The Yarrow Lad

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It’s been a while since I’ve posted, mostly because I’ve been working on a longer piece of writing and that tends to suck up both the energy and the time that might otherwise be used here. It’s a kind of servitude that, though self-imposed, I sometimes resent: the daily task of stacking up the requisite number of words, which usually takes the best part of the morning; followed by the interminable revision that I seem to have to do in order to feel halfway content with what I’ve written. And then the strange process of forgetting so that there’s room, next day, to go on. I like a baggy structure; I like digressions; so that too can mean there’s little left over to put in any other place . . . but not always. One thing I learned this week, somewhat to my surprise, is that I know a bit about weeds, both those that you find in vegetable and flower gardens and those abroad in the wider world. From quite early on I could identify ragwort, hemlock, foxglove, deadly nightshade, all of which are more or less poisonous, some lethal; I also knew more equivocal plants like thistle and rosehip, buttercup and dandelion, blackberry and lupin. We drank rosehip syrup at home but it wasn’t clear if that was the same thing as what grew in the paddocks and was sometimes called briar rose. Our next door neighbour used to knock on the door and ask if she could gather the puha, a peppery kind of thistle, that grew up the back of our section. We ourselves picked blackberries from bushes yards across for jam and pies or just to eat; lupins had elegant cone-shaped flowers of many pastel shades and if you held a buttercup under someone’s chin you could tell by the yellow reflection, or not, on the soft skin of their throat if that person liked eating butter. And so on. A couple of familiar plants I never knew the names of until recently; nor their possible uses. One is the ribwort plantain, which I did spend a bit of time writing about this week; the other is the yarrow, which I did not. Yarrow grew alongside all the dirt roads of my childhood and it still grows there now, in at least two varieties, one pink-flowering, the other white. I knew the white variety first, its clumpy flowers, its feathery leaves, its smell when you crushed the leaves between your fingers; but not its name and not its provenance either: Achillea millefolium, the thousand leaved plant of Achilles, so-called because the hero of the Iliad is said to have carried it with him to treat the wounds his men suffered in battle. It has many other names: arrowroot, bad man’s plaything, bloodwort, carpenter’s weed, death flower, devil’s nettle, eerie, field hops, hundred leaved grass, knight’s millefoil, noble yarrow, nosebleed, old man’s mustard, old man’s pepper, sanguinary, seven year’s love, snake’s grass, soldier’s woundwort, stanchweed, thousand leaf, thousand seal, yarroway. And many applications, being used to treat pain, bleeding, blood clots, catarrh, chicken pox, cystitis, diabetes, dyspepsia, eczema, fever, gastritis, gum ailments, influenza, inflammation, measles, nipple soreness, nosebleeds, piles, smallpox, toothache, thrombosis, ulcers, urinary infections, varicose veins and, apparently, almost anything else you care to mention including complications that may arise during menstruation. If the range and number of ailments seem fanciful, then perhaps they are; but the names attest to a complex history of usage and a long intimacy with human affairs. The Chinese knew it; yarrow stalks are the preferred method of throwing the I Ching and I did buy a set of the 50 you need once, in Elizabeth Bay, and still have them somewhere; but the method is difficult and time consuming and I now prefer the simplicity of three old coins with holes in their middles. In Medieval times yarrow was used in the brewing of beer; it has antiseptic or repellent qualities, inhibiting parasites, making it useful for some birds in their nest making. How did this medicinal, this mythic herb come to infest the backroads of the central North Island? Perhaps it arrived mixed in with the grass seed that was used to sow pasture after the bush was cleared; or the seeds could have been caught, like burrs, in the actual coats of the cattle, the fleece of the sheep imported to graze upon the paddocks. Or it might have been brought deliberately, as part of a pharmacopeia. At Jerusalem, Hiruharama, on the Whanganui River, Suzanne Aubert aka Sister Mary Joseph, who studied Botany at the University of Paris without, however, being awarded a degree, after 1883 established a herb garden there that famously included among its plants Cannabis sativa, used as a calmative to help her Sisters of Compassion bear their period pains. Why should she not also have planted yarrow and used that in her potions too? Might it not have spread, as the cannabis is sometimes said to have done, into other gardens and along the highways and byways leading between them? Every time I think of the herb I hear the phrase The Yarrow Lad in my head; if you google it you learn of a song, a border ballad called The Braes of YarrowThere lived a lady in the West, / I ne’er could find her marrow; / She was courted by nine gentlemen / And a ploughboy-lad in Yarrow. The ploughboy takes on the nine and sees eight of them off; but the last one does for him; the lady, who has foreseen his murder in a dream, dies of grief. Many versions of the song have been collected in the vicinity of Yarrow Water, near Selkirk south of Edinburgh in the Border Country; in some accounts it is based upon an historical event, the treacherous killing of the brave knight Sir John Scott by his own kinsmen, the Scotts of Gilmanscleugh, in Ettrick Forest in the seventeenth century. I had an uncle called John Scott; am a Scott myself on my mother’s side although, of all the branches of my parents’ families, they are the ones I know least about. It’s a common enough name, why think any more about it? Why see myself, not as I am now but was long ago, wandering among the weeds that grow wild at the side of the road, and sometimes down the middle of the road too, singing of the yarrow lad; who is, if not myself, then my perhaps imaginary other?

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “The Yarrow Lad

  1. Wondered why I hadn’t seen you wandering about the heavily weeded byways of Summer Hill and Ashfield. Keep up the extremely interesting digressions.

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