the first century AD. In Book XXV, Chapter 19 Pliny the Elder wrote: 

Achilles too, the pupil of Chiron, discovered a plant which heals wounds, and which, as being his discovery, is known as the "achilleos." It was by the aid of this plant, they say, that he cured Telephus. Other authorities, however, assert that He was the first1 to discover that verdigris2 is an extremely useful ingredient in plasters; and hence it is that he is sometimes represented in pictures as scraping with his sword the rust from off a spear3 into the wound of Telephus. Some again, are of opinion that he made use of both remedies.

(From John Bostock translator, Pliny online  [The notes, for those of you who are curious, are: "1 Both stories are equally improbable. 2 See B. xxxiv. c. 45.  3 The weapons in early time, it must be remembered, were made of copper or bronze."])

Pliny is pretty unconvincing that Achilles used yarrow to heal, but as far as I can tell, his is the oldest written version of this traditional story. The Trojan War was 1260-1240 BC and Homer lived 8th or 9th century BC, 300 years later. Pliny wrote 800 years after that. The identification of yarrow with Achilles is old and strong, but elusive.

yarrow leaves
yarrow leaves
The word millefolium, means "thousand leaf" or "thousand leaves", referring to the many leaflets on the finely-divided leaves. The usual English name yarrow is apparently derived from gearwe, an Anglo-Saxon name, or from the River Yarrow, Gaelic for rough stream.  In other European languages, yarrow is commonly called some variation of milfoil, "thousand-leaf," and that was what Linnaeus chose for the species name. 

Very old sources give various names such as militaris and herba militaris  for yarrow, which are versions of "soldier's herb." In European tradition, yarrow was highly regarded for treating wounds, especially bleeding wounds from iron weapons. Gerard in 1599 wrote "The leaves of Yarrow doe close up wounds, and keep them from inflammation..."
You can see where that comes from in the Achilles myths. The fine leaflets are in fact effective in slowing bleeding so that the blood will clot and yarrow is rich in antibiotic compounds, so while there are better choices if you can get to a hospital, it is still recognized as an effective plant for treating a bloody sword or knife cut.  3,200 years later, we agree with Achilles (and Cheiron and Patroclus). 

All over the world, herbal medicinal traditions have embraced yarrow. It goes back millennia  in Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine and was used in Native American medicine throughout North America. Indeed, a Neanderthal skull in Spain, from about 50,000 years ago, had traces of yarrow in his or her teeth (link). Since yarrow is bitter, the researchers believed the Neanderthals used it as medicine, not food.

Achillea millefolium yarrow
Achillea millefolium yarrow
And that will pretty well tell you why Achillea millefolium can be found all over the world. Traders and colonists who set out to the far corners of the world where they couldn't assume any medical care would be available and didn't know what plants they would find there, took reliable medicines with them. Yarrow seeds traveled in the pouches of traders and settlers to be planted around their dwellings, just in case.

Yarrow is an adaptable little plant, liking rich soils and lots of rain but surviving many other places. There isn't much of the world where yarrow can't be found these days. (The USDA plants map calls it native to the United States (link). I'll talk about that next post.)

Finally, I want to note that modern research has found yarrow to be effective for loss of appetite, mild gastrointestinal complaints and more. Check a responsible medical source.

Achillea millefolium yarrow
Achillea millefolium yarrow
Comments and corrections welcome.


Applequist, Wendy J. and Daniel E. Moerman. 2011. Yarrow (Achillea millefolium L.): A neglected panacea? A review of ethnobotany, bioactivity and biomedical research. Economic Botany. 65(2): 209-225. print.

Blumenthal, Mark, ed. 2000. Herbal medicine. Expanded Commission E Monographs. American Botanical Council, Austin, TX. print.

Bostock, John translator, Pliny online 

Chandler, R.F., S. N. Hooper and M.J. Harvey. 1982. Ethnobotany and phytochemistry of yarrow  Achillea millefolium, Compositae. Economic Botany. 36 (2): 203-223. Print. Good table of uses by Native Americans

Gerard, John. 1633. The Herball or the General History of Plants. Johnson Publishers, London. Reprinted by Dover Publications, Inc. New York. (1975), Print. (Gerard's first edition, 1599, is online but very difficult to navigate. In my edition, "Yarrow or Nose-bleed" is Chapter 438 on p. 1072-3, after Lousewort & Rattle, and before Valerian). Print.

Greenwald, ., T Brendler, and C Jaenicke, eds. 2007. PDR (Physicians Desk Reference) for Herbal Medicines. 4th ed. Thompson Publishers, Montvale, NJ. Print.

Translations of the Iliad online:
  Butler, Samuel. 1898  Iliad The Literature Network. Link
  Kline, A. S. 2009. Poetry in Translation.  The Iliad. Link  
  Murray, A. T. 1924. Homer. The Iliad with an English Translation  in two volumes. Cambridge, MA., Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann, Ltd. 1924. link
  Pope, Alexander, translator. The Iliad. (1725) ebooks@Adelaide  Link

Kathy Keeler

1 comment:

  1. I've been wondering about the mention of yarrow in the Iliad. So it's not specified! Thanks for looking for it, and for the Gaelic translation of yarrow.