Yarrow

(Achillea millefolium) A common wild flower, but at one time one of the greatest of magical and protective plants. It is one of the seven herbs that, in Irish belief, nothing natural nor supernatural could injure (the others are vervain, St John's Wort, speedwell, eyebright, mallow and self-heal (Wilde. 1902)). This almost automatically makes it one of the herbs of St John; it was recognised as such both in France and in Ireland. The Irish used to hang it up on St John's Eve to turn away illness (Grigson. 1955), and it was also believed to have the power of dispersing evil spirits (Dyer. 1889). In the Fen country it was said to be able to avert evil spells; if it were strewn on the doorstep, no witch would dare enter the house (Porter. 1969). Similarly, elsewhere it was said that yarrow should be kept hanging in the toolshed, "for safety" (it is a wound herb - see below), but later on the protection was reckoned to be in stopping entry by thieves (Boland. 1977). Often a bunch of yarrow was put in the churn if the butter would not come (E E Evans. 1957), and it was tied to the cradle to protect both baby and mother (R L Brown), or to make the babies grow up happy and even-tempered (Porter. 1969). The idea of general well-being seems to lie behind the belief in Cambridgeshire that cattle who grazed in a field where yarrow grew would be more docile than if they were in fields where the plant was absent (Porter. 1969).

When going on a journey, pull ten stalks of yarrow, keep nine, and throw the tenth away (as the spirit's tithe, of course), put the nine under the right heel, and evil spirits will have no power over you (Wilde. 1902). Again, there was a belief that, put under the foot, it allowed the user temporary fluency of speech; in the Hebrides, it was said that a leaf held against the eyes gave second sight (M Baker. 1980).

Such a plant had to be gathered with proper ceremony. Gaelic speakers never pulled yarrow without reciting some formula at the same time. Here is Carmichael's translation of one of these incantations:

I will pluck the yarrow fair

That more benign will be my face,

That more warm shall be my lips,

That more chaste shall be my speech,

Be my speech the beams of the sun,

Be my lips the sap of the strawberry.

May I be an isle in the sea,

May I be a hill on the shore,

May I be a star in the waning of the moon,

May I be a staff to the weak.

Wound can I every man,

Wound can no man me.

The magic of the plant extended into the dream world, too, for it was widely used for love divinations, especially on May Eve and at Hallowe'en (WoodMartin). Irish girls filled a stocking with it, more specifically, the left stocking, tied with the right garter (Cooke), and put it under their pillow, while saying some recognised rhyme, like the Irish:

Yarrow, yarrow, yarrow,

I bid thee good morrow,

And tell me before tomorrow

Who my true love shall be (Wilde. 1902).

Aberdeen girls went out to the fields on May morning, always in silence, to gather yarrow. They shut their eyes, and pulled what first came to hand, repeating:

0 it's a bonnie May morning;

To see my marrow.

Or perhaps:

Good morrow, good morrow, To thee, braw yarrow, And thrice good morrow to thee; I pray thee tell me today or tomorrow Who is my true love to be.

Then they would open their eyes, and look around in every direction as far as the eye could see. If a man was visible, the girl who spied him would get her mate that year. In some districts, they went out on the first night of May (again in silence), carried the yarrow home, and went to bed without speaking a word. During the night, the future husband would appear in a dream (F M MacNeill. Vol 2), though to be sure of him, he had to be facing the dreamer. If he had his back to her, they would never marry (Beith). Some said the yarrow had to be picked at the new moon (Valiente). This applied in Cornwall, where the rhyme was:

Good night, fair yarrow, Thrice good night to thee; I hope before tomorrow's dawn My true love I shall see (Courtney).

The yarrow divination travelled to America as well. In Massachusetts, for instance, the formula while walking three times round the yarrow, was:

Good evening, good evening, Mr Yarrow.

I hope I see you well tonight,

And trust I'll see you at a meeting tomorrow.

Then the girls would pluck the head, put it inside their dress, and sleep with it. The first person they met, or spoke to, at church, would be their husband (Bergen. 1896).

