This month’s plant on the calendar is Achillea Millefolium – yarrow. I have to say that I only knew yarrow by its common name and I’d never linked it with the Achillea that I see in my garden centre every spring – which if I remember correctly is Achillea Lavatera, but I’m not sure. It’s not a plant which has ever particularly attracted me – the flowers were OK but the stems always seemed thick and gawky. And of course it's yarrow stalks which are used in the I Ching - the Chinese form of divination. The Chinese considered it to be a spiritual plant, and would plant it on the graves of their ancestors.
According to the calendar, yarrow can be turned into a tea to be used against period pain, while on the web Purple Sage lists a range of uses including action against fever, high blood pressure and diarrhoea. Purple Sage also mentions the origin of the name – it was apparently named after Achilles, who frequently used it to heal wounds after battles, and in fact one of its many common names is Soldier’s Woundwort. One of the reasons its now so common in Europe is apparently that wherever the Romans went, they planted it around their camps so as always to have a ready supply. And then for the same reason the British army took it to North America when they colonised.
Back to the literary references. I went and found my copy of The Iliad (probably for the first time in thirty years!) and found the passage. A wounded Greek lord asks Patroklos to use some herbs which Achilles has told him of to heal his wound :
… Patroklos laid him there and with a knife cut the sharp tearing arrow out of his thigh and washed the black blood running from it with warm water, and, pounding it up with his hands, laid on a bitter root to make pain disappear, one which stayed all kinds of pain. And the wound dried and the flow of blood stopped. (The Iliad, Trans. Richmond Lattimore Book 11 lines 843-847 Uni. of Chicago Press)
It also pops up in Longfellow’s Hiawatha (section 15). Hiawatha has a sort of breakdown after the death of his friend, but is sorted out by the medicine men in a healing ceremony :
There a magic drink they gave him,
Made of Nahma-wusk, the spearmint,
And Wabeno-wusk, the yarrow,
Roots of power, and herbs of healing; Beat their drums, and shook their rattles;
Chanted singly and in chorus,
Mystic songs like these, they chanted. … And upstarting wild and haggard,
Like a man from dreams awakened,
He was healed of all his madness.
This links to another use, common in Scotland, of using yarrow tea as a remedy for depression – a sort of countryman’s Prozac.
Yarrow can cause an allergic reaction, though this is said to be rare, and is not advised for epileptics.