The Many Faces of Yarrow
Achillea millefolium L.
Written by: Jade Shutes
**This article originally appeared in the International Journal of Professional Holistic Aromatherapy.
Yarrow is a venerable plant of ancient medicinal repute (Hatfield, 1971). According to legend, the Greek hero Achilles is said to have utilized Yarrow to stop the bleeding (styptic) of his soldiers as well as his own wounds during the Trojan War. It is thought that the genus name, Achillea, comes from this great warrior of Greek mythology. Roman centurions knew this plant under the name Herba militaris and later by ‘Soldier’s Woundwort’ and Carpenter’s Weed, reflecting its use for treating wounds. The species name millefolium is derived from the common name Milfoil which comes from the French mile feuille, meaning ‘1000 leaves’, referring to its feathery leaves, which are divided into thousands of tiny leaflets (Balick, 2014). Yarrow was formally named Achillea millefolium by Linnaeus in 1753 (Keller, 2014).
In Herbal Medicine, Yarrow is much loved as a herbal first aid plant. Dried, powdered or freshly crushed leaves (stripped off stalk) can be placed on (and into–should the cut be deep) a wound to stop bleeding as well as to prevent infection to wound. Yarrow (leaves, leaves and flowers) are utilized for: acute fever, acute inflammation, bruises, colds and fever, excessive blood flow (either wounds or menstrual blood flow), gastrointestinal upsets, heat in digestive tract, weak digestion, hemorrhoids, inflamed skin conditions, internal or external hemorrhaging, and for varicose veins, (Bruton-Seal and Seal, 2008; Balick, 2014; Moore, 1994; Gladstar, 2008; Wood, 2009, Hoffman, 2003). Yarrow has long had a particular repute for closing bleeding wounds caused by weapons or tools made of iron (Kress, 2013). Yarrow (Achillea millefolium L. s.l.) is traditionally used against inflammatory and spasmodic gastro-intestinal complaints, hepato-biliary disorders, as an appetite enhancing drug, against skin inflammations and for wound healing due to its antiphlogistic, choleretic and spasmolytic properties (Benedek 2008).
According to Hatfield (1971), “This kindly weed also gave solace to lovelorn maidens whose lovers were away. Ancient tradition held that if such a pining woman were to pluck a sprig of Yarrow from a cemetery (and specifically from the grave of a young man) and repeat, while holding it, a certain mystic chant, then she would dream of her absent lover that night.” This past Autumn while walking through the aromatic and medicinal gardens at Bastyr University in Seattle, WA, Cathy Skipper, a colleague, shared a slightly different version of this story and it went something like this (I am paraphrasing): if a single woman desiring to be in relationship harvests some Yarrow and sleeps with it under her pillow she will have visions of their true love. Bruton-Seal and Seal (2008) comment that Yarrow has been utilized as a herb of divination, used by the Druids for predicting the weather, by the Chinese for auguries (in the Book of Changes or I Ching), and by lovelorn English maidens for indicating who their true love would be (Bruton-Seal and Seal, 2008).
Now let’s explore Achillea millefolium in a bit more depth.
Botany and Historical Information
- Other common names: Yarrow has been known by several common names including: Devil’s nettle, Old Man’s Pepper, Yarroway, Woundwort, Milfoil, Angel flower.
- Botanical family: Asteraceae syn. Compositae
- Botany: The Achillea genus contains over 120 species and several subspecies. Achillea millefolium is wide spread throughout Europe while A. lanulosa is common to North America although A. millefolium has been introduced as well. These two species are practically identical (Chandler 1982).
Achillea millefolium is native to Europe, Asia, has naturalized throughout North America as well as to other temperate zones of the world. It is a perennial herb with several erect stems arising from multiple rhizomes below the ground. The compound leaves are bright green and feathery. Numerous small, white to pink flower heads are borne in flat-topped clusters (Van Wyk and Wink, 2004).
NOTE: According to Lawrence, Yarrow oil, milfoil oil or Achillea oil is obtained from the Achillea millefolium complex. This complex is a group of hardly separable species or, according to some authorities, subspecies of Compositae (Asteraceae–current name) found throughout the temperate and boreal zones of the Northern and Southern hemispheres (Lawrence, 1989).
