The fields, forests, and hedgerows of Europe are, as well as being full of edibles, a medicine cabinet. There are plants and fungi that have been used for hundreds of years to treat various ailments and complaints. Some are of questionable virtue (or there is certainly little evidence of their efficacy save for anecdote). Others can simply be confusing – see the assertion by 17th C. botanist Culpeper that the catkins of walnuts “dried, and given a dram thereof in powder with white wine, wonderfully helps those that are troubled with the rising of the mother”. I see. However, it is true that many wild medicines can be effective.
Along the sides of the lanes around where I live grow several medicinal herbs: self-heal, mint, ribwort plantain, and a huge amount of yarrow.
Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) is a flowering plant that can grow up to around a metre tall, though is usually smaller. The leaves are long, feathery, and soft. The flowers, which appear throughout the summer, are usually white to yellow, and sometimes some pink slips in there as well. They bloom in clusters at the top of each plant stalk. The whole plant has a strong aroma, similar to sage mixed with freshly cut grass. It is also known as the nosebleed plant, soldier’s woundwort, milfoil, and thousand-leaf.
It has many purported medicinal properties. It is used as a poultice to staunch bleeding, hence the name soldier’s woundwort. The first part of the Latin name comes from Achilles, who carried it to treat battlefield woulds. I can attest that it is effective, at least on smallish cuts, if chewed to a pulp and pressed to the wound. It is also said to be good for colds, fevers, kidney complaints, menstrual cramps, indeed a whole gamut of sneezes and shivers. There is some evidence for all this; yarrow contains chamazulene, an anti-inflammatory, and salicylic acid from where we get aspirin. Taken as a hot herbal tea, it has a pleasant flavour and aroma and is quite refreshing.
Yarrow dries really well, and I have collected a good amount that has been dried and stored in jars – it keeps its flavour when dried, in fact it is perhaps intensified a little. To dry, simply strip the leaves and flowers from the tough central stalks and lay in the sun for a few days. Alternatively you can dry them in a dehydrator in a low oven with the door slightly ajar. Once dried it should store in an airtight jar for a good six months or so.
To make yarrow tea, steep some of the leaves and flowers (fresh or dried) in freshly boiled water for a few minutes, and then strain – about a tablespoon of dried leaves per cup, a bit more if using fresh. Sweeten with honey if you wish, which brings out the herbal flavours and is good for you in its own right.
NB in large amounts yarrow has been known to cause photosensitivity, and to have sedative effects, though a cup or two of yarrow tea now and again will do you no harm. As always never use any wild ingredients unless you are 100% sure of their identity.