Herbs: Yarrow or Milfoil; History, Culinary Uses and Nutrition
Yarrow ( Achillea millefolium) also known as milfoil is a common, perennial herbaceous plant thought to have originated in Europe, although it can be found in most regions of the northern hemisphere. This hardy plant and its many subspecies can easily be found growing in virtually any terrain, from urban roadsides to country meadows and even by the seashore. Yarrow has a profuse history as an herbal remedy and contains well over 120 compounds that have medicinal properties, making the yarrow plant a one stop botanical pharmacy.
Crushed yarrow leaves are known to promote blood clotting, and traditionally yarrow leaves are a first aid remedy. As such they were used for soldiers field dressing, hence the alternative name for yarrow, soldier’s woundwort. In fact, the botanical name for yarrow, Achillea is a direct reference to Achilles, the legendary hero of Greek mythology. Achilles always carried yarrow leaves with him into battle, during the Trojan wars, which he used to bandage the wounds of his warriors. Modern research has discovered that the alkaloid achilleine, one of three alkaloids present in the leaves and stems, is responsible for the blood staunching properties of yarrow.
As a traditional herbal remedy, the stalks and flower heads of yarrow plants were gathered by families during the summer months and allowed to dry. Women made yarrow tea to relieve heavy menstruation, also period pains, and children drank the tea to alleviate hay fever and sinusitis. During winter months yarrow tea helped relieve the symptoms of colds, coughs and flu. Native Americans harnessed the anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory properties of yarrow as they used the plant for a multitude of ailments such as burns, wounds and toothache.
Achillea millefolim has fernlike leaves and its stems have umbrellalike clusters of white or pink flowers from summer until fall. This plant from the asteraceae botanical family can reach a height of 1-3 feet. Yarrow can be found growing on lawns and because it is invasive it is often considered a nuisance weed by gardeners. Yarrow is used as a compost accelerator and is useful for soils that are deficient in the mineral copper, essential for healthy plants. The many subspecies include, English mace or sweet Nancy (Achillea ageratum), a white petalled flower with yellow discs. And a species native to North America called Anchillea lanulosa. A.lanulosa usually has white petals with yellow disc or, less common, pink flowers with yellow or white disc petals."Lanulosa" means "wooly" in Latin. Upon close inspection the yarrow flower has many larger petal flowers encompassing smaller disc flowers in clusters, as opposed to an individual flower.
Yarrow and its Nutritional Value: Both the leaves and flowers of yarrow are edible and highly nutritious. This plants contains several phytochemicals known as flavonoids, which has anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, anti-tumor and antioxidant properties. The following flavonoids and terpenes have been isolated from the yarrow plant.
Although yarrow is considered safe to eat it does however contain several chemicals, such as thujone, know be to toxic if consumed in very large amounts. Thujone, also found in wormwood, is thought to have a narcotic effect on the brain and is a constituent in the anise flavored spirit, absinthe. Absinthe was banned from sale in 1912 and not re-legalized until 2007, when the amount of thujone was lowered. Another slightly toxic component of yarrow is coumarin, a chemical compound known to cause liver and kidney failure.
The Culinary Uses of Yarrow: Up until the late 17th century yarrow leaves were widely used as a food source. They were prepared in a similar way as leafy vegetable, added to soups and stews. Although the practice of eating yarrow leaves as a vegetable is out of vogue, yarrow flowers have an aromatic flavor and add a colorful touch to salads. Yarrow flowers and leaves are also dried, ground and used as a spice. Yarrow has been used in beer making since the middle ages as a substitute for hops and barley. Yarrow was an ingredient in the herbal brew known as grut and was consider to have more intoxicating effects than conventional beer brewing ingredients.
Achillea spp; This image belongs to Pauline Eccles and is licensed for reuse with creative commons licence at geograph.org.uk. Primary image Achillea millefolium, by anemoneprojectors; published at flickr.com with creative commons licence.