With Maggie Chaplin, First published October 2012

Achillea – the Soldier’s Herb.

In Greek mythology Achilles was a handsome warrior who was fearless in battle and took good care of his soldiers, healing their wounds with potions made from a herb that’s named Achillea after him. We might call it yarrow but botanically it is referred to as Achillea millefolium. Millefolium refers to the fact that the plant’s fine feathery leaves are made up of thousands of leaflets.

Yarrow is a common weed of well-drained grassland and reaches anything from just a few inches to several feet high depending on its growing conditions. The flat flower heads are composed of dozens of tiny white or pale pink florets and are borne at the top of tough stringy stems that also sprout the fern-like leaves. The wild version would be too invasive as a garden plant but Achillea is considered sufficiently attractive that several colourful varieties have been developed for cultivation. It flowers from June to October and has an attribute that perhaps may one day be useful in the Four Shires – it’s drought resistant!

As a medicinal herb it had many applications in the past because it contains several active chemicals that are useful in a variety of ways. As well as being astringent and thus helping to staunch bleeding, it is also anti-inflammatory and is said to reduce bruising.

The active ingredients are concentrated in the flowering tops which can be dried, and in the days when snuff powder was popular yarrow was a common ingredient.

Various modern herbal remedies contain yarrow extract, and tea made from an infusion of the dried flowers in water is sometimes recommended as a medication for digestive upsets. The very same infusion is also supposed to relieve symptoms of severe colds and fever, and if that isn’t enough, it’ll cure your melancholy as well! It once had veterinary applications too. An ointment made from the fresh herb was considered effective against sheep scab, a skin disease caused by a parasitic mite.

People in the seventeenth century enjoyed the leaves as a vegetable both raw and cooked, and also as an ingredient in soup. Yarrow has quite a strong almost lavender-like aromatic taste which in quantity doesn’t suit our modern palate, but a few very young leaves added sparingly to a salad will give a pleasing flavour and add visual appeal.

Folklore surrounding yarrow abounds. The Druids apparently used the dried stalks to divine the weather, and since Saxon times yarrow has been associated with magic. Supposedly if you put some under your pillow, the identity of your future partner would be revealed in a dream. It was also claimed to ward off evil, and witches often added it to their mystic potions,

Today many of us have one of the colourful ornamental varieties of Achillea in our gardens and rarely notice the wild version which was once a much valued and respected herb. It had many popular names including soldier’s woundwort. Perhaps someone should have applied it to Achilles’ heel after he was shot with the poisoned arrow!