Historical essay
Walking with Yarrow: A Plant’s Military History

Walking with Yarrow: A Plant’s Military History

Michelle Moyd

Last September, while out for a walk in a German village called Miesau, clusters of striking yellow blooms on tall stalks with voluminous feathery leaves stopped me in my tracks. Given their prevalence, I wondered if they had any medicinal, nutritional, or aesthetic value. I was home visiting my parents, who have lived in the village for over thirty years. In the car with my mother sometime later, more of the same flowers on the roadside caught my eye. I asked about them, drawing on my mother’s expertise as a lifelong gardener. “Aren’t those yarrow?” she responded.

Yarrow has many important uses, especially as a medicinal plant. It is found in many parts of the world in seemingly endless variation. Indigenous peoples in the Americas used yarrow for its healing properties. In English, its many common names evoke everyday first aid. Nosebleed plant. Sanguinary. Thousand-leaf or thousand-seal, referencing its many leaves. The above-ground parts of the plant contain two chemicals with coagulant properties, plus others with sedative or anti-inflammatory qualities. Yarrow’s history threads throughout settler colonial history in complex and telling ways.

Yarrow’s history is also military history. In antiquity, it was called herba militaris. Yarrow’s scientific name is achillea millefolium, referencing Achilles, the mythical Greek soldier and ultimate killing machine, as well as its thousands of leaves. In Greek mythology, the centaur Chiron shared his supernatural medicinal knowledge about yarrow with Achilles, who then used it as a battlefield remedy. Its many additional common names, including knight’s milfoil, staunchwort, and soldiers’ woundwort, also evoke the histories of soldiers, militaries, and bloodshed across time and space. In 1842, London floral enthusiast and publisher R. Tyas went so far as to name yarrow as the plant most expressive of the “sentiment” of war. The mythical origins of the western way of war are steeped in yarrow.

I want this story to be about the little flowers, bound together in their thousands, strong and pretty. But if we’re talking about soldiers and war, it’s mostly about the leaves.

My encounter last year with achillea millefolium in Miesau occurred in a mental landscape of sadness and anticipatory grief. That summer, my father received a cancer diagnosis and was hospitalized for treatment. Complications from both the cancer and the treatment took a sudden devastating toll on him. On short notice, I traveled with my husband and daughter to Germany to be with my parents, honoring our collective worries. Germany’s relative calm and order anchored our hope for healing.

The geography comforted me, though not in an uncomplicated way. My parents retired in Germany after my father finished an Air Force career of nearly thirty years. They chose to stay because it felt right to them. They lived comfortable lives in a quiet village surrounded by agricultural fields and hills, and within reach of several US military facilities. This blend of rural living in proximity to military bases is a well-known feature of post–World War II Germany. Bases and posts were built in otherwise seemingly unremarkable places that nonetheless served military needs. In the skies above Miesau, US military transport aircraft fly in and out of Ramstein Air Base many times a day, the hulking planes both commonplace and out-of-place over farmers’ fields covered in corn, sunflowers, and kale. The unassuming yarrow plants also dotted the fields where I walked most days after visiting my dad in the nearby Landstuhl Army Regional Medical Center, the largest US military hospital in Europe. I began to think in new ways about the improbable relationship between the mundane botanical life around me, the everyday presence of the infrastructures of war and empire, and what it takes to keep soldiers alive.

Visiting my dad at the Landstuhl hospital, I learned up close what lifesaving intervention looked like. My dad never sustained wounds of the sort that needed stanching by a plant like yarrow, once so useful to soldiers in the past. But over a lifetime in the military, he breathed in substances that wounded him from the inside, compounding, metastasizing. Fumes from aircraft. Defoliants. Cigarettes. Looking out his hospital room’s window during one of these visits, I saw sunflowers and nasturtiums in a small garden, providing a space of respite, the weather warm and clear, a group of people playing croquet in the quiet space. Machines whirred in the background. My dad breathed, unable to speak audibly, but moving his lips to form inaudible words that we desperately tried to read.

Weeks passed after my initial encounters with yarrow, and I continued seeing it on walks in the fields and on roadsides around the neighborhood. One day I picked a piece and brought it back to my parents’ house, wanting to keep it, to study it. To let my thoughts germinate and bloom. And then, to write about it. As a historian of Africa and modern Germany who studies soldiers, warfare, and violence, and as an Air Force veteran myself, yarrow provoked new questions for me about the land, empire, and what I was doing there. It inspired me to use this time and place as a makeshift research site, even as it also became a focal point for my grief.

A yellow flowering plant with small petals.
A yellow variety of Achillea millefolium at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Melbourne, Australia. (Courtesy Wikimedia)

Yarrow is a tough plant, befitting its history as a battlefield remedy. Resting in a shot glass with a bit of water on my parents’ kitchen table, the flowers retained their yellow hue for a fortnight before they finally began to turn brown. In the meantime, the compact blossoms and sturdy foliage drew me into the deeper military history of this place, and to think about military history alongside medical history in new ways.

