Monday, 2 July 2012

Yarrow / Achillea millefolium

 Therapeutic properties of yarrow (achillea millefolium) in different herbals.

 (see end of post for details of herbals).

The full article by Rosari Kingston may be read in Béascna 7 (2011): pp 142 -162.

Therapeutic properties
Ó Cuinn (1415)
‘[…] is hot and dry; it serves well against the urinary stone, and against the quotidian fever.4 Item, take three branchlets of Yarrow and give it for three days to the patient; then if he vomits he will not come through, and if he does not vomit he will survive. The same herb serves well against arthritis and podagra’5 [ch.192]  
Culpeper (1652)
‘…As a medicine it is drying and binding. A decoction of it boiled in white wine, is good to stop the running of the reins in men, and whites in women; restrains violent bleedings, and is excellent for piles. A strong tea in this case should be made of the leaves and drunk plentifully; and equal parts of it, and of toad flax should be made into a poultice with pomatum and applied outwardly. This induces sleep, eases the pain and lessens the bleeding. An ointment of the leaves cures wounds and is good for inflammations, ulcers, fistulas and all such running as abound with moisture’. [p.397].
Threkeld (1726)
‘It is cooling, drying and binding; extolled by some in benign Gonorrhoea’s’ [p.102]
Keogh (1735)
‘It has a very dry and astringent nature. Drinking a decoction stops dysentery, and excessive menstrual and other flows. If bruised and applied to wounds, it stops bleeding and prevents inflammation and swelling. A dram of it pulverised and taken in a glass of white wine is a perfect remedy for the colic. Nothing is more effective against the piles either taken inwardly or outwardly applied. If applied to the pit of the stomach in a plaster with grated nutmeg, it is beneficial for fevers’ (Scott 1980, 158).
Maloney (1919)
Was powdered and used as snuff in congestive headache, to draw blood from the nose. Was also recommended as a cure for toothache, the patient being advised to chew the leaves. Boyle is said to have worn a little muslin bag of it as a protective charm against ague. [p.29]
NFCS (1938)
Yarrow is considered a cure for rheumatism and both the leaves and roots are used (NFCS 594: 235-236)

Yarrow or turkey weed, as it is called locally, when boiled and mixed with lemon juice and other ingredients is a cure for rheumatism (NFCS 593: 69).

The NFCS entries describe yarrow as being a cure for rheumatism and do not mention its styptic nature. The anti-inflammatory aspect is also mentioned by Keogh but more as a preventative, whereas Maloney does emphasise the anodyne aspects of the herb in an active inflammation. This use and method may be a specifically Irish remedy and has not spread to other countries (Allen and Hatfield 2004, 302).
The use of yarrow as a cure for rheumatism is not mentioned in Culpeper (1652), but is mentioned in Ó Cuinn (1415) where yarrow is described as serving ‘well against arthritis and podagra’ (ch. 192). This work is based on European Herbals, emanating from Salerno and Montpellier since the eleventh century. There are a number of items in this text for which no Latin sources have been found and yarrow is one of these. The translator of An Irish Book of Simple Medicines, Micheál Ó Conchubhair, posits that these items represent a purely Irish tradition.This thesis is supported by Allen and Hatfield (2004, 302) who say that yarrow as a cure for rheumatism is mentioned in 21 records in the NFCS and that this use of the herb is mainly an Irish tradition. 
These authors mention that using yarrow to induce a nosebleed so as to relieve migraine and headaches is also an Irish tradition, and this use is mentioned in Culpeper (1652) for Achillea ptarmica but not Achillea millefolium
The use of yarrow for toothache, kidney trouble, jaundice and sore eyes does seem to be a purely Irish tradition, and Tadhg Ó Cuinn describes its use for kidney trouble as ‘it serves well against the urinary stone’ (ch.192).  Culpeper does use Achillea millefolium for dysentery, vaginal discharges and piles and Keogh (p158) repeats these uses. According to Ó Cuinn, yarrow is hot and dry, and this may explain its use for rheumatism in Ireland. In herbal medicine, osteoarthritis is considered a cold and dry pathology developing from wear and tear and lack of lubrication in the joints. The use of a herb that is heating but also drying does seem to be contraindicated. However, osteoarthritis in Ireland is considered to be the result of damp (Nassr 1998, pers. comm.) so using yarrow which increases circulation (generating heat) but also dries the negative effects of damp could be beneficial. From my own clinical experience, a tea made from yarrow is extremely beneficial in reducing high blood pressure (congestive headache), and in helping to expand the range of movement in patients with osteoarthritis when taken over a period of months. Traditionally it was used as an infusion and modern research supports this (Jonsdottir et al. 2011).
The Commission E monographs give accurate information on over 300 herbs. The monograph on yarrow reports choleretic6, antibacterial, astringent, and antispasmodic activities(Blumenthal 2000). The use of yarrow as anti-inflammatory and antispasmodic is supported by Bruneton (1999, 339) who attributes these activities to its high flavonoid content. Also noted in the historical review of the plant, the Algonquin and other Quebec First Nations used powdered yarrow as a snuff to relieve headaches. This use parallels the practice mentioned by Maloney of using it to induce a nosebleed so as to relieve a headache.



Herbals used:

Irish physicians in the centuries before the Battle of Kinsale in 1601 did not practice in isolation, but took care to transcribe important texts from the great medical centres of Salerno and Montpellier. One such text was An Irish Book of Simple Medicines of the 15th Century (Ó Cuinn 1415) which is a compilation of extracts from various Latin herbals that were in use at the time. Its purpose seems to have been to familiarise Irish medical students with European learning. For my current discussion it serves as an example of the specialised knowledge of the physician in Gaelic society prior to the Tudor conquest.

Culpeper’s Complete Herbal by Nicholas Culpeper
Culpeper’s herbal was one of the most popular during the seventeenth century and was published in London in 1652. Culpeper was a widely read source for medical treatment in his time, as his works were in English and therefore of use to people moving to unfamiliar territories such as the American colonies or Ireland.

Synopsis Stirpium Hibernicarum by Caleb Threlkeld
The Synopsis Stirpium Hibernicarum was published in Dublin on Thursday, 27 October 1726 and was the first publication to deal with the flora of Ireland.2 Threlkeld practiced as a physician in Dublin having moved from Cumberland to Ireland on Good Friday, 3 April 1713.

An Irish Herbal: Botanalogia Universalis Hibernica by Michael Keogh
This herbal was published in Cork in 1735. Michael Keogh was chaplain to James King, fourth Lord Kingston and had a living in Mitchelstown, Co. Cork. His work is like that of Culpeper, in that it provides a description of the plant as well as its location and therapeutic properties. It is much more concise than Culpeper’s Complete Herbal.

Luibh–Sheanchus or Irish Ethno-botany and evolution of medicine in Ireland by M. F. Maloney
Maloney’s Luibh-Sheanchus or Irish Ethno-botany and evolution of medicine in Ireland was published in 1919. This text served to give a snapshot of the uses of herbs in 1919.

National Folklore Collection Schools Collection (NFCS)
This collection was amassed between 1937 and 1938 by the senior classes in National Schools in Ireland. Though not a herbal, the material gathered under the section called ‘cures’ includes herbs and reflects their current use or their use in the recent past.