Yarrow, or Achillea millefolium, is an herb long used in herbal medicine. It is a flowering plant that grows wild in Europe and Asia and has been transplanted to the Americas. Yarrow has long been used in cases of fever, as it encourages perspiration, which can cool the body and help remove waste products through the skin. Yarrow was once a popular ingredient in salads. It has a sweet, pungent or astringent flavor that adds piquancy to blander greens.
Yarrow for medicinal purposes is collected when in bloom and dried for storage. All parts of the plant are used. A tea of yarrow is a traditional remedy for the latter stages of a cold. The herb acts by dilating the capillaries. This increases blood circulation, and yarrow is therefore often used for circulatory problems.
For external applications, yarrow has long been used on wounds to speed healing. It has an astringent, or cleansing, effect, and is antimicrobial, providing protection against infection. Legend has it that yarrow was used by Achilles to staunch wounds of soldiers under his command. It even seems to have antibiotic action.
Yarrow has also been used for digestive complaints, urinary problems or menstrual irregularities. An ointment or astringent wash made with yarrow is good for skin rashes such as eczema and can soothe and relieve varicose veins.
An unusual use of yarrow is in divination in the traditional I Ching. A more modern I Ching involves tossing three coins to calculate the hexagrams that will be read to determine answers to your questions. However, using sticks made of yarrow, the yarrowsticks, is a much more authentic method.
To use yarrow sticks, grab an unknown number of sticks from a pile of fifty. These are sorted into groups of four. The remainder is saved, and combined with the leftovers from the pile of fifty. You will have either four or eight sticks in the combined remainder, the equivalent of heads or tails on the coins, which help you draw your hexagram. The length of the process, and the randomness with which you select your first batch of sticks, is thought to be key to the process, since the mechanics of laying out and counting the sticks becomes a meditative process that focuses your mind on your goal.