I spent the first five years of my life wandering 40 off-grid acres my parents bought in the remote corner of northeastern Washington Sate. They built a cabin in a wild, yet homey little valley tucked into an aspen grove at the base of a rocky cliff that tumbled from a panorama of mountains dotted with evergreen stands. Foggy mornings, snowy winters, and dusty summer days heavy with the musk of dry pine needles, strawberries and wildflowers marked my memory. One of those flowers was yarrow.
An Ancient Ally
A member of the aster family (Asteraceae), yarrow (Achillea millefolium) is an herbaceous perennial native to North America, Central America, the Middle East, Europe and Asia that grows throughout temperate and boreal regions of the world: in meadows, pastures and along roadsides. Yarrow has been used from at least the time of the ancient Greeks and Egyptians—fossils of yarrow have been found in 60,000-year-old Neanderthal burial sites, identifiable by its pollen.
My mom loved plants, and my uncle recently gave me an old Washington wildflower book she had left behind at their neighboring summer cabin. I have a vague memory of her telling me about yarrow, and how you can rub it onto your skin to repel mosquitoes. As some readers may know, she was diagnosed with cancer not long after we left the homestead, and died when I was 11. This trauma divided my life and I've spent the majority of my adulthood healing from it.
My teens were pure chaos, my twenties were spent seeking, and in my thirties I finally got into therapy. That's when I began finding a meaningful path forward and purpose in life, thanks to getting into gardening and horticulture, then herbalism. It wasn't until 39 that I connected with Jungian psychology and began shadow work. And it was in returning to Washington the summers of 2019-21 and exploring my childhood landscape that yarrow spoke to me, and I rediscovered my inner child.
After being diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder in 2022, I decided to get disciplined and start a daily meditation practice. Sometimes it really is the simplest things that work. Meditation helped me ground down into my core values, and I chose to fully move back to Washington when given the opportunity. However, I've learned that healing isn't linear, and I struggle with imposter syndrome big time. So, as I was researching yarrow further for this blog post, I was struck by the plant's connection with the wounded healer archetype.
The Wounded Healer
Yarrow’s genus comes from the Greek warrior, Achilles. According to the legend, Achilles’ mother bathed him in yarrow tea at birth to make him invincible, but (spoiler alert) was holding him by the heel while she dunked him. Achilles often used yarrow on the battlefield to staunch the wounds of his soldiers, and lamented not having it at the time of his famed mortal wounding. In The Iliad, Homer writes that Achilles learned of the plant's healing properties from his tutor, Chiron.
Son of Titan Kronos and Oceanid Philyra, Chiron was abandoned for having been born a centaur. He was found and raised by Apollo, who taught him healing arts, music and prophecy, while Apollo's twin sister Artemis taught him archery and hunting. Centaurs were rumored to be wild and unruly, but Chiron grew to be wise and kind. He excelled in all fields and went on to shine his light by teaching others, including Achilles, Heracles, Jason and Asclepius, the god of medicine himself.
Emotionally wounded at birth, Chiron was also physically wounded later in life when he was accidentally struck by one of Heracles' arrows coated in Hydra's poisonous blood. The wound was painful and incurable, but because Chiron was immortal he couldn't die. He continued to roam the earth healing others. Thus he was fated to embody the paradox of a healer who could heal everyone but himself.
When he eventually wandered to the place of Prometheus undergoing his own eternal agony (another story), Chiron volunteered to give up his immortality in order to free him and was finally allowed to die. In return for his service and sacrifice, Zeus gave him a place among the stars as a constellation.
Rather than simply being a tale of martyrdom, this myth is a blueprint for how to use our own afflictions as a source of empathy. It is in sharing our vulnerability that we are able to help each other. In giving others what we most need, we can find inspiration and ultimately, our purpose. Like yarrow, we can stand tall, rooted firmly and tilting our faces toward the heavens, yet unfurl our tender arms with enough grace to hold space for the duality of existence.
Working With Yarrow
Yarrow is perhaps best known for its wound healing properties, and was used in battle from the time of the ancient Greeks up until World War I. Its common names include woundwort, staunch weed, nosebleed and carpenter’s weed. No first aid kit is complete without yarrow. It is antibacterial, antiviral, anti-inflammatory, astringent, styptic and analgesic, making it ideal for preventing infection, reducing swelling and bruising, staunching bleeding and blunting pain in wounds. Energetically, it can be warming or cooling due to its ability to regulate the flow of blood through a variety of mechanisms. It is a main ingredient in our Heal salve.
Growing up to three feet tall on a sturdy stem, with finely divided feathery and aromatic leaves becoming smaller toward the top, yarrow spreads by rhizomes. The white (and sometimes pink) flower heads, comprised of many small flowers, are flat clusters at the end of the stem. There are also cultivars of varying colors. Harvest yarrow flowers and leaves when plant is in full bloom, in the morning after the dew dries and before the sun's heat evaporates the lighter essential oils. Cut whole stems and hang upside down, away from sun and moisture to dry.
Yarrow has many more uses than I've mentioned here, and I look forward to working with its medicine more. For now, I just want to wrap things up by saying that Verdant Wild is very much an extension of who I am. It has been my guiding light and purpose for many years now, and while it evolves and grows with me, it has forged me as much as I have attempted to mold it. I'm grateful to be on this journey, learning so much about the reciprocal relationship between plants and human beings. Thanks for being here with me!
The Myth of Chiron, the Wounded Healer, Psychology Today
Yarrow Monograph, The Herbarium (membership required)
Yarrow: Myth, Magic, and Medicine, Rowan + Sage