In Dorset, they said that if a girl picked yarrow from a young man's grave, and put it under her pillow on

Midsummer Eve, she would see her future husband in a dream (Udal). This churchyard yarrow seems to have had quite a reputation for the magical discovery of witches, etc; see for example the Yorkshire legend "The maid of the golden shoon" (in Blakeborough. 1924), in which "kirkyard yarrow" was one of the things thrown in a burning sheet to force the appearance of witches.

Fenland girls used yarrow for a love charm, not as a divination agent, but by pinning it on their dresses, and then taking every opportunity to get as near as possible to young men, in order to declare their love by means of the flowers. If the girl found that the man she was interested in ignored the hint, then she was likely to wait for a full moon, go to a patch of yarrow, and walk barefoot among them. She would then shut her eyes, bend down and pick a bunch. If she found next morning that the dew was still on the yarrow, then all was not yet lost - it was a sign that he would soon come courting in earnest. If the flowers were quite dry, on the other hand, she would be well advised to wait until the next full moon, and to try again (Porter. 1969), or look elsewhere, of course. In some parts of the country, yarrow was often put in the bridal wreath (McDonald). It was said that this guaranteed seven years of married bliss (Conway), and explains the name 'Seven Years' Love', recorded in Gloucestershire (Fernie). After all this, it seems only natural that dreaming of yarrow itself should be an excellent sign. Irish people thought so - finding yarrow in a dream means good luck in the future (Wood-Martin).

Yarrow had its mundane uses - for instance, they made a herb beer from it in Oxfordshire (Flora Thompson). The name Field Hop points to this former use in beer. The drink made from it is said to be more devastating than the ordinary kind (Skinner); so they said in Sweden, too, and, apparently, in America, (Chandler). Is yarrow so inebriating? Or is it the scent that produces a heady feeling?. There was certainly a belief that working near yarrow on a hot day made people almost delirious with its strong scent - this is why the name "yarrow" was often given to men who talked too much or who were over-given to boasting (Porter. 1969). Perhaps it is no surprise to find that in Orkney, yarrow tea was looked on as a cure for melancholy (Skinner).

Naturally, a plant that has such virtues in the magical sphere would be very popular as a medicinal herb. The very name of the genus, Achillea, suggests it, for this refers to Achilles, the discoverer of the properties of the plant (though there are some who say that it was not Achilles at all, but a doctor named Achillo, who first used it as a wound herb (Le Strange)). Gerard, though, subscribed to the orthodox view. As he wrote, "this plant Achillea is thought to be the very same wherewith Achilles cured the wounds of his soldiers ..."

Whether it really was the same plant is doubtful, but it is still said that yarrow was always carried by the Greek and Roman armies (A W Hatfield). The leaves were simply applied, as a kind of poultice; the Miwok Indians, too, used to bind the mashed leaves, either green or dried, to a wound to stop pain (Barrett & Gifford), or in the case of the Gosiute Indians, to relieve rheumatic pains (Chamberlin). Gerard talked about this wound use, and went on to say, "it stancheth blood in any part of the body, and it is likewise put into bathes for women to sit in ...". An Anglo-Saxon version of Apuleius has, in Cockayne's translation "for wounds which are made with iron (ad vulnera ferrofacta), pound with grease; lay it to the wounds". Interestingly, the Karok Indians of California also used this plant for arrow or gunshot wounds, in the same way (Schenk & Gifford).

Yarrow tea made either from the dried herb or from the fresh plant (a handful of the whole plant to a pint of boiling water) is taken for a bad cold (Jones-Baker. 1974), and for bronchitis or measles (V G Hatfield. 1994), or even a depression (Le Strange). Some of the American Indian groups used it in exactly the same way (Barrett & Gifford). The Ojibwe break up a fever by putting the flowers on a bed of live coals, and then inhaling the smoke (H H Smith. 1945). In Britain, there was an odder way of dealing with the problem - "For an ague . boil Yarrow in new Milk, 'till it is tender enough to spread as a Plaister. An Hour before the cold Fit, apply this to the Wrists, and let it be on till the hot Fit is over ." (Wesley). Equally odd is the relatively recent Alabama superstition - a folk practice to get the bowels moving - you had to boil yarrow and thicken it with meal, and then apply it to the stomach (R B Browne).

