Achilleas millefolium’s flat white blossoms with their multitude of tiny, perfect flowers and silver-green feathery foliage are a familiar sight in the ditches and fields of Canada. Sadly, as familiarity breeds contempt, the lowly white yarrow is too often denied its rightful place in the herb garden.
Yarrow gets its Latin name from Achilles, the Greek warrior, who often used leaves from yarrow plants to treat his soldier’s wounds. Apparently not one of Achilles soldiers thought to return the favour when their poor leader was fatally nailed in the heel. A tragedy to be sure, but hey – at least he got a plant named after him. Yarrow leaves pack a triple whammy healing punch with homeostatic properties to stop the bleeding, antiseptic properties to prevent infection and astringent properties to speed healing.
Before band aids or antiseptic cream, it was common practice for farmers to wind yarrow around the handles of their farm implements both for its proven mosquito repellent qualities and to have handy in case of insect bites or wounds. The French dubbed yarrow the “carpenter’s herb” for its usefulness in treating all kinds of injuries. The stalks can even be pounded into a pulp and used as a poultice to treat bruises, sprains and swelling. This kind of knowledge can come in handy for the gardener who has just nicked herself with the gardening shears or dropped a paving stone on his toe. You can even call it the “Accident Prone Gardener’s Herb” if you like. Well, I guess you could call it anything you would like. But you know what I mean.
Perhaps the coolest thing about yarrow is that adding just one little leaf to an entire wheelbarrow load of compost will dramatically accelerate its breakdown. I have a nice big clump of common white yarrow planted next to my composter for just this purpose. It works like a charm. On an aside, don’t you think the composter pictured below looks like Darth Vader?
Yarrow works especially well on blemishes or oily skin. Pour one cup of boiling water over a quarter cup of chopped up fresh leaves or over two teaspoons of dried. Steep for half an hour, then strain out the leaves and toss them in the compost bucket. When the liquid has cooled, but is still lukewarm, dip in a face cloth, wring it out and drape it over your freshly washed face for 15 minutes while singing show tunes. I find that songs from “Annie Get Your Gun” work best, but have had pretty good results singing “Chicago” tunes as well.
A word of caution – it’s always a good idea to first test a small area of your skin to make sure you’re not allergic to yarrow. It seems that people can be allergic to almost anything. Cleaning the bathroom, washing dishes and listening to their mother sing show tunes have all been known to cause a rash of complaints in my household that no amount of yarrow can get rid of. If it’s a cold or flu that ails you, you’re in luck. A yarrow tea is reported to be an excellent cure, so be sure to dry lots of yarrow leaves, stems and blossoms over the summer so you can have them on hand for the flu season, as well as for any blemish outbreaks.
While there is no disputing that the common white yarrow packs the biggest medicinal punch, many gardeners prefer the hybrid Achillea millefollium for their more colourful visual appeal. An added bonus to these vibrant beauties is that deer will leave them alone. Most will bloom only four months after being started from seed so plan your spring seeding schedule accordingly! Once established yarrow will burst from the gates of spring in full bloom and continue to kick up its colourful heels right through to that first fall frost year after bountiful year.
Here are some types of yarrow you might be interested in adding to your herb garden – or anywhere for that matter! All of the varieties listed below can be found under the Latin name Achillea millefollium in seed catalogues unless otherwise indicated.
Cassis Zone 4 Height 60 cm (2 ft) Masses of intense cherry red flowers from spring through summer. Dries to a black currant colour. Available from Thompson and Morgan and from William Dam.
Cerise Queen Height 60 cm (2 ft) has cherry red flowers and at least one seed catalogue gives it an “official” rating of Zone 5 but it seems to be doing just fine in my Zone 2a garden. I did lose one clump once that I had planted on the edge of our lawn, but I strongly suspect that it fell victim to an overly enthusiastic teenager repeatedly driving the lawnmower over it rather than our long, cold winters. The teenager says otherwise. Cerise Queen is one of the least invasive of the yarrow varieties. Available from Stokes.
