Flora and fauna: A cure for nosebleeds... and baldness?
Yarrow Achillea millefolium Millfoil, Nosebleed
YARROW is an attractive white, or, rarely, pink-flowered plant of the daisy family (Asteraceae). It is common on grassland, waste ground and in pastures.
It is found throughout the UK, Europe and the temperate Americas. Strongly scented, it spreads widely by means of stolons, and has erect, slightly woolly, stems ridged with red which can reach up to two feet high.
The leaves are about six inches long, and so finely divided that they resemble feathers or fern fronds, giving rise to the name milfoil or thousand-leaf. In Mexico it is known as plumajillo or little feather.
The many flowers are densely grouped and made up of many florets on a basal disc. The outer florets are like a frill, while the tiny inner florets are five-toothed and white or, more usually, cream.
The flowers’ strong sweet scent is reminiscent of chrysanthemums and the seeds are shiny and slightly winged, which aids their distribution.
The origin of the name yarrow is lost, but the plant was well known to the Greeks, and there is a reference to yarrow in sixth century Anglo-Saxon writings.
Homer wrote that the warrior Achilles carried yarrow with him to staunch wounds, and Linnaeus presumably adapted this for the genus name Achillea.
For a plant to be as well known as this, it tends to have many uses, ancient and modern. In Sweden it is used as a tobacco substitute, and as an alternative to hops for beer making. In New Zealand and Australia it is grown as a forage crop for animals. The further back in time we look, the greater the uncertainties as to its uses. For example, an ancient charm for curing tertiary ague instructed one to pull off a leaf with the left hand while at the same time pronouncing the patient’s name. (Frankly, I doubt if this worked well.)
Chewing its leaves was supposed to alleviate toothache and a liquid concoction was taken to prevent the shedding of hair.
But it certainly does have astringent qualities, and can help staunch bleeding. Both Achilles and various Native American peoples also use it for healing cuts, and indeed, as the nickname suggests, it can help stop nosebleeds – though, paradoxically, some believed that if you stuck a leaf up your nose, it would cause it to bleed.
(Perhaps best not to have believers from each camp under the same roof after a punch up.)
Dr Richard Warren is a botanist from Barnard Castle