In Miesau and countless other villages in and around US military bases in Germany, plants and warfare have long been intertwined. My parents’ neighborhood is half a kilometer from the entrance to an ammunition depot. Somewhere behind the depot’s security fences there is a biosphere that protects rare animal and plant life. Inaccessible to most people, it is maintained and protected by the German state in a fortified space. Outside the depot’s long fence, marshy land meets farmland. More yarrow grows in the surrounding fields and on the roadside.

This land has a deeper military history than I imagined. Celtic “hill graves” were also found behind the depot’s fence. The items excavated from these grave sites are now kept an hour’s drive away in the Pfalz historical museum in Speyer. After the Celts, Romans also occupied this land. The first Romans here were soldiers and they used yarrow on the battlefield too. Centuries later, in 1523, the Protestant knight Franz von Sickingen made his last stand against forces aligned with the Holy Roman Emperor at the Burg Nanstein, a hilltop castle not far from Landstuhl Army Regional Medical Center, also on a hilltop, where we visited my dad every day. More recently, German men from Miesau mobilized for both world wars. The names of the dead and missing from 1914–1918 and 1939–1945 cascade down the village memorial. Such local memorials are a common sight across Germany. Atop its plinth, a naked soldier carved from stone lies on his side, wearing only a steel helmet, his fist curled around a sword, his shield resting behind him. The nameless stone soldier, the memorial’s aesthetic, and the names of the village dead it commemorates recall shattering histories of violence that are at once local, national, and imperial. It is an exclusive memorial that is silent on local victims of German aggression between 1939 and 1945. For such information, one has to look elsewhere.

Countless armies have marched across this land that was once part of Bavaria, bordering the Saarland and France. Horses. Carts. Trucks. Tanks. Trains. Missiles. Lethal chemicals on missiles, transferred to trains, transferred to ships. Aircraft overhead. And always, soldiers. In imagining the many different armies that have crossed these spaces, and in thinking about my father, my thoughts kept returning to the longevity, hardiness, and versatility of yarrow, a plant that survived all of it.

War is not just history to me or my father. Like him, I am a veteran. I left the military to pursue a PhD in African history, and I wrote about African soldiers who fought in Germany’s colonial army in what is today Tanzania. For over two decades now, I have studied the social and cultural meanings of soldiering, warfare, and gendered labor patterns across Africa. Yet there is so much more to know. One evening, back at my parents’ house after visiting my dad, I stumbled upon a television program about Dahomey’s women soldiers. They fought numerous wars in late nineteenth-century West Africa. Their training regimen required that they prove themselves worthy as future combatants. One of their tests was to crawl through a patch of acacia thorns. Before undertaking this ordeal, they applied “special plant extracts” to “numb the pain they [were] about to suffer.” I have researched and taught about these martial women before, but this was a part of their history I had never considered. Which plants numbed their pain? Who kept this knowledge about plants and their anesthetic properties, thereby also keeping troops in the field? The history of medicine seemed to offer new ways into old topics.

Whether in Dahomey or Miesau, herbalists, nurses, and ritual specialists have all served the cause of combat and soldiers’ recovery afterward. Plants have always been part of their methods. My parents’ village, so familiar to me as home, temporarily became my research site as yarrow redirected my attention to the healing infrastructures that have allowed wars to continue and empires to expand. The yarrow, the aircraft flying overhead, the munitions depot around the way, and all the military occupations of this land, point me toward reading the landscapes differently. My grief opened space for historical meditations on the costs of empire. Still occupied, haunted by soldiers and healers past, the outposts of a shrinking empire seem permanent. But I am a historian and I know that they too will become otherwise in the future. The yarrow lives on, unremarkable in its witness, stanching the bleeding.

I am most grateful to the editors of Nursing Clio for critical comments that helped me sharpen this essay. I would also like to thank Scot Wright, Yuliya Komska, Heather Blair, Manling Luo, Anya Peterson Royce, Sarah van der Laan, Susan Grayzel, Tammy Proctor, Kate Imy, Melissa Shaw, Marissa Moorman, and Monica Black for their encouragement and feedback through multiple drafts. I dedicate this piece to my father, Henry L. Moyd (1942–2021), and my mother, Heather A. Moyd, whose botanical expertise planted the seed.

Featured image caption: War memorial in Miseau. (Courtesy TeKaBe/Wikimedia Commons)

Michelle Moyd is Ruth N. Halls Associate Professor of History at Indiana University, Bloomington. She is the author of Violent Intermediaries: African Soldiers, Conquest, and Everyday Colonialism, published in 2014 by Ohio University Press.

1 thought on “Walking with Yarrow: A Plant’s Military History

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      This is a beautiful written profundity, remembering for us what is forgotten almost by design. That war and healing are inextricably related. And how the personal and the public self are called to act in ways we do not always understand.

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