Friday, 24 October 2008
This week's flower is yarrow, mainly because at this time of year it is one of relatively few plants still blossoming on the dunes. Also known as milfoil, for its feathery leaves, achillea millefolium is named for Achilles, as this has been a wound herb from early times, used to staunch bleeding (it may also help that, like willow bark, it contains salicylic acid). However, it is also supposed to promote bleeding – one of its common names is nosebleed, and this characteristic led to it being used as a cure for migraine – I don't know, having a nosebleed might take your mind off a mild one, I suppose, but I don't think I'd want to try it as a cure when suffering from one of those three-day affairs. A kinder local tradition says that if you stuff the leaves up your nose, you will bleed if your love loves you – a bit more dramatic than picking the petals off daisies and, presumably, all the truer for it. Alternatively, just place it under your pillow and you may dream of your lover.
The word yarrow comes from Old English, gearwe, and its use in medicine is discussed by Dioscorides in his De Materia Medica. Not surprisingly, perhaps, for such an old and valuable herb, it has magical properties too, for divination (yarrow stalks are used in casting the I Ching) and as a protection against evil. Hang it up on St John's Eve (23 June) to ward off illness (oddly, there is a folk story that says there is a fern which flowers only on that night, which can give the power of second sight – it occurs to me that yarrow has very ferny leaves, though it flowers a good deal more prolifically). In Scotland, where it's also called Moleery tea (from the French millefeuille, perhaps?) it's also a dye herb, giving a pale yellow colour. Gardeners should plant to attract useful predators like hoverflies and ladybirds, but it also has a reputation for soil improvement so it makes a good, and attractive companion plant. There are cultivated varieties in deep pinks and oranges, but one of the things I like best about the wild white plant is the occasional rose pink flower, unexpected amongst its white sisters.
I will pluck the yarrow fair,
That more benign will be my face,
That more warm shall be my lips,
That more chaste shall be my speech,
Be my speech the beams of the sun,
Be my lips the sap of the strawberry.
May I be an isle in the sea,
May I be a hill on the shore,
May I be a star in the waning of the moon,
May I be a staff to the weak,
Wound can I every man,
Wound can no man me.
from Alexander Carmichael's Carmina Gadelica