Monday, May 19, 2014

Plant Teachings of Yarrow - A Shepherd and Warriors Best Friend

Today's plant choice was inspired by my obsession with sheep. As an earth sheep in the Chinese zodiac and with my sun and moon in the sign of Taurus (about as earthy as it gets) I feel a particular resonance with slow moving, vegetarian, and peace-loving herd animals. Lately I have also been drawn to stories of warfare and battle. So, in honor of these last days of the Taurean season and the stationing of the war-loving planet, Mars, today in the sky, I decided to write about a plant that is favored among animal caretakers and warriors, Yarrow.

I first learned about Yarrow, Achillea millefolium while on an herb walk with David Winston at the Medicines From The Earth Conference in 2003. David showed us its "thousand leaves" which translate to "millefolium" in its Latin binomial. It was amazing to see these feathery soft leaves which in the language of plant signatures look like the aerating spread of capillaries in the lungs.  David shared the plants association with the Greek god Achilles who used this plant to heal his solider's wounds. This ability of Yarrow to stop bleeding makes it a valuable herb among farmers, shepherds, and soldiers.

Along with its styptic and vulnerary properties, this Old World plant is antiviral and antibacterial making it a wonderful plant to apply to a wound. I can imagine my great grandfather, Francesco Parinnello, who lived as a shepherd in Sicily, keeping a little yarrow in his medicine bag as he traveled through the hills with his sheep. It would be the ideal medicine to apply to a small jagged cut on a lambs leg from running into a barbed wire fence or to a wound received while chopping firewood.

Yarrow is also regarded as a talisman, or protector plant. It is believed to protect one from evil or negative influences, especially those who are more sensitive to outside energies. It was used over babies cradles, in wedding flower arrangements, folded into solider's handkerchiefs, and is used in divination with the I -Ching. Whenever I come across a patch of Yarrow, it is like a familiar and powerful ally has joined me. I know that if Yarrow is around, no matter what happens, I will be protected. Whether this is because of the multiple uses of this plant as a medicine or because of its magical properties, I am not sure. I have a set of yarrow sticks that I gathered, dried, and polished with beeswax to use with the I-Ching and they do hold a very special and clear energy. I trust Yarrow, whole-heartedly, and when it comes to making big decisions or healing a wound I have no doubt in its power and healing capacity.

I would not be a good herbalist if I didn't also mention that yarrow is one of the best overall blood tonics.

Herbalist Matthew Wood includes Yarrow in his top ten herbs to have on hand and says, "Yarrow is one of the primal remedies of the Western herbal tradition. It can
be called the ‘master of the blood.’ Through numerous devices – clotting, unclotting, neurovascular control, flavonoids, etc. – it regulates the flow of blood to and from the surface, in and out of the capillaries and venules, thickening and thinning. Through this it cures all manner of wounds, bruises, hemorrhaging, and clotting. The same property, combined with its diaphoretic capacity, makes it a ‘master of fever,’ moving blood to or from the surface to release or preserve heat and regulate fluids."

Yarrow is amphoteric, complicated, and has so many uses. It is warming AND cooling and is both astringent AND stimulates blood flow. When I see plants that contain contradictory actions it makes me think of a multi-faceted being that can help us when we are feeling polarized or stuck on one side of the pond.

To me, yarrow helps us to keep things moving in just the right way. Not too much, and not too little. I’ve used this plant with a number of clients recently.  One client has been feeling ‘unsafe’ in her home and was suffering from feelings of irritation alternating with stagnation. After taking Yarrow for a few weeks she noticed a significant shift in her feelings of security and her emotional stability. Another client was having circulation issues and had fears about leaving her ‘secure’ job to pursue a more soulful path. Within a few weeks her circulation and digestion improved and she was offered a new job that would allow her to do more of the work she loves.

Astrologer and medical herbalist, Nicholas Culpepper places Yarrow under the rulership of Venus (kidneys, female reproductive tract) and some medical astrologers place it under the rulership of Mars (blood, fever, immunity). With these two energetics we could say that yarrow also helps to balance the feminine and masculine aspects of our being. Time and time again I have seen Yarrow balance out extremes so perhaps it would be better to say it points back to a healthy sense of androgyny from which all impulses arise.  In this way yarrow is a truly alchemical plant.

Yarrow grows just about everywhere and it is an easy plant to identify by its leaf shape and camphorous scent. I will be leading an herb walk on the Summer Solstice, on June 21st from 11 - 5 in Silver Spring, MD if you'd like to join me and the Herbal Apprentices for a day with the plants. I know a nice patch I would be happy to share with you!


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