Today most scientists define A. millefolium L. as a complex, divided into five subspecies with diploid (2n=18) to octaploid (2n=72) forms (Hofman, 1992). It is now generally agreed that A. millefolium L. is hexaploid and azulene-free and that azulene is found only in the closely related tetraploid plants, such as A. lanulosa Nutt. and A. collina Becker (Falk et al, 1974; Verzar-Petri, 1979; cited in Chandler 1982).
- Country of origin: France, Bulgaria, India
- Part of plant used: Flowering plant
- Extraction method: Distillation
- Yield: 1.3-2% (w/v)
- Color of oil: Can be clear to yellow, or light blue to deep rich blue
- Odor description: Sweet, warm/cool, pungent, earthy
- Note: Mid to base note
- Blends well with: Clary sage (Salvia sclarea), Cistus (Cistus ladaniferus), Lavandin (Lavandula x intermedia), Eucalyptus citriodora, Neroli (Citrus aurantium var. amara flos., Cape chamomile (Eriocephalus punctulatus), Helichrysum italicum, Katrafay (Cedrelopsis grevei), Cypress (Cupressus sempervirens)
**Safety information would change based upon specific chemotypes and/or chemical composition of each specific essential oil of Achillea millefolium.
Safety considerations for camphor
- Camphor is neurotoxic, and is also toxic to the liver and kidneys in ways that have not yet been studied (Tisserand and Young, 2014). Camphor-rich essential oils should not be used on infants and young children. Camphor known to easily cross the skin, mucous membranes and, the placental barrier. In large doses it can cause significant hepatotoxicity and/or neurotoxicity (Shutes, 2014).
- Cautions (dermal route): Tisserand and Young (2014) suggest a dermal maximum 4.5%, Canada 3% (Health Canada) (Tisserand and Young, 2014).
- Cautions (oral route): Oral maximum 2 mg/kg/day.
Safety considerations for chamazulene
- Hazards: Potential drug interaction (Tisserand and Young, 2014).
- Cautions (all routes): Drugs metabolized by CYP2D6 (Tisserand and Young, 2014).
- Cautions (oral route): Drugs metabolized by CYP1A2 or CYP3A4 (Tisserand and Young, 2014).
Safety considerations for 1,8-cineole
- Do not use on or near the face of infants and children.
Safety considerations for monoterpene-rich essential oils
All terpene and terpenoid compounds react easily to oxygen and can degrade quickly. This degradation can lead to the essential oil becoming a potential skin irritant or sensitizer. The essential oil should be capped tightly and stored correctly (in a cool dark place such as a refrigerator or similar) to ensure the essential oil does not degrade to the point where it becomes no longer useful for therapy (Shutes, 2014).
1 See Tisserand and Young. (2014). Essential Oil Safety, 2nd edition or Google “Drugs metabolized by: _____(name of enzyme)”–this will typically provide you with a number of resources.
The image above shows 3 different yarrow essential oils. On the far left, Original Swiss Aromatics, middle: Stillpoint Aromatics, and on the right: a wild yarrow produced by a artisan distiller in France and given to me by Cathy Skipper.
The chemical composition of Yarrow oil has been the subject of a number of studies over the years (Lawrence, 1989). A wide range of chemical variation is noted as follows (Table 1). The natural variation of this essential oil is considered to be due to any one or more of the following: the age of the plant, the season of collection, and the environmental conditions (Chandler et al., 1982).
Table 1. A sample of the chemical variation of Yarrow essential oil from various geographic locations.
A research paper by Mockute and Judzentiene (2002) discussed numerous chemotypes of Achillea millefolium L. ssp. millefolium essential oils including the following: ct. β-pinene, ct. 1,8-cineole, ct. borneol, ct. camphor, ct. nerolidol and ct. chamazulene. High levels of chamazulene were very rare in the essential oils tested, representing only one sample out of 20 samples collected in 1999-2000 in Eastern Lithuania. The paper discusses chemotypes found in other parts of the world from Portugal and Norway to Canada. Mockute and Judzentiene (2002) list the following as possible chemotypes of Achillea millefolium L.: chamazulene, sabinene, β-pinene, 1,8-cineole, linalool, cis-α-thujone, trans-β-thujone, ocimene, camphor, ascaridole, caryophyllene oxide, β-eudesmol, and α-bisabolol (IBID).
