Every Wednesday, I hope to find a new ‘weed’ to investigate. My only criterion will be that I will not have deliberately planted the subject of our inquiry. Who knows what we will find…..
As I squelched womanfully around the edge of the playing fields at Coldfall Wood on Monday, I was forcefully reminded that most of the soil of London is clay. The whole area was a slippery, claggy mass. I could have picked up a handful and thrown myself a pot. A Golden Retriever hurled himself into a large puddle, and a crow hopped down to check out the new water features that had appeared after the previous night’s heavy rainfall.
I was looking for something interesting to share with you all. Something with berries, or interesting foliage. Something that hadn’t either disappeared or turned into a twig. And then I spotted these, flowering amongst the brambles on the sunlit side of the fields.
Yarrow is a plant of the northern hemisphere, which grows in Europe, Asia and North America. It gets its Latin name, Achillea, from the Iliad – Achilles was said to have been taught the use of yarrow by his centaur teacher, Chiron, and to have always carried some with him into battle to staunch bleeding. Everywhere that it grows it has a long history of use as a medicinal herb. Some of its other names, such as Woundwort and Sanguinary, reflect its traditional use as a bloodclotting agent, but the flowers and leaves have also been used for everything from phlegmatic conditions to menstrual cramps. Humble the plant may be, but it seems to be a veritable medicine chest, and is even said to increase the efficacy of other herbs when it is used in combination with them.
In Asia, the dried stalks of Yarrow are used as part of the I Ching divination process, and in North America the Navajo use it for toothache and earache.
I associate Yarrow with areas of old grassland, where its delicate leaves form an important part of the sward, but quickly learned that it had an important role in the health of our agricultural land. Before we contracted our current mania for monoculture, Yarrow always formed part of the meadow’s plant community – it has extremely deep roots, which make it resistant to drought and helpful in cases of soil erosion, plus the leaves (which can also be eaten by humans) are rich in minerals and good for grazing animals. These days, it seems to be something of an outlier, growing at the edges of fields where the turf is allowed to grow a little longer.
The list of beneficial qualities goes on. Yarrow is excellent for companion planting because it attracts pollinators such as hoverflies who will eat many plant pests. Starlings use it to line their nests, and it has been shown to reduce the parasite load that the nestlings have to bear.
In the wild, Yarrow grows in three colour variations – white (as below), pale pink and dark pink. Many cultivated varieties exist, and are indeed ‘bee-friendly’, though not, I suspect, as ‘friendly’ as the original plant.
The name ‘Yarrow’ is said to come from the Anglo-Saxon word gearwe, which means ‘to prepare’ or ‘to be ready’. Many practices concerned its ability to ward off evil – it was burned on St John’s Eve (23rd June). This coincides with the Summer Solstice, so may be another case of a Christian holiday overlaying a much older tradition. Also at the Solstice, a bundle of Yarrow would be tied over a child’s cradle, or over the entrance to the house, to ensure good luck in the coming year.
As usual, I am gobsmacked. This unobtrusive little plant has had a millenium-long relationship with human beings all over the world. These days, most of us (including me) scarcely give it a second glance. Pushed to the edge of the field like so many plant species, it flowers on , even on an iron-hard December day. It makes me sad that so much of the plant lore that our grandparents would have known is being lost. It is so important that we recognise our place in a community that is made up of land, plants and animals, not just humans. In the meantime, the Yarrow waits on.