Cloth of Gold Achillea filipendulina Height 122 cm (4 ft) One of the tallest growing yarrow. Features flat plate sized blossoms in shades of mustard. Available from Stokes and from Thompson and Morgan.
Mongolian Yarrow Achillea asiatica Zone 2 Height 15 – 50 cm (6 – 20 inches) A hardy native of China, Mongolia and Siberia mountain slopes. It has showy light pink flowers that fade to white and contains much of the same medicinal qualities as white yarrow. Available through Richters Herbs.
Summer Wine Zone 3. Height 60 cm (2 ft.) This intense red millefolium is certain to stand out in your garden or in arrangements. Its large flowers starts off bright pink and then turns cherry red by summer. Available from Burpee.
Summer Berries Zone 3. Height 77 cm (30 inches) A huge mix of vibrant berry colours ranging from deep apricot to cherry red. Attracts all kinds of butterflies to your garden. Available from Thompson and Morgan, Veseys and from Burpee.
Summer Pastels Zone 3. Height 60 cm (2ft) An easy to grow mixture of colours. Every soft shade of salmon, orange, red, mustard, ochre, bronze, gray and beige imaginable. A complete spectrum of pastels. Available from Thompson and Morgan and from Stokes.
Colorado Mixture Zone 3 Height 60 cm (2 ft.) Torn between the Pastels and the Berries? Dominion Seed House has the answer! Its Colorado Mixture includes all the pastels as well as the reds, oranges, lilacs and purples.
White Yarrow Zone 3 this is the one you see growing wild in sunny ditches and meadows. Starts out brilliant white and then fades to grey. The most medicinally active variety. If you’re interested in yarrow’s healing properties be sure to include this in your herb garden. Available from Richters.
Woolly Yarrow Achilliea tomentosa ‘Aurea’ Zone 3 Low mat-forming variety with woolly leaves and golden flowers. Available through Richters.
All yarrow make great additions to dried flower arrangements. Every summer I collect a variety of blossoms at their peak, put them in a decorative container or vase and just like that I have a stunning flower arrangement that will stay gorgeous for at least a year. Just don’t add water! For perfectly straight stems you might prefer to hang the yarrow upside down until dry before arranging.
Here’s some other fun facts:
Rinsing your head with a concoction of yarrow is said to prevent baldness.
Yarrow attracts ladybugs, bees and butterflies (so perhaps stay indoors if you have yarrow on your head).
Chewing on the leaves may help toothaches
Yarrow in a wedding bouquet will guarantee true love for seven years. After that, well, I guess there’s always counseling. Or you could renew your vows.
Stuffing a pillow with yarrow will give a person pleasant dreams. If one of those pleasant dreams is about harvesting yarrow that means you are about to receive some good news. Or that you’ve been spending too much time harvesting yarrow.
Whether you dream about yarrow or not, here’s some great news for you now – yarrow is one of the hardiest, easiest, most versatile herbs you will ever grow in your garden. It tolerates poor soil and is drought resistant once established. Yarrow is easily started from root division or seed. Seed can be sown directly into the ground in late May, but in this case, it won’t flower until the following spring. For blooms in the first year start seed indoors from the end of February to late March. The seed is very small, so use a gentle touch. All you need to do is lightly tap the seeds into the surface of moist starting soil. Do not cover as yarrow seed requires light to germinate. Seedlings should come up in about 10 days. Stokes recommends placing 5 or 6 plants spaced 31 cm (1 ft.) apart for a stunning “wild flower flavoured” backdrop. A perfect fit for your herb garden!
Yarrow can be slightly invasive, especially in warmer climates, but keep in mind Native American teachings – if a plant grows in abundance it is meant to be used in abundance. With its incredible range of uses, this definitely holds true for yarrow. Plant yarrow in a sunny, well-drained location and you won’t be disappointed. Or bald.