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ARE YESTERDAY'S HERB'S TODAY'S WEEDS?

       Reevaluating what is beautiful

       By

Anna May Kinney

You may wonder why I’d be excited to see my two-year-old milkweed finally in bloom? Few people want this plain, rather unattractive plant flourishing in their garden. Well, my flower garden has been created for the benefit of the birds and other wildlife is NOT in the style of a manicured English garden, but rather a mixture of cultivated native plants and hybrid plants.

          It is these natural plants, some of which were treasured as healing herbs in our grandparent’s day, that are now looked at as unwanted weeds. Sprayed with weed killers, dug out and tossed away, many of these valuable plants are turning up less and less in the open fields where they use to flourish.

          Tell me, why should I enjoy the blooms of an annual bachelor button anymore than it’s great grandfather?  The ‘wild’ species comes in two varieties, one that blooms in early June till the beginning of August, the second starts as the first fades away and blooms till heavy frost. Cultivated, they both grow into hardy bushes, covered with deep purple flowers and without much attention they come back every year.

          Then there is the wild aster; looking like a miniature hybrid aster, this wild variety offers a rich blue colored flower, an ideal background plant. Both plants attract bees, humming birds and small birds that love their seeds; like goldfinches.

          One afternoon last week, I glanced outside in the late morning to find five goldfinches hoping from branch to branch pecking away at the dried blooms of the earlier wild bachelor button, what a lovely thought, to know that something in my garden was a tasty treat for these beautiful song birds.

          When people see my garden, they often ask, doesn’t that plant grow along the road, or near the river?  Isn’t it a weed?  Yes, many of the things I choose to grow can be considered weeds by some peoples, but I would like to remind you, that many plants that were valued as healing herbs for centuries are now being called weeds, it maybe time to reconsider what is really a weed.

          This week’s question has to do with one of these almost forgotten herbs.

          A lady in Massachusetts asked why I grow and dry so much yarrow and what is it used for.

          Yarrow, (milfoil, Soldier’s Woundwort) Botanical: Achillea millefolium is by far my favorite healing herb. It’s history is long, in fact mythology holds that yarrow was present on the battlefield with Achilles during the Trojan War, hence its Latin name Achillea. More readily verifiable is the plant’s appearance-very feathery and fernlike-from which comes its nickname milfoil, a corruption of the French milles feuilles, or thousand leaves.

          Fully naturalized throughout North America, this original native of Asia and Europe grows from 1 to 3 feet tall and can be found along roadsides, in fields, meadows and open woodlands.

          You can easily recognize it in bloom by its pretty, disk-shaped clusters of tiny white daisy like florets, which sit atop of tall stalks covered with fine ferny leaves. Crushed in your hand, there is the scent similar to chamomile.

          Yarrow comes in a variety of colors white, red, yellow and orange, but the white variety is the only one that is used in herbal medicine.

          If you want to try your hand at growing some yarrow, you can dig up a wild plant in late summer and place it in a cultivated flowerbed. Once the skinny wild yarrow is placed into good soil you will be shocked to see how beautiful the plant can become. Even if you are not interested in growing it as an herb, it makes a lovely background plant, and the snow-white blooms accent any color flower you grow besides it.

          They can be propagated from either divisions taken in the spring or fall, or from seeds. Sow seeds on top of very fine soil and keep moist until germination occurs. When the seedlings are 3 inches tall, move them out to the garden bed.  Yarrow prefers a light, sandy soil, and it is a good idea to side-dress with aged compost. Even here in my clay soil, yarrow has prospered with compost and manure.

          Many people believe that growing yarrow is beneficial to the garden. They recommend planting yarrow as a border to the vegetable or herb garden and believe it increases oil production in aromatic herbs. Yarrow also helps repel flies, Japanese beetles and ants, while attracting all sorts of beneficial predatory wasps and ladybugs. It is said that planting it near the foundation of a house will help keep termites away.

          For generations, yarrow has been revered for its ability to stop bleeding, which earned it the common name of soldier’s woundwort. Mashed or macerated fresh yarrow leaves were often applied directly on open wounds. Often the herb, in a dried powdered form was sprinkled over cuts, gashes, punctures or abrasions.

          A tea made from the plant’s leaves, stem or flowers was used externally to relieve rashes, skin ulcers and hemorrhoids.

           Many years ago, when doctors practiced in remote, backwoods areas, they often performed surgery using only fresh yarrow roots mashed in whiskey as a local anesthetic.

          Today, there is research being conducted into the healing qualities of yarrow tea. At the Hotel Dieu Hospital in Montreal, Dr. Parviz Ghadirian, has been conducting trials giving cancer patients two cups of yarrow tea a day. They have had remarkable results, which shows that this humble herb will not only reduce both cancerous and non-cancerous tumors, but may well be a cancer preventative.

          Please, if you decide you would like to try an herb for some condition you may have, even one that grows freely around your property or is sold over the counter in any drug store, PLEASE check with your doctor first, herbs are as dangerous as other drugs and need to be taken with caution. They can interfere with prescription drugs you are already taking, making them ineffective or doubling their effect, plus some herbs can be very dangerous for existing medical conditions.

          Natural does not mean safe by any means. A good example is yarrow, this herb is a mild blood thinner, and can cause great trouble with anyone who suffers from a blood condition, or who is already taking a blood thinner of any kind, so always check with both your doctor and pharmacist before taking any herb.