Achillea millefolium is a perennial plant native to most of the Northern Hemisphere. It has also been introduced in New Zealand and Australia. It is a tough little plant that withstands a wide range of weather and soil conditions, so is quite popular with many gardeners.
Yarrow in history
Yarrow has a long history in human culture and quite a few legends and lore are attached to this plant. It has been found in burial sites dating back nearly 60,000 years. The ancient Britons believed that sleeping with its leaves over the eyes would give a person the ability to see into the future. The Chinese considered it lucky. The Navajo counted it as one of their Sacred Herbs and it was often burned as a purifying herb by a number of Native Peoples. Yarrow was also considered a love charm and was attached to the goddess Venus. A young maid who slept with the leaves under her pillow would dream of her future husband. It was also carried by travelers, sailors and soldiers as a charm to ward off evil and promote a safe return home.
Healing properties of yarrow
This plant has always been considered an important part of the natural herbal pharmacy. It got its Latin name, Achillea from the ancient Greek hero of the Trojan War, Achilles. He was said to have used the plant to treat battle wounds on himself and his soldiers. Yarrow has long been associated with blood and many of its common names reflect this relationship. Woundwort, staunchweed and nosebleed plant are just a few of the common names associated with yarrow. It is related to chamomile and tea made from the flowers and leaves was used to ease stomach aches and relax the anxious. The ground leaves mixed with water to make a paste were used by many people to relieve sunburn, rashes and skin ailments. It must be strong medicine because it can actually soothe napalm burns, so that's pretty powerful! The fresh leaves were also often chewed to relieve toothaches, which were a common complaint in the ages before modern dentistry.
Adding yarrow to your menu
Yarrow has been with us as long as humans have been using plants and it may surprise many, but the plant is edible. The leaves were cooked and served much like spinach in the 17th Century, however, the modern palate probably wouldn't like this method. Cooking yarrow with high heat turns it quite bitter and it is best used in cool dishes or added at the end of cooking. Broths made with yarrow tend to be quite strong and not very appetizing. Treat it gently and with very little heat for the best results. The dried, ground plant has a similar flavor to tarragon and was often substituted for the more expensive spice. It was used to flavor beer and ale instead of hops during Medieval times and was also used to make liquor and bitters. It does make interesting flavored oils and vinegars, so that might be the place to start experimenting with this herb. Yarrow also makes a light gold natural dye when an alum mordant is used, so should be included in a dyer's garden too.
Growing yarrow enriches the soil
Yarrow is easy to grow because it thrives in a wide range of conditions. It prefers sunny conditions and average, well-drained soil, however its strong root system breaks up heavy clay and stabilizes slopes. It grows well in Zones 3-9 in sun to light shade and tolerates drought well once it is established. The plant also has the ability to mine nutrients. The deep root system collects a number of substances deep in the ground and brings them to the surface for other plants with shallower systems to use. Yarrow collects phosphorus, copper and potassium and brings it to the surface. This makes it a good plant to use as compost or mulch because of the mineral and nutrient content. It is often planted in young orchards to bring the nutrients near the top of the soil for the young trees to use. This nutrient mining ability also helps clean up industrial waste sites. Yarrow collects substances such as lead and heavy metals and stores them in its stems and roots. This is great for cleaning up around old building sites where lead paint is a problem. The plants are dug and responsibly disposed of at the end of the season, so as not to recontaminate the area.
Plant yarrow for long-lasting beauty
Yarrow comes in many colors with white and yellow being the most frequent in the species plants. However, many commercial cultivars are available and you can choose from many shades of pink and lavender, cream, reds and corals. It is attractive to butterflies and bees and the long-lasting flowers are great in cut arrangements and they also dry nicely. Few pests bother it other than the occasional aphid and deer tend to avoid it unless there are no other choices on the menu. It grows between two and three feet tall and when spacing nursery transