Collecting the folklore and uses of plants

Yarrow for love divination

2014-07-22 16.16.40Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) was widely used in love divination.

In Suffolk a leaf was placed in the nose, with the intention of making it bleed, while the following rhyme was recited:
Green ‘arrow, green ‘arrow, you wears a white blow,
If my love love me, my nose will bleed now;
If my love don’t love me, it on’t bleed a drop;
If my love do love me, ’twill bleed every drop [1].

In County Donegal:
On May Eve the boys and girls cut a square sod in which grows yarrow … and put it under their pillow, if they have not spoken between the time of cutting the sod and going to sleep they will dream of their sweetheart. The sod ought to be of a certain size, but what the size should be seems uncertain. This custom is said to have been introduced into the country by the Scotch settlers [1].

In south Devon, a girl would pluck yarrow off a young man’s grave at midnight, saying:
Yarra, yarra, I seeks thee yarra,
And now I have thee found
I prays to the gude Lord Jesus
As I plucked ‘ee from the ground.
When she reached home she would ‘put the yarra in her right stocking, and ‘un to her left leg’ and get into bed backwards, saying ‘Good night to thee yarra’ three times, and ‘again three times:
Gude night, purty yarra,
I pray thee sweet yarra,
Tell me by the marra
Who shall my true love be [3].

In Ulster a girl would pick nine yarrow leaves on May Eve, while reciting:
Yarrow for yarrow, if yarrow you be
By this time tomorrow
My true love to see
The colour of his hair
The clothes he does wear
The first words he will speak
When he comes to court me,
and then place the leaves under her pillow, before dreaming of her future husband [4].

A Histon, Cambridgeshire, correspondent recorded in 1989:
According to my 86-year-old aunt, girls used to go out on moonlight nights into a field of yarrow and, with their eyes closed, pick some yarrow. If this remained wet in the morning it meant that their boyfriends would soon start taking an interest in them.

Why was this plant so valued in divination rites? Any comments would be appreciated.

1. J. Britten, Plant-lore notes on Mrs Latham’s West Sussex Superstitions, Folk-lore Record 1: 156, 1878.
2. G.H. Kinahan, Co. Donegal, May Eve, Folk-lore Journal 2: 90, 1884.
3. Morris, R.E. Some old-time superstitions of Devon, Report & Transactions of the Devonshire Association for the Advancement of Science 56: 306, 1925.
4. Belfast, February 1991.

Images: main, Ingrebourne Valley Local Nature Reserve, London Borough of Havering; ┬áinset, St Margaret’s churchyard, Barking, London Borough of Barking and Dagenham, both July 2014.

Updated 23 July 2014,