What is yarrow? Native to the temperate zones of Europe, Asia, and North America, this flowering plant can be found in sunny meadows with well-drained soil. Growing up to 3 feet in height, it has fernlike leaves and at least one head made up of 15 to 25 white flowers, each of being no bigger than a dime.
Known for its hardiness and extensive rhizome (root) system which extends in all directions, many consider it to be an evasive weed. Though it wasn’t always thought of that way!
The Englishmen of the 17th century ate the young leaves in salads, as did the Indian tribes throughout the Rocky Mountains. Modern foragers may want try the simple recipe for yarrow soup, as documented in All Good Things Around Us. Or you can drink it.
What part of yarrow is used for tea?
It is the dried white flowers which are the part traditionally used for brewing an herbal tea and making tinctures. How to make the tea is fairly straightforward – steep the dry petals for 10 minutes in hot water. Some recipes make use of the whole leaves and those require actual boiling for 10-20 minutes, in order to get the flavors and essential oils out.
What does yarrow taste like? There’s a good reason why finding where to buy it is so difficult. It’s not poisonous or toxic, but the leaves are quite bitter when raw. The flowers used for making tea also have astringent qualities; a bittersweet flavor that some liken to the tarragon.
Now since tarragon is mutagenic, indeed it is an excellent alternative for cooking. For drinking, almost any tea for sale – if you can even find it for sale locally – will be mixed with other herbs like ginger, peppermint, elderberry or elder flower to subdue its bitterness.
If it’s not flavor, what is yarrow good for?
History of using it medicinally
You don’t have to know Latin to recognize the first word in its scientific name; Achillea millefolium.
Achillea – the name of its genus – comes from the mythical Greek hero, Achilles.
You may not know the legend, but you do know what an Achilles’ heel is. Both figuratively and medically, its meaning is well-known.
The second word in the plant’s name – millefolium – comes from the Latin word militaris (military).
According to the story, the yarrow had magical properties. He used it to heal other warriors on the battlefield as well as himself. Making Achilles almost invincible, if it weren’t for his vulnerable ankles from infancy!
The Chinese have used the stalks as part of a divination ceremony. A cast with 64 was believed to represent Yin and Yang in harmony. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, it’s believed to be a good healing herb for the common cold, toothache, indigestion, and colic. They also consider the leaves to be a delicious edible vegetable. (1)
Meanwhile in the west, it was part of what’s called The Nine Herbs Charm. This Old English charm dates back to the 10th century AD and was reportedly used for fighting infections and poisoning. Originally it was said to use yarrow, though easier to find rosemary replaced it. (2)
It has been part of India’s Ayurveda medicine and here at home, it was a Native American remedy. While the translations cannot be fully relied on, botanists believe they were using it for the treatment of wounds, bleeding ulcers, headaches, toothaches, and gastrointestinal issues. For some tribes it was very important, as the Navajo counted it among their sacred “Life Medicines” list. You can read more about this in Native American Medicinal Plants.
Other names for it include milfoil herb (and milfoil yarrow tea), wound wort (and soldier’s wound wort), bloodwort, nosebleed plant, sanguinary, old man’s pepper, devil’s nettle, carpenter’s weed, noble yarrow, and stanchgrass.
Yarrow uses and benefits
These are what people have claimed yarrow is good for in traditional medicine and as purported herbal remedies:
- To stop bleeding when used topically
- Ointment to support wound healing
- Reducing cramps, gas and bloating
- Tea and cold compress for fevers
- Anti-anxiety tonic
- Sedative tea to sleep
- Delaying periods
- Reducing menstrual cramping pain
- Womens’ endometriosis (external uterine tissue)
- Womens’ fibroids (noncancerous uterine growths)
- Mens’ epididymitis (swollen tube near testicles)
- Menopause symptom relief
- Bladder inflammation (cystitis)
- Urinary tract infections (UTI)
- Rinsing grey hair to restore color
- Topical acne treatment
- Weight loss
All of the above are unproven uses and some could be dangerous. While it is true that a few things on that list have preliminary evidence to support them, most have virtually zero scientific data to justify their claimed use.
Here’s a look at what the science really says…
Using yarrow for wounds and scars dates back thousands of years but if you search the 27 million medical citations in the PubMed database, you will discover it has only been within the past decade that scientists started giving it serious scrutiny.
