Yarrow: sleep aid and pain killer from the forest
The yarrow plant, which grows wild on many parts of Wrangell Island, and extensively on Chief Shakes Island, is a natural remedy used by many Southeast Alaska Natives.
WRANGELL — For many Natives in Southeast Alaska the use of natural herbs and plants is as essential today as it was to their ancestors in years past – and whether they are used to alleviate pain, or help as a dietary supplement, the wild medicine of Wrangell’s forests and wilds are abundant.
One of the most common plants in Wrangell’s pantheon is yarrow. It grows nearly everywhere on the island and is identifiable by its feathery leaves and fine-tooth hairs along the stem. It is also identifiable by its smell, which has been described as akin to chrysanthemum flowers.
Some of the main uses of yarrow have been to relieve pain and to promote good, restful sleep. Many of the Native American tribes of North America use the leaves, flowers and stems of the plant for a variety of purposes; the Navajo use it for tooth and earaches, while the Cherokee made a tea out of the plant to drink before bedtime.
The Tlingits of Wrangell have known about the plant for centuries – and continue to use it to this day.
Donna McCay is a member of the Native community in Wrangell and an expert in plants and herbs on the island. She said yarrow is renowned for its naturopathic medicinal qualities.
“It is used for a drink for colds and you can not only drink it, but you can use it to soak your feet and while you’re drinking your tea, you can use your pot to boil and breathe it in for your sinuses,” McCay said. “It’s also used as an astringent for skin. One old wives tale says that if a woman has freckles, that it can help bleach the skin where the freckle is.”
In order to make the tea, McCay said one should boil the leaves, but not the root, of the plant.
Yarrow also blooms with small white flower that can be cooked into an essential oil. In Native floraculture the oil is sometimes used for food, or as a poultice for chest colds.
“Not a lot of people know about it like they used to,” McCay added. “But, sometimes I cook it down to an oil and mix it with olive oil to use in food. And, I have been working on a women’s facial lotion using yarrow with no chemicals that are bad for you. Everything on the shelf now is imitation and when you take that into your body it’s not good for you.”
The plant is also a natural bug repellent and can be used in the warm spring and summer months to keep pesky insects at bay.
“It keeps bugs away naturally,” McCay said. “If you make a wreath out of it and put it on your head, you’ll notice the bugs stay away.”