Profile: Yarrow

Other names: Devil's plaything, knight's milfoil, milfoil, nosebleed, old man's pepper, soldier's woundwort, thousand leaf, thousand weed.

Botanical name: Achillea Millefolium

Yarrow is derived from its old Anglo-Saxon name of "gearwe". Greek hero Achilles valued yarrow highly and was said to have cured injuries to his Achilles tendon with it. "Millefolium" means "thousand leaves".

Family: Asteraceae (Compositae)

Description: Yarrow is a small herb that grows up to a metre high, with pink-white flowers and feathery leaves.

The aroma of the essential oil is warm, sweet and spicy. The colour ranges from dark blue to greenish-olive.

Country of origin: Grown in most temperate countries (including New Zealand), the essential oil is mainly distilled in Germany, Hungary and France.

History: In Chinese medicine yarrow is considered to represent the perfect balance between yin and yang. In ancient China it was considered to be a sacred plant, and the sticks used to read the I-Ching were made from stems of the plant.

It was once used as a charm to ward off evil spirits in Scotland, and was used during the crusades to heal battle wounds from iron weapons.

It was thought that sewing an ounce of yarrow into a bag and placing it under your pillow would allow you to dream of your future husband. Meanwhile in Sweden it is added to beer, to give a more rousing effect - which could be an interesting link to one of its folk names, "devil's plaything".

The herb can be used internally for arthritis, diarrhoea, fevers, hypertension, menstrual problems, menopause and rheumatism. Externally the herb can be used for eye inflammation, haemorrhoids, nosebleeds (hence one of its folk names, "nosebleed"), sores and to stop bleeding when a poultice is placed on wounds or shaving cuts.

The Native Americans made a concoction from the root to strengthen muscles.

Method of extraction: The essential oil is produced by steam distillation from dried yarrow flowers. Solvent extraction does not produce the azulene.

Blends well with: Angelica, atlas cedarwood, bergamot, black pepper, clary sage, cypress, grapefruit, juniperberry, lavender, lemon, manuka, marjoram, melissa, neroli, pine, roman chamomile, rosemary, vetiver, ylang ylang

Cautions: Use with care during pregnancy. Excessive use may lead to headaches. May cause irritation for sensitive skin.

Properties: Anti-inflammatory, antipyretic, antirheumatic, antiseptic, antispasmodic, astringent, carminative, cholagogue, cicatrisant, diaphoretic, digestive, expectorant, febrifuge, haemostatic, hypotensive, stimulant, stomachic, tonic

Principal Constituents: Yarrow contains up to 51% of the sesquiterpene azulene, causing its blue colouring and strong anti-inflammatory properties. It also contains another sesquiterpene, caryophyllene. These relate to the oil's cholagogue and hypotensive properties.

The monoterpenes a-pinene, b-pinene, limonene and sabinene are also present in yarrow, reflected in its stimluant and tonic actions.

Borneol, an alcohol, relates to its ability as an antiseptic, while cineol imparts its expectorant properties.

Uses in aromatherapy

Mind: Yarrow is helpful at raising low spirits, as well as during times of major life changes, menopause in particular. It is grounding, opening, restorative, revitalising, and strengthening to the spirit.

It helps balance the intellectual and the creative, aiding mood swings, anxiety and frustration.

It is useful in most stress-related conditions, including some forms of depression, and its use in treating insomnia helps to prevent burnout.

Body: Yarrow is an excellent essential oil for the female reproductive system. It aids amenorrhoea, dysmenorrhoea and menopause. It can be used in massage or in a compress for these conditions. For vaginal infections it can be used in a hip bath. Several authors refer to it for fibroid pain.

It also acts as a tonic for the circulatory system, making it useful for improving varicose veins, haemorrhoids and chilblains. It can be useful for high blood pressure, rheumatism, arteriosclerosis, and thrombosis.

Yarrow is useful is muscle strains and sprains.

As an aid to the digestive system it can help settle an upset stomach, and is helpful for colic and flatulence. It stimulates secretion of gastric and intestinal glands and improves sluggish digestion - these may indicate a usefulness in aiding irritable bowel syndrome. It can also improve appetite. Yarrow is helpful in cases of diarrhoea.

Yarrow is helpful for feverish colds, promoting perspiration, and for head congestion associated with colds and flu.

Skin: Its astringent properties make it useful for oily skin and acne. It is also recommended for eczema and allergic skin reactions. Sunburn can also be relieved with yarrow, especially when it is combined with German chamomile, peppermint and cypress.

However its major use is in treating wounds and open sores, including ulcers. It is a slow healer, but its astringent, anti-inflammatory and antiseptic properties make it effective.

Yarrow also stimulates hair growth.

Research: An unpublished Sloan Kettering Research cancer study showed that yarrow essential oil protected healthy cells from the effects of toxic cancer therapies.

References:

Battaglia, Salvatore The Complete Guide to Aromatherapy 1995
Lawless, Julia The Encyclopaedia of Essential Oils 1992
Lawless, Julia Aromatherapy and the Mind 1994
Sellar, Wanda The Directory of Essential Oils 1994
Stromkins, Jennine The Autonomic Nervous System and Aromatherapy
Walters, Clare Aromatherapy - An Illustrated Guide 1998
Additional information provided by Dorene Peterson of the Australasian College of Herbal Studies (USA) and Pam Parsons of The Aromatic Thymes (USA)

Sharing Aromatherapy, March 2000