In 2017, a study was published involving rats which were inflicted with cutaneous wounds (incisions). For 2 weeks after, some were left untreated while others were given topical treatments extracted from Achillea asiatica Serg., which is a less common species.
They found the extract reduced inflammatory cytokines and stimulated collagen production, both of which seemed to improve the healing process. (3)
Also in 2017 were two human clinical trials.
The first involved wound healing in pregnant women. In a double-blinded trial, 140 women were randomly divided into 4 groups, each given different placebo and herbal ointments. The conclusion stated (4):
“Achillea millefolium [common yarrow] and Hypericum perforatum [St. John’s wort] ointments reduce perineal pain level, redness, edema and ecchymosis of episiotomy wound, so it seems that consuming them was useful for episiotomy treatment.”
In another double-blinded study, 23 people had their skin irritated using an 8% solution of sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS). For 7 days following this injury, each person was given essential oil to apply in the morning and evening. These yarrow oil extracts appeared to have a beneficial effect on healing, based on the skin’s pH level, hydration, and redness scoring. (5)
“…extracts might be used as promising base in the phytopreparations designed for dermatological application as anti-inflammatory agents with a positive impact on the skin pH and its moisture content.”
Yarrow to stop bleeding cuts or ulcers has almost no research. A study out of Iran found that when ingested, yarrow flower powder appeared to slightly decrease blood levels of nitric oxide in chronic kidney disease patients.
In theory at least, that might help reduce bleeding, because nitric oxide is a vasodilator that causes blood vessels to relax and have increased flow. But this is only one study and the reduction was not statistically significant with the dosages used. (6)
Although not about wounds, an earlier clinical trial was done by the chemical company BASF for anti-aging.
After two months of treatment with a 2% yarrow ointment, it was found that wrinkles and pore size “significantly improved” when compared to placebo. The results were even better than glycolic acid, which is considered to be an effective ingredient for skin serums and creams. (7)
Despite that finding, it’s hard to find products which use it. The UK brand Neal’s Yard makes a moisturizer containing it along with comfrey herb. You can get it on Amazon.
Menstrual cramps and pain
Technically known as dysmenorrhea, this is one of the most touted benefits of drinking yarrow tea. Yet only one clinical study exists on this topic and that didn’t even exist until 2015.
Women who attended a university in Iran were split into two groups. Half received the herbal teabags to use for the 3 days they were going through their period. The other half received a placebo tea. Each group did this twice, through two cycles.
The severity of the menstrual cramps and other side effects were much lower in the yarrow group and as such, the scientists concluded that “A. millefolium is effective in minimizing the pain severity in primary dysmenorrhea [painful periods].” (8)
Interesting, but one small human trial is far from being proof. The idea that yarrow can stop or delay periods has not been studied whatsoever. Likewise for menopause symptoms.
Endometriosis and fibroids
When the tissue that normally lines the inside of the uterus grows outside, it’s called endometriosis. This abnormal growth can be found on the ovaries, Fallopian tubes, or even the intestines depending on where it manifests. You will see many online testimonials and reviews of yarrow tea for endometriosis, yet there is only one piece of scientific literature on this folkloric use.
Through a surgical procedure, scientists gave 6 week-old female rats endometriosis. These 30 rats were then divided into 5 groups:
- a control group
- a reference group given a known treatment, the drug buserelin (Suprefact)
- 3 yarrow treated groups, given different forms of extract from the Achillea biebersteinii species.
In the treated groups, the yarrow dosage was 2 mL of liquid extract per rat daily for 4 weeks. The only difference among the three was how the plant extract was created; using methanol, ethyl acetate, or a hexane solvent.
At the end of the 4 weeks, the animals were killed and their anatomy was examined. This is what the typical cystic formation looked like after having the endometrial tissue implanted outside their wombs.
