As natural home remedies get more popular, the available information about the best herbs, recipes, and treatments for common ailments grows longer and longer. It can be hard to sift through the surplus and find simple, reliable medicinal methods created from basic ingredients. If you agree, then Tina Sams’ book, Healing Herbs, may be the place to go. Sams focuses her lens on only 20 herbs, but all have a variety of uses, from remedies — of which this book has over 100 — to recipes. Her cures are inexpensive and effective, and you can find or grow any plant she mentions. Healing Herbs makes this vast subject accessible and easy.
Soft ferny leaves and delicate yet firm, compact flower clusters form on the erect stems. These perennials are mostly white flowered in the wild, with some tinged pink. The bright yellow, salmon, and red available at garden centers also have medicinal properties, but are bred for color. As is typically the case, the wild or common variety is the one we choose for medicine. That which is closest to nature has the most perfect content to heal. Although there are exceptions to every rule, it seems that once humans start trying to extract specific properties, we throw off the balance of things.
Daniel Gagnon of Herbs, Etc. once gave a seminar about standardized herbal remedies, and I was very drawn to his metaphor of plants being like symphonies. We need all of the instruments to enhance, buffer, and activate each other to fully enjoy the music. So it is with plants. While it may be more convenient to breed away the thorns or prettier to view the deep scarlet blossom rather than the white, when hunting for medicine or food, it’s usually best to use the original. In fact, I suspect this topic will become quite important over the next twenty years with regard to our food plants.
Yarrow is one of those plants that did not initially call to me. I do think it is beautiful, and its long and mythical history is beautiful, but it just kept growing closer and closer to my house. Different herbalist friends spoke of their fondness for yarrow, some proclaiming it to be their very favorite (a distinction that is very rare for any herb), and still I looked on while it marched across my yard. It now makes up nearly half of my front yard, although it is neatly mowed most of the time. Instead of grass, I have a short, lacy mat of yarrow leaves. In spite of never getting a chance to bloom, it seems happy. Perhaps it was time to start paying attention. As has often been the case, when the herb comes calling, I listen and begin to learn about what it has to offer.
Yarrow is an ancient herb, said to get its name, Achillea millefolium, from Achilles. Legend has it that Achilles had become a great healer under the tutelage of the centaur Cheron, and yarrow was one of his great herbal allies that he used to staunch the bleeding wounds of his fellow soldiers in battle. Nicknames like soldier’s woundwort, knight’s milfoil (not to mention many others — nosebleed, devil’s nettle, and old man’s pepper among them) come from this. The species name, millefolium, and one of the common nicknames for yarrow — milfoil — means “thousand leaves” and comes from the fact that the feathery leaves of yarrow actually appear to be made up of many tiny leaves.
In China, yarrow is also used for divination. The ancient oracle of the I Ching is traditionally cast with yarrow stalks, thought to represent the yin and yang forces of the universe in perfect balance.
Yarrow is best known as a styptic or vulnerary herb, useful in stopping bleeding. The juice or dried herb powder can be applied to bleeding wounds, or in the field fresh plant material is used. Not only is this used externally, but also strong infusions may be drunk for internal bleeding. Depending on the issue, other herbs can be blended with yarrow to soothe the tissues. Yarrow is anti-inflammatory, too; it contains salicylic acid derivatives, making it useful for fever and reducing pain. Relaxing to the voluntary nervous system, yarrow tea can help with all manner of cramping and spasms, particularly uterine (so check with your physician if pregnant). Stomach cramps are also responsive to yarrow, and since it is a bitter herb, it helps with digestion and is a tonic to the liver and gallbladder. It can stimulate a flagging appetite, and help with indigestion and heartburn. Traditionally, yarrow has been used for insomnia and to relieve stress or anxiety. It’s perfect as a woman’s herb, as it is a diuretic that normalizes menses, relieves painful periods and cramps, and reduces excessive bleeding. Who needs an over-the-counter medication when yarrow is waiting right outside? Many of those same properties make it a good friend to the urinary system, relieving inflammation and pain and increasing urinary output. A blend with goldenrod would be a great choice for bladder infections and even kidney stones. Yarrow tea has long been a remedy for colds. The hot tea is diaphoretic, bringing on a sweat that breaks the fever while flushing toxins from the system. Yarrow is astringent and can be used for diarrhea as well as to shrink swollen hemorrhoids.
• Stops bleeding
• Reduces inflammation
• Reduces fever
• Relieves pain
• Relieves cramping
• Eases anxiety
Reprinted with permission from Healing Herbs: A Beginner’s Guide to Identifying, Foraging, and Using Medicinal Plants by Tina Sams, published by Fair Winds Press, 2015.