Yarrow is one of those plants that, even if you don’t know it right now, you have seen it a thousand times, and once you know what it is, you’ll see it everywhere. It is lovely, fragrant, and very useful. It is an herb that has been used in traditional medicine (and other, more unique, ways) for thousands of years. Obviously my focus here is its use in the kitchen, but I love learning the historical roles of these plants, so I will share some of that as well. First, what is yarrow?
Yarrow is a perennial herb in the Aster family, though it resembles some plants from the carrot family due to the typically white flower clusters it produces at the top of the stem. It is easily distinguished, however, by its feather-like leaves. In the linnaean name, Achillea millefolium, the species portion translates to thousand leaf, an apt descriptor for the fern-like leaves, seemingly cut into a thousand leaflets. Similarly, the Mexican name for yarrow is plumajilla (little feather), because of its feathery, frond-like leaves.
Yarrow typically grows between 8” and 2’ tall, with umbrella-shaped clusters of white flowers atop each. However, yarrow does vary significantly within these parameters. Some cultivars can grow as tall as 5’, and the flowers produced are sometimes pink or yellow.
Yarrow is both native and introduced, as some yarrow species are planted in gardens and go feral from there. All species flower in the summertime. Additionally, variance within the species Achillea millefolium appears to be quite wide, as there are many subspecies which find their niche in distinct ecosystems. For example, in wetter areas the leaves may appear quite green, while in drier, rockier environments, a subspecies exists with a woollier leaf, as pictured below. These plants are both Achillea millefolium, though I believe the subspecies of the woolly variety is Achillea millefolium var. alpicola.
Where to find it:
Range: Yarrow is an incredibly widespread plant, found in every U.S. state as well as all over the world. Historically, it comes up in both Chinese divination practices and Greek stories like the Iliad.
Habitat: Yarrow is commonly found in mildly disturbed habitats in forests and grasslands. It ranges from low elevations all the way to over 11000’. Just keep your eyes open, you’ll find it everywhere except the driest of deserts.
-Season: Popping up in the spring, you can expect yarrow to bloom in early to mid-summer. It will die back in the winter and return in the same spot next spring.
How to Harvest:
Yarrow flowers, leaves, and roots can all be used in food and medicine, though it is best practice to pick only a few leaves and flowers, and leave the root system to return next year. Pick no more than a few leaves and flowers from each individual plant to ensure that you do not cause the plant too much damage.
Medicinal Uses: Yarrow is medicinally best known as a coagulant. Throughout history (including the story of Achilles in the Trojan war), yarrow has been carried by soldiers to be used as a poultice when injured in battle. Chewed or mashed leaves are applied externally to small wounds or used to stuff large wounds in order to more rapidly stop bleeding. The link with the Greek hero Achilles is where the genus Achillea comes from.
Yarrow tea is the more common modern medicinal use. 5-10 leaves can be dropped into a mug of boiling water to make a bitter tea which is said to relieve stress and aid with digestion.
Culinary Uses: The delicate aroma of the is destroyed by high heat, and the plant has a tendency to become quite bitter when cooked, so it is best used in raw preparations. It works well in a finishing butter or hot butter sauce, can make an excellent addition to a vinaigrette, and is said to be quite good as a flavoring for ice cream or with fresh fruit over yogurt.
The roots are said to be a good bittering agent in the production of cocktail bitters, though I have not personally tried this yet.
Other Uses: Interestingly, yarrow stalks are used in the I Ching as a tool for divination. The stalks are tossed, and the ensuing pattern is read in order to predict the future. Now THAT is one useful plant.
Lookalikes: Poison Hemlock, Queen Anne’s Lace, Water Hemlock, Angelica
DISCLAIMER: as with any foraging, do not eat anything of which you are not 100% certain of your identification. And do thorough research before you eat anything. This is not intended to be your only source of information. Read more than one opinion and make up your own mind before ingesting anything.
Yarrow Compound Butter
Because of its delightful aroma, and resistance to being cooked, one of my favorite ways to use yarrow is in a compound butter. Don’t be intimidated by the name, compound butters are startlingly easy. If you’ve ever been to a restaurant that served you bread with garlic butter or a steak finished with a pat of herb butter, that’s compound butter. All you have to do is soften butter, add your herbs, spices, etc., roll it up in some plastic, add pop it back in the fridge to re-solidify.
¼ lb. salted butter
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 tbsp fresh lemon juice
2 tbsp yarrow, finely minced
Soften the butter on the counter until it is quite soft, a few hours at least (depending on room temperature)
Mince the yarrow and garlic very finely.
Mix together the butter, garlic, lime juice, and yarrow until well mixed.
Spoon the mixture onto a piece of plastic wrap. Use the plastic wrap to shape it into a log, and roll it up. Place this roll back in the fridge to resolidify.
Serve as a finishing butter on meat, fish, or vegetables.