Here’s how their inner adhesion scores compared before and after…
|Treatment Group||Adhesion Score|
|Day 1||Day 28|
|Control (no treatment)||2.4||2.6|
|Hexane plant extract||2.4||1.2|
|Ethyl acetate plant extract||2.0||0.0|
|Methanol plant extract||2.0||0.6|
|Reference (buserelin medication)||2.0||0.0|
The higher the score, the worse. As you see the control group didn’t improve at all (2.4 at start, 2.6 at end). All of the yarrow extract groups improved but the best was seen with the ethyl acetate, measuring at 0.0 (no adhesions) at the end of the 28 days. (9)
These Turkish scientists concluded that when ethyl acetate was used to make an extract from the aerial parts (e.g. flowers, leaves, stems), that it “appears to be a promising alternative for the treatment of endometriosis” and the flavonoid aglycones in the plant are what they believe to be responsible.
While intriguing, the alleged medicinal properties of yarrow tea for this condition have zero research (this wasn’t tea). Even in this rat study, the surgically inflicted endometriosis is different than when it’s naturally occurring. The latter is brought on by the body, while the former is artificially created and therefore will likely have a greater tendency to revert back.
Fibroids (uterina myoma) are a different type of uterine growth. They are benign (non-cancerous) muscular tumors that grow on the walls of the uterus. As with raspberry leaf tea, some in alternative medicine recommend yarrow for fibroids. While some claim it helps, there’s not a single piece of research – human, animal, or lab – that has evaluated it for that purpose. PCOS and ovarian cysts haven’t been studied either.
Natural dye and hair coloring
While the white and yellow are most common, the yarrow varieties encompass many colors of the rainbow. The “Paprika” cultivar of the Achillea millefolium californicum, which is native to California, is a pink and red yarrow.
Most of the of western wild flowers have white petals with golden yellow stigmas in the center. These are what produce a natural yellow dye. Adding vinegar, ammonia, copper, or iron can produce orange, olive, browns, and brunette. The yarrow tea hair rinse takes advantage of these colors, to naturally mask grey hairs.
The famed 20th century Utah herbalist John Raymond Christopher, more commonly known as Dr. Christopher, had recommended using yarrow tea 2-3 times per week as rinse for restoring natural hair color. One recipe with instructions for it is detailed in Home Remedies from the Old South.
The yellow pigments may rejuvenate lost luster in the stands by acting as a dye, however the idea that it can literally stop or reverse grey hair is a folklore beauty tip that has never been tested.
Bacteria, viruses, and fungi
For starters, let’s address the myth of using yarrow for COVID-19 coronavirus treatment. If you’ve come across that online, know that there is zero science or research to support that. This is a total myth and yarrow should NOT be used to treat, prevent or cure COVID-19 (or any other virus).
It has been studied in the lab for some bacteria. Using Escherichia coli strains isolated from patients with urinary tract infections, Iranian researchers found that yarrow essential oil made from the Achillea wilhelmsii species “displayed high inhibitory effects.” However that was with the bacteria in a Petri dish, its effectiveness in humans is unknown and has never been tested. (10)
Oil from this same species also showed antimicrobial activity against methicillin-susceptible and methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) strains in the lab. (11)
In that test, yarrow essential oil constituents were measured as being:
- carvacrol – 22.49%
- dihydrocarvone – 13.23%
- linalool – 12%
- 1,8-cineol – 11.42%
- camphene – 8.31%
- thymol – 5.28%
- camphor – 3.71%
- pulegone – 2.82%
- a-terpineol – 2.11%
- bornyl acetate – 1.14%
- farganol – 1.01%
The Iroquois or Haudenosaunee Native American confederacy of the northeast have held yarrow medicinal uses in very high regard. Researchers at a New York university screened it along with 14 of their other medicinal plants for antibacterial activity. Extracts they made using yarrow showed antibacterial activity against Salmonella typhimuriumand and Staphylococcus aureus.
With E. coli, no inhibitory benefit was seen with the essential oil or the water-based extracts of the yarrow flowers, leaves, and roots. They suspect that extraction methods and regional plant variations is the reason why they didn’t see it, while other researchers have. (12)
While there are a few dozen papers published on bacteria, only several relate to viruses.
