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Knot Garden - Herbs - Achillea Yarrow - Achillea Ageratum, Sneezewort, English Mace, Oracle, healer, Milfolium, Ptarmica, Therapeutic, Sneezing, Vasodilator, Menstrual, Haemorrhoids, Chinese I Ching, Viagra

The Knot Garden

Insights into Herbs and Their Uses

The Achillea family – Yarrow, Sneezewort and ‘English’ Mace

Achillea, so we’re told, first sprang from scrapings from Achilles’ spear.
In what sounds more like Greek slapstick farce than the stuff legends are made of, Achilles lands at Mysia on his way to Troy... There, Telephus, son of Hercules, decides to hold him up with some opposition... but Dionysus causes Telephus to trip onto Achilles’ spear... oooh whoops – don’t forget to record it in the accident book...
Knot Garden - Herbs - Achillea Yarrow - Achillea Ageratum, Sneezewort, English Mace, Oracle, healer, Milfolium, Ptarmica, Therapeutic, Sneezing, Vasodilator, Menstrual, Haemorrhoids, Chinese I Ching, Viagra
Achillea Yarrow

Bur the wound won’t heal, and eventually Telephus has to turn to an Oracle for advice. With typical oracular enigma, he’s told that ‘the wounder will be the healer’, so it’s back to Achilles, who agrees – in return for help, not hindrance, in getting to Troy – to scrape some metal off his spear... and the plants that spring from the ground where it falls turn out to have amazing wound healing and blood-staunching properties.

It’s said that the plant served Achilles well when healing his own men on the Trojan battle field, but it isn’t explained why the Greek hard-nut with a soft spot didn’t use it on his own heel when fatally wounded by Paris...

Personally I feel the credulity of the whole story is undermined somewhat because it actually features a MAN willingly asking for DIRECTIONS ...

But in reality as well as in legend, Yarrow (Achillea Milfolium) has long been valued for its ability to purge and heal wounds made by iron. Alternative names – ‘Soldiers’ Woundwort’, ‘Knight’s Milfoil’ ‘Staunch Weed’ and ‘Herbe Militaris’ - all bear witness to its common use on the battlefield and the French know it as ‘herbe aux charpentiers’ – the carpenter’s herb – for its use in stemming bleeding from injuries caused by tools.

Confusingly it is recorded as being used both for stopping nosebleeds and for causing them.... perhaps an Oracle once announced with a wink that it was ‘good for nosebleeds’? Whatever the truth, it has been recorded in use as a snuff substitute and its relative – Sneezewort aka ‘Batchelor’s Buttons’ (Achillea ptarmica) - was actually used to induce ‘therapeutic’ sneezing.

Taken internally it act as a vasodilator and other names for Yarrow simply relate to its association with the circulation...e.g. ‘Bloodwort’, ‘Sanguinary’ and it’s welsh name – ‘llysiau gwaedlif’ – which translates as ‘herb of blood flow’. It was considered a good normative for the circulatory system and was also used to regulate menstrual flow (for which reason it should not be used by women who are pregnant).

It was also the active ingredient in a Scottish salve for haemorrhoids, was much used to draw fever through causing perspiration and was prescribed as a tea in the treatment of colds, flu and even consumption. In the Orkneys it was even used as a treatment for melancholy... possibly in conjunction with the magic words ‘cheer up or we’ll get the pile ointment out...’?

In the garden, its ‘hot’ leaves have the power to speed up the decomposition of compost heaps and it is reputed to stimulate the natural defences of plants rooted nearby. It is also said to enhance their perfume, flavour and medicinal actions and yellow and green dyes can be extracted from it. I grow cultivated varieties rather than the native form simply because they do not share its extremely invasive habit.

In animal spousery it has been used for sheep scab and also as a drench for cattle suffering from digestive problems – although how one actually TELLS when a cow has a stomach upset has left me puzzled...

Some use it as a salad ingredient and in savoury cooking, but I prefer the less astringent flavour of its relative the ‘English’ mace – Achillea ageratum (not to be confused with the mace sometimes found in fruit cake recipes, which is actually the dried membrane which covers nutmegs).
Knot Garden - Herbs - Achillea Yarrow - Achillea Ageratum, Sneezewort, English Mace, Oracle, healer, Milfolium, Ptarmica, Therapeutic, Sneezing, Vasodilator, Menstrual, Haemorrhoids, Chinese I Ching, Viagra

Achillea Ageratum

In the world of the ‘other’ it is mostly associated with divination, yarrow stalks most famously being the traditional tools used for casting the Chinese I-Ching (Book of Changes).

There is also a tradition that says that it is unlucky to bring Yarrow indoors, and having once decided to make my own set of authentic I-Ching stalks by drying them slowly in the fireside oven, I can understand why... Certainly the vitriol expressed towards me by members of my usually loving family as the temperature rose and its ‘scent’ permeated the house can have done little for cosmic karma...

It was obviously a valuable herb for women for not only could it help you find your husband, it could keep you safe from being harmed by him and ensure he had a long - and active - life...

In Ireland there’s a tradition of digging up a complete piece of sward containing a plant of Yarrow and sleeping with it under your pillow to induce dreams of your husband to be... In Devon a piece of Yarrow plucked at midnight from the grave of a man who had died young was reputed to have the same power and other similar spells of marriage divination involve tickling the nose with Yarrow – the future being foretold variously by whether you sneezed or your nose bled... I also rather like the tradition which says that carrying a piece of Yarrow can protect you from being hurt by a member of the opposite sex.

Finally it has been included in potions for longevity, although its folk names ‘Old Man’s Pepper-pot’ and ‘Bad Man’s Plaything’ probably relate to Yarrow’s spicy reputation for being a latter-day Viagra rather than to it actually leading to a longer life...The Gaelic names for closely related Sneezewort – cruaidh lus or meacan ragaim – mean, respectively, ‘hard weed’ and ‘stiff plant’.

It must be stressed that like most plants with medicinal properties, Yarrow should only be used in moderation and prolonged use of even small doses can cause headaches, increased sensitivity to sunlight and skin irritation... before the stampede to the garden centre starts

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