"Most men say that the leaves, chewed, and especially greene, are a remedy for the Tooth-ache" (Gerard), something that was known well in Anglo-Saxon times, for Cockayne has, from Apuleius Herbarium, "for toothache, take a root, give it to eat, fasting". An old Irish remedy for toothache advised the patient to chew the leaves (Moloney). The American Indians used a preparation for earache (Sanford); the Winnebago, for example, steeped the whole plant, and poured the resulting liquid into the ear (Weiner).

The use of yarrow for various skin complaints was quite widespread. Its fresh tops were made into a poultice for eczema by some of the American Indian peoples (Corlett). Irish country people have a "herb poultice" with which to dress a whitlow - yarrow leaves, fresh grass and a herb called finabawn, whatever that is. Equal parts of the herbs are ground up thoroughly, and then beaten up with white of egg. This is put on the inflamed finger, and it must not be changed for 48 hours (Logan).

There is still a whole catalogue of ills for which yarrow was recommended. A recipe for indigestion that comes from Alabama requires us to steep a pinch of yarrow blossoms in a cup of water, and to drink a little several times a day for three days (R B Browne). Some four hundred years ago Gerard was able to state that "one dram of pouder of the herbe given in wine, presently taketh away the paines of the colicke". A hundred years before his time, it was being given for jaundice: "take the juice of milfoil [i.e., yarrow] and saffron, and seethe them in sweet barley wort; and give it to the sick to drink" (Dawson). The colour of saffron was recommendation enough for its use in jaundice (see DOCTRINE OF SIGNATURES); perhaps yarrow really had some effect? At any rate, we find it earlier still given "in case that a man may difficulty pass water" (Cockayne). It is noted that the decoction was given for all sorts of internal injuries, and even (in the Western Isles) for consumption (Martin. 1703). There are some real oddities among the list of maladies for which yarrow has at one time or another been prescribed, a "slain" body, for example: Cockayne explains this, not very helpfully, as "stricken". From the same source, there is "if a man's head be burst, or a strange swelling appear on it.". A 15th century prescription seems to regard yarrow as a counter poison. There are, too, a few remedies that can only be magical in nature. Perhaps a lot of the foregoing is, too, but there is always a chance that some of the prescriptions were empirically inspired. But the Somerset belief that putting yarrow in your shoe would stop cramp (Tongue. 1965) has to be pure superstition. So is the Irish idea that by sewing it in the clothes, all disease would be averted (Wilde. 1902). The same idea prevailed in Scotland, where a little yarrow and mistletoe put into a bag and worn upon the stomach was thought to prevent ague and chilblains! (Napier).

"The leaves being put in the nose do cause it to bleed, and easeth the pain of the megrim" (Gerard), hence names like Sneezewort and Sneezings. It is called Nosebleed too, over quite a wide area. The French too have saigne-nez. Prior claims that it got this application by mis-translation, the plant actually referred to being the horsetail. Perhaps so, but it is firmly fixed in yarrow's folklore. The propensity was used to test a lover's fidelity. In East Anglia, for instance, a girl would tickle the inside of a nostril with a yarrow leaf, saying at the same time:

Yarroway, yarroway, bear a white blow;

If my love love me, my nose will bleed now.

Bergen also quotes this use in America, where the girl says:

Yarrow, yarrow, if he loves me and I loves he,

A drop of blood I'd wish to see.

Another Suffolk thyme is:

Green arrow, green arrow, you bears a white blow,

If my love love me my nose will bleed now; If my love don't love me, it 'ont bleed a drop. If my love do love me, 'twill bleed every drop (Northall).

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