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“Fortunate is the man who knows how to use yarrow in the last days”
Attributed to Brigham Young

Brigham Young was born into a farming community in Whitingham, Vermont in 1802. Like many people at that time he would have been well-acquainted with the use of plants for medicinal purposes. Yarrow in particular has many medicinal and culinary purposes that have used for centuries. Its astringent properties led to it being used to reduce the flow of blood from wounds and the names herbal militaris, staunchweed, allheal, and bloodwort. In fact, legend says that it was used by Achilles’s soldiers on the battleground of Troy. It is that legend that gave us the Latin name for yarrow: Achillea millefolium.

It interested me to learn that since the second century BC yarrow has been used by the Chinese for divination of the I Ching. Diviners prefer dried stalks from locally gathered yarrow as they feel they will be more in-tune with it. Even better are stalks harvested from spiritually important sites such as a Confucian temple. This practice of divination is still widely used today.

In North America yarrow was used by many Native American peoples. The Navajo chewed it to relieve earaches, the Cherokee made a tea to reduce fever and aid sleep, and the Ojibwe, in addition to those uses, burned it for ceremonial purposes. They also gave it to their horses as a stimulant although the ASPCA says that yarrow is toxic to horses, dogs, and cats. For a small number of humans, it occasionally causes allergic skin irritations and photosensitivity.

For the rest of the population, yarrow has so many diverse uses. Let me start with its attractiveness to pollinators. As an umbrellated plant, that is one that has a flower head that is in the form of an open, flat-topped cluster, it is a convenient landing pad for many insects.

These white, yellow, or pink flower heads contain masses of minute, 5-petaled flowers. It is this that gives yarrow the second part of its Latin name, millefolium, or thousand-leaf or petal.

Millefolium can also refer to the many very fine, feathery leaves that adorn the yarrow plant. These lacy alternately arranged, fern-like leaves, can be dried and then steeped in hot water for a ‘tea’. The stripped stems can be boiled in water for 20 minutes and then sautéed in butter as an addition to a salad.  Yarrow leaves and flowers were part of an herbal mixture called gruit that was used as a substitute for hops in the production of beer during the Middle Ages, mostly in the Netherlands, Belgium, and western Germany.

Leaf close-up

In researching yarrow, I came across several mentions of yarrow jelly so of course I needed to make it. I harvested 2 cups of flower heads early one morning, rinsing them and then placing them into a steeping carafe along with freshly boiled water.

I let the mixture brew for an hour before draining it through two layers of cheesecloth. No need for any little insects to be involved in the jelly-making process.

The jelly-making method that I use calls for adding lemon juice and calcium water to the strained liquid. To my astonishment, as I stirred in the lemon juice into the yarrow ‘tea’ the color changed from a dull amber to pink! It turns out that the acid in lemon juice will turn pink when a molecule called an anthocyanin is introduced to it.  Anthocyanin is present in red, blue, and purple flowers including the deep pink yarrow that I used.

Unfortunately, the resulting cooked jelly did not retain that pink color that I love in the blossoms and that is so attractive to insects like the drone and hover flies that recently visited.

A tiny grasshopper nymph  in the species Melanoplus let me get very close to capture his image, jumping away only at the last second.

Grasshopper nymph

Looking a bit lower and deeper into the foliage I saw the tiniest of field ants moving among the feathery leaves. He was not alone.

Field ant (Formica spp).

Nestled in the leaf axil was a spittlebug. No bigger than the head of a pin, the adult Clastoptera lineatocollis was well hidden.

Spit bug 3

The video is of a spittlebug nymph feeding on another plant, covering itself with the foamed-up plant sap.

The foamy ‘spit’ not only hides the nymph from predators and parasites it provides a unique protection from the light that might dry it out.

Further up, an Eastern harvestman spider, Leiobunum vittatum, lay in wait for an unsuspecting red spider mite, Tetranychus urticae. I hope that the harvestman enjoyed his lunch for although one spider mite won’t do too much damage as it sucks out the contents of individual plant cells, an infestation of hundreds can seriously affect the vigor of a plant. Its good to see that a beneficial spider is taking care of that for me. Other beneficial insects that are attracted to yarrow include lady beetles and parasitic wasps such as the Braconid wasp.

If you don’t have yarrow in your flower beds yet I recommend it as a lovely, delicate-looking perennial that brings a touch of antiquity to any site. And here is one more thought from Brigham Young that speaks to the gardener in all of us:

“Beautify your gardens, your houses, your farms; beautify the city. This will make us happy, and produce plenty.”

Susan Pelton