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  • Zahrah Nasir

Healing Herbs

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Zahrah Nasir


Herbs are becoming more popular, both for their culinary and medicinal uses, especially here in Pakistan where the trend for ‘natural’ has really taken off.

However, whilst species such as thyme, oregano and basil are almost household words, for some strange reason, yarrow is not – and it really should be way up high on the ‘must grow’ list.


A member of the ‘Asteraceae’ family of plants, yarrow, in its many forms, is a very attractive perennial plant with numerous culinary, medicinal and even garden uses. It is the ideal companion plant for those cultivating grapes as it brings up and concentrates essential nutrients, the ones most needed by grape vines, from deep in the soil, storing them in its beautiful, feathery leaves. This, in turn, as they die back in the autumn, act as a natural, highly enriched, vine fertilizer for which grapes are extremely thankful.


Botanically known as ‘Achillea’, this wonderful plant is named after the ancient Greek hero Achilles who knew its properties well and used it to stem the blood flow from his injured troops after the historical siege of Troy.


There are several indigenous species of yarrow growing wild in upland regions of Pakistan. While these particular varieties may not flourish in the summer heat of the plains – although they are worth trying in shady, moist spots – there are many heat tolerant ones which will thrive as long, that is, as they are cultivated in soil rich in natural material, in partial shade and are watered regularly with recycled water (as long as it is not loaded with detergents, being perfectly suitable for these plants).


Achillea millefolium’, one of our indigenous species, is about the most useful one to grow and, although slow from seed, once it takes off – providing conditions are suitable – it quickly forms a dense mat of leaves topped by its rather sprawling stems of flat, white or pinkish white, corymbs of flowers. Each of these corymbs is composed of dozens, sometimes hundreds, of tiny individual blooms which are absolutely adored by bees, butterflies, ladybugs and other beneficial insects.


The medicinal properties and uses of this wonderful herb include the application of fresh leaves to first slow down and then stop bleeding – which is why Achilles always had a supply with him for use on the battlefield when his troops were injured. Other proven uses, in the form of fresh leaves used externally or internally and also in the form of herbal teas, are as a digestive and indigestion cure, as a diuretic, to relax spasms, to alleviate rheumatism and arthritis, in treatment to normalize and control high blood pressure and as a cure for colds and influenza.


Its culinary uses are fairly varied too: fresh, preferably tender young leaves are a tasty addition to salads, can be used in quiche, in pasta sauces, in soups and make a very interesting addition to ‘raita’ and to pakoras too. This indigenous species is very popular with Pathans and is called ‘Dumbari’ in Pashtu.


In the garden, as well as being the best companion plant for grape vines, as detailed above, the addition of a few leaves – preferably the tougher, older leaves - to the compost heap or bin, really speeds up the composting process. This reminds me, as it is such an excellent digestive, it is best eaten in reasonably smaller amounts!


There are 85 known species of this plant found all around the world and, aside from the uses mentioned above, they are – especially the large, tall growing, colorful varieties, commercially cultivated for cut flower production. They last a long time in water if it is changed every 2 – 3 days – and are also a popular species for the dried flower market.


Sun lovers in cool climate areas and shade lovers in hot places, all varieties are simple to grow from seed as long, that is, as the seed is relatively fresh. Seed harvested and then sown in the same year has the highest germination rate although seed can, with moderate success, be stored, in dark, air-tight containers, kept in a cool place, for as long as 2 years before almost, but not quite, losing its viability. Some people claim that it will store for 10 years and longer but that is only in strictly controlled and monitored places such as specialized seed banks.


Seeds are extremely tiny and should be sown with care. Mixing them with sand prior to sowing will help in dispersing them at a reasonable distance from each other instead of in one big clump. They should be surface sown in trays or pots of good quality, organic compost with just a slight sprinkling of the same compost scattered over them and then watered to settle them in. Seed is best sown during mid-October in Karachi and Multan, in very early spring in Lahore, Rawalpindi, Islamabad and Quetta and slightly later in Peshawar. In upland areas seed can be either spring or autumn sown. Plants can also be increased by root division and root cuttings taken from established clumps.


Seed germination time varies from species to species, some taking as little as a couple of weeks to pop up and others as long as two or three months so do not give up hope but be patient with whatever species you decide to grow.


Amongst the easiest and most useful varieties are:


Achillea millefolium’ – the ‘original’ yarrow as discussed above and which, depending on soil and climatic conditions, can reach a height of 1 – 2 feet tall.


Achillea millefolium ‘Colorado’ – as the above but with flower shades ranging through creams, yellows and apricots to crimsons and bronze.


‘Achillea millefolium – summer pastels – also as above but with flower colours including pale pinks, lavender and even very interesting gray tones.


Achillea millefolium – Cassis – is a cheerful cherry red flowering variety up to 2 feet tall.


‘Achillea ageratum’ – can reach a height of 3 feet and more and has golden yellow corymbs.


Achillea tomentosa var. aurea – grows just 6 – 9 inches tall, has slightly velvety leaves and bright gold flowers. This is an ideal pot plant for shady verandahs or for planting on partially shaded rockeries.

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