Note: “The bright blue azulenes are not present in the fresh herb, but are formed as artefacts from ‘proazulenes’ during steam distillation of the oil” (Van Wyk and Wink, 2004).
Chemical feature: The chemistry of Yarrow is quite variable so you may want to ask your supplier for a GC/MS to verify its chemistry.
- Yarrow (Achillea millefolium L.) essential oil exhibits antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activity. The paper concludes that due to the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activities of the essential oil, it could be used in many applications, including as a functional ingredient in health food or as a drug for treating inflammatory related diseases. It should be noted that the main components of the Yarrow essential oil utilized in this study include: artemisia ketone (14.92%), camphor (11.64%), linalyl acetate (11.51%) and 1,8-cineole (10.15%)(Chou 2013).
- According to Claus and Decker (2006), tyrosinases* are essential for pigmentation and are important factors in wound healing and primary immune response. Yarrow (Achillea millefolium L.) essential oil can suppress the production of melanin by down regulation of tyrosinases activity through the regulation of c-Jun N-terminal kinase (JNK) and extracellular signal-regulated kinase (ERK) signaling pathways in melanocyte stimulating hormone (α-MSH) treated melanoma cells. (*Tyrosinases enzyme that catalyzes an oxidation-reduction reaction that is the rate-limiting enzyme for controlling the production of melanin.)
- The effects of Yarrow essential oil on melanogenesis alteration might be associated with its function in the suppression of relative oxygen species (ROS). Linalyl acetate was also found to repress melanin levels, therefore having an effect on the regulation of melanogenesis. The paper concluded that Achillea millefolium essential oil has the potential to become an ingredient in drugs, foods, and cosmetics in the future to treat hyperpigmentation (Peng et al, 2014). It should be noted that the main components of the Yarrow essential oil utilized in this study were presumed to be the same as that used by Chou et al, (2013), although other major components of the essential oil (1,8-cineole and camphor) had little effect. In addition, the artemesia ketone could not be tested as it was not commercially available.
- Yarrow (Achillea millefolium subsp. millefolium Afan.) exhibits antioxidant and antimicrobial activity. 1,8-cineole, camphor, α-terpineol, β-pinene, and borneol were the principal components comprising 60.7% of the oil. While the main components when tested individually exhibited any antioxidant activity, the synergistic activity of the whole oil showed antimicrobial activity against Streptococcus pneumoniae, Clostridium perfringens, Candida albicans, Mycobacterium smegmatis, Acinetobacter lwoffii and Candida krusei (Candan et al, 2003).
- Other research indicate the essential oil of various Achillea millefolium ssp. to have strong activity against dermatophytes (Falconieri et al., 2011) and antiprotozoal activity against parasites found in the blood and lymph such as Leishmaniasis caused by Leishmania amazonensis (Santos et al., 2010) and inhibits parasite growth in American trypanosomiasis (sleeping sickness known as Chaga’s disease) (Santoro et al., 2007).
Anti-inflammatory, antipyretic, antirheumatic, antiseptic, antispasmodic, astringent (skin care), carminative, cell regenerative/cicatrisant, diaphoretic, digestive, expectorant, hemostatic, hypotensive, stomachic, and tonic (immune system) (Lawless, 1995), antiparasitic
Core Aromatic Applications
Circulatory system: parasitic
Immune system: colds, fever
Muscular system: arthritis, aches and pains, cramps, muscle inflammations, rheumatism, stiffness, tendinitis
Nervous system: irritability, insomnia, neuralgia, protective, nervous tension
Female reproductive system: amenorrhea, excessive blood flow, painful cramps, cystitis, dysmenorrhea
Skin: acne, as an antiseptic, bruises, burns, cuts, dermatitis, eczema, inflamed conditions rashes, razor burn, scars, tones the skin, wounds, varicose veins,
Psych and emotion: anxiety, clumsiness, depression, nervousness, and restlessness
Subtle/energetic aromatherapy: Yarrow has a profound action on the Liver and Ethereal soul (Hun), releasing stagnant Qi-energy and the blocked emotions that go with it. It is particularly relevant for deeply repressed anger and embitterment, and echoes symbolically the vengeful wrath of Achilles (Mojay, 1997). Yarrow has long been considered a remedy for the wounded warrior, but it is also a remedy for the wounded healer. A person who has a tendency to accidents will benefit from the use of Yarrow (Wood, 1997).
