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What is Achillea?

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  • Written By: Linda Harris
  • Edited By: A. Joseph
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  • Last Modified Date: 15 September 2016
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Achillea is a flowering plant that is native to Europe and Asia but grows throughout North America as a naturalized plant. It can be found growing freely along roadsides and fields, blooming from early summer to mid-autumn. Its flowers usually are white, tiny, and daisy-shaped, growing in flat-topped clusters on the top of the stalk. Achillea typically grows to a height of 1 to 2 feet (about 30 to 60 cm). Its foliage is green or gray-green and is often referred to as fern-like or feathery.

The most common achillea found growing wild is Achillea millefolium. The name millefolium means a thousand leaves, a reference to its feathery foliage. There are approximately 85 species of achillea known worldwide. There are also many hybrid cultivars with a variety of colors, including pink, salmon, rose and lavender.

Commonly known as yarrow, from the Anglo-Saxon word "gearwe," achillea is an ancient herb long valued for its medicinal qualities. It is known primarily as an anti-inflammatory and astringent, and it is used to treat fevers and to slow bleeding when placed on a wound. Although it is not officially considered a toxic herb, allergies to it are common, so most modern uses are more decorative than medicinal. It would be wise for one to check with a physician before using achillea for any medicinal purposes.

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The plant was named after the Greek hero Achilles. Legend says he used achillea to treat the wounds of his men during the Trojan War. Other names, probably stemming from this use, are bloodwort and woundwort.

Beyond its medicinal qualities, yarrow is a useful garden plant providing food for butterflies and bees. It can be used as a decorative, low-maintenance, drought-hardy border planting. It often is paired with goldenrod in butterfly gardens and naturalized meadows. A member of the Asteraceae family, it is very easily grown from seed, and it can grow even in poor soil, but it does best in full sun with well-drained soil.

Some other uses of this versatile plant include culinary uses as well as decorative uses. As a culinary herb, the leaves can be used in salads to give a peppery taste, and the flowers can be substituted for hops in the making of beer. Achillea also can be used in dried flower arrangements. Its subtly aromatic leaves are used as an ingredient in many potpourris.

Achillea has been thought of as a special and sacred plant to many cultures throughout the years. In China, yarrow stalks traditionally are thrown to read the I Ching. The early Saxons used the herb in amulets to promote courage. In early England, it was considered an herb of love under the astrological influence of Venus and, as such, was a popular herb woven into bridal wreaths and bouquets.

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