Yarrow is blooming here on Vancouver Island! It’s one of my favourite herbs and I’m so happy to see it’s all at once delicate and sturdy white blossoms again. I plan to incorporate a lot of yarrow into my upcoming summer nuptials. And this is where I segue into my big announcement: I’m getting married in July…in the woods at the lovely Cedar Haven Weddings ..to Danielle’s brother, Christian. This promises to be Gather’s biggest project yet—so if wedding stuff bores you, you may want to avert your eyes for a couple of months. Though we will try to make it interesting. Promise.
Now where was I? Yarrow! It’s Latin name, Achillea millefolium, is attributed to the Greek hero, Achilles who was said to use it to heal his warriors wounds—at least according to Pliny the Elder. Turns out Achilles’ relationship with Yarrow is a little muddy… Here’s an interesting read on that, if you’d like to know more. Greek gods aside, yarrow’s been an important healing herb the world over for a very long time. And so it should come as no surprise that it has an equally long magical history. After all, our ancestors didn’t put nearly as much effort into separating magic and medicine as we do.
From casting the ancient I Ching in China to rounding out the seven herbs sacred to the Irish, yarrow has always been an important herb for protection, love, fidelity and divination. It was hung in doorways and on cradles to repel evil spirits, held against the eyes to bring on the second site, worn in shoes to give travellers fluency of speech and sewn into clothes to fend off…well, everything. And then there’s the love charms! Singletons of yore sewed yarrow blossoms and leaves into little sachets, said a little prayer and tucked them under their pillows in hopes that their future betrothed would appear in their dreams.
Thou pretty herb of Venus tree
Thy true name be Yarrow
Now who my bosom friend must be
Pray tell thou me tomorrow.
Scottish girls silently gathered yarrow in the fields and then with eyes closed, recited:
Good morrow, good morrowTo thee, braw yarrowAnd thrice good morrow to thee:I pray thee tell me today or tomorrowWho is my true love to be.
Upon opening their eyes, they’d scan the horizon for a male figure AKA their future husband (Dictionary of Plant Yore, D.C. Watts). Similar divination love charms and rituals involving yarrow were practiced across Europe and in colonized America. I wonder how many less than desirable bachelors cottoned on to this and scheduled their morning strolls accordingly… Of course, with such a long relationship with humans, yarrow also got dragged into the witch hunts. Graveyard yarrow was said to help uncover a witch and or protect someone from falling in love with one. Handy stuff, old yarrow is.
Beyond love divination and charms, yarrow was also a token of fidelity. Sprigs were tucked into wedding wreaths and hung over the newlyweds’ bed to guarantee seven years (and not a day more) of fidelity. Yarrow ale was also commonly served at medieval wedding festivals called bride-ales. And yes, this is where our modern word “bridal” comes from. These sometimes multi-day celebrations clearly involved a lot of ale drinking and sparked a tradition of brewing special bridal beers for the occasion.
Also known as “Field Hops”, yarrow was commonly used as a bittering agent pre-hops, and was considered to make a headier brew than others. There is evidence that yarrow has mild psychotropic properties or “a thujone, hypnotic cannabinoid compound” (Green Man Ramblings) that scientifically explains these claims. Many herbalists have documented shifts in perception like colours brightening and heightened hearing after consuming certain yarrow plants—combine that with the inhibition-relieving effects of a fermented beverage and now you have a party. If anyone’s ever had to host the in-laws, never mind the entire village, you can see why a yarrow ale might be popular.
And it’s in this tradition that David Woodward, head brewer of Axe and Barrel Brewing Co. is infusing his lovely IPA in yarrow and wee bit of rosemary (another important marital herb and possible future blog post subject) to create a special small batch brew for our wedding. David’s known for creating unique beers using foraged ingredients and interesting flavour combinations and I LOVE the idea of a special wedding ale, particularly when ancient herbs with all their healing properties and folklore are incorporated. Yarrow blossoms will also appear in my bouquet by local sustainable flower grower, Wild Edge and it’s fragrant sturdy white blooms will be tucked into one special boutonnière. With luck, our caterer Nature’s Chef will use a bit of it to flavour a dish or two (nudge-nudge, hint-hint, Tom). And while our bride-ale will run only a few short hours, I can’t think of a more wonderful way to ring in our marriage than with loved ones and such a magical plant ally!
Post Script: While researching the history of herbs and beer, I stumbled across the fascinating history of women brewers and the convenient association with witchcraft that wiped many of them out, leaving the craft almost exclusively to men and pleasing the church in the process. I plan to explore further in a follow-up post already cleverly titled “Brewmasters & Broomsticks”. But that’s another story for another day…