Achillea millifolium hydrosol is beautiful to work with. According to Catty (2001) and in line with its historical and herbal uses, Yarrow hydrosol would be indicated for:
- Good digestive aid
- Relieves indigestion and heartburn caused by over-indulgence
- Antispasmodic–used internally or externally for digestive, reproductive and muscular system spasms
- Fever, in association with flu and colds
- Anti-inflammatory–recommended for hemorrhoids, varicose veins, rectal fissures.
- Wound cleanser
- Styptic–stops bleeding of wounds
- In a compress to reduce fevers.
- Taken internally for flu accompanied with fever.
- In skincare creams and/or lotions to relieve inflammation.
- As a spritzer to cleanse ones aura or energetic field.
- Taken internally for digestive upsets.
- In a spritzer to help balance body temperature (if hot, it will be cooling, if cold, it will be warming).
- As an ingredient in facial/body cleansers.
- Used in mouthwash blends of hydrosols.
- In a sitz bath for rectal fissures or hemorrhoids.
- In a full body cool/warm bath to reduce fever at onset of flu (idea adapted from Bruton-Seal and Seal (2008).
Formulas using Yarrow
Abdominal massage oil for premenstrual cramps/amenorrhea
15 drops Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) essential oil
10 drops Vetiver (Vetiveria zizanioides) essential oil
20 drops Clary sage (Salvia sclarea) essential oil
60 ml Sesame (Sesamum indicum) oil
Place drops of essential oil in amber glass bottle. Cap and shake. Open cap and add in Sesame oil. Replace cap and shake vigorously for a minute or two. Massage oil onto abdomen and lower back one to two times daily, as needed or during menstrual period.
Synergy for wound healing salve
14 drops Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)
10 drops Helichrysum (Helichrysum italicum)
14 drops Lavandin, super (Lavandula x intermedia ‘Super’)
Add synergy into 2 ounces/57 gm of wound healing salve mixture.
Wound healing spray
4 oz/120 ml Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) hydrosol
4 oz/120 ml Helichrysum (Helichrysum italicum) hydrosol
4 oz/120 ml Cistus (Cistus ladaniferus) hydrosol
4 oz/120 ml Chamomile (Matricaria recutita) hydrosol
8 oz/240 ml vodka or Calendula (Calendula officinalis) tincture
Combine hydrosols with vodka or Calendula tincture. Shake well. Store in glass bottle with spritzer top. Spray directly on wounds/cuts/scraps/bug bites.
Varicose vein gel
1 oz/28 gm Aloe Vera (Aloe barbadensis) jelly
1 Tbl/15 ml Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) hydrosol
1 Tbl/15 ml Helichrysum (Helichrysum italicum) or Chamomile (Matricaria recutita) hydrosol
10 drops Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) essential oil
15 drops Cypress (Cupressus sempervirens) essential oil
Combine all ingredients in small bowl. Stir until well combined. Place mixture in sterilized glass jar. Secure tightly with lid. Keep in cool area. Use twice daily. Gently apply to varicose veins.
4 oz/120 ml Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) hydrosol
4 oz/120 ml Chamomile (Matricaria recutita) hydrosol
In a small bowl, combine the Yarrow and Chamomile hydrosols (hydrosols should be at room temperature). Soak cotton cloth in hydrosol blend. Squeeze out excess and place cloth on forehead.
Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) has a long history of use as an herbal/folk remedy. With the Achillea genus containing over 100 species and several subspecies, the chemical variations of the essential oil are vast suggesting that a gas chromatograph/mass spectrometry (GC/MS) test be obtained to be certain of the chemical components of the essential oil you are purchasing. Along with the variety in chemotypes comes the responsibility of the safety of the oil. While some are rich in monoterpenes or alcohols, others are dominated by ketones or oxides and require safety considerations. Due to the chemical variation of the essential oil from different countries, it is evident that the therapeutic benefits of Yarrow cover a wide variety of ailments, home and personal care needs. From arthritis to insomnia and skin care concerns from fungal infections to wound care, there is a Yarrow essential oil suitable for therapeutic care. In addition, the hydrosol provides therapeutic benefit in First Aid/wound care and fever. While this paper concerns itself with the many uses of Achillea millefolium L., there is much research available on the various species and subspecies of Yarrow illustrating the versatility of this essential oil.
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