A total of 42 traditional Egyptian medicinal plants, including the Achillea fragrantissima species, were tested against a handful of viruses in the lab. At non-toxic dosages of 10-100 micrograms per mL (0.001 to 0.01%), it was found to have antiviral activity against the polio virus (poliomyelitis-1), but not herpes simplex-1 or the vesicular stomatitis virus. (13)
Newcastle disease virus affects the poultry industry. When tested in the lab with common yarrow extract, it was found to reduce viral potency by more than 56 fold. (14)
Although it wasn’t among the most effective, it was cited among 15 herbs from Canada that appeared to be beneficial for cultured liver cells in the lab that were infected with hepatitis B. (15)
A test out of Iran reported yarrow oil to have antifungal effects against Candida albicans yeast. (16)
Even though the Iroquois Indians used this plant for treating diarrhea and some believe the tea may help with urinary tract infections, there’s no research in humans or animals to test these or any other types of infection.
Antibacterial and antiviral activity in a Petri dish is far different than what takes place inside of a body. It’s unknown if the yarrow herb in any form works for infections. It should NOT be used for the treatment of any disease.
Since only a few human studies have been published, the side effects of yarrow tea, essential oil, and other forms of the plant remain largely unknown. Known and suspected adverse reactions include:
- Increased risk of bleeding
- Frequent urination
- Allergic reaction
- Dangers during pregnancy
- Unknown breastfeeding safety
Other side effects which have not yet been identified are also possible.
Being a member of the Asteraceae/Compositae family means that people who have reactions to ragweed may have an allergy to yarrow. Using the extract for skin care could cause contact dermatitis. (17)
Is yarrow tea safe during pregnancy?
Drinking or using this herb while pregnant is most likely unsafe, given the preliminary evidence that it might alter menstrual cycles. To avoid the risk of miscarriage, birth defects and other side effects which may result, avoid consumption of yarrow flower powders, teas, oils, and all other forms of the plant.
For the same reason, yarrow tea while breastfeeding should be avoided. No one knows if it’s safe.
Even though it’s one of the oldest herbs in traditional medicine, yarrow health benefits have very little research.
None of the claimed uses have been proven and while there is science to suggest some may be possible, it’s also likely that a number are old wives’ tales dating back to the days of Greek mythology. It should not be used to treat, cure, or prevent any disease.
What is it good for then? Since yarrow is not poisonous, you can enjoy this edible flower as a food, such as in the form of brewed tea, a pressed juice, or the fresh yarrow leaves on a salad. These uses should be safe for healthy adults who are not pregnant. One of the best ways for how to make yarrow tea is to blend the dried flowers with ginger, elder, and peppermint to create a more complex [and less bitter] taste.
With a mildly sweet flavor and a smell that’s pungent yet spicy, it’s also an interesting herbal essence for skin care applications. Although preliminary, at least one human study suggested potential antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits when used topically. (18)
Blue yarrow essential oil is from the same plant. What makes it blue is a compound called chamazulene.
When the flowers and leaves are steam distilled, the mactracin in the plant naturally converts to the chamazulene, which produces a rich bluish or green oil.
If using a food grade essential, it can serve as one of the few natural food colorings to achieve a true blue.
For therapeutic grade, Young Living’s Dragon Time contains some as part of its blend. You can buy pure blue yarrow oil from the brands Plant Therapy and Mountain Rose Herbs. A USDA certified organic version from Plant Therapy is sold on Amazon.
How to make tea
This basic recipe for yarrow tea is simple and quick to make.
- 1 teaspoon of dried yarrow flower
- 1 cup of boiling water
- Optional: fresh lemon wedge and honey
- Place flower parts into mug.
- Pour boiling water on top.
- Steep for 10 minutes.
- Strain and serve.
If using fresh flowers, double the amount. An easier way, which also keeps more of the phytonutrients intact, is to use organic yarrow flower powder. That won’t require straining, because you just stir a teaspoon of it into hot water. You can buy a 1 lb bag of powder on Amazon.
Some tea recipes call for yarrow leaf and flower powder combined. Most premade bags contain both of those parts. The roots and stalks are almost never used.
Finding where to buy yarrow tea bags can be like finding a needle in a haystack. In the United Kingdom, you might find it at chains like Tesco and Holland and Barrett. Though here in the U.S. and Canada, it’s not popular so you’re definitely not going to see it at Walmart and when we checked our local Whole Foods, we couldn’t even find it there. This is why buying online is your best bet.
You will see many positive reviews for the brands Buddha Teas and Celebration Herbals. As part of a blend with European elder flower, ginger, peppermint, and other herbs, Gypsy Cold Care by Traditional Medicinals is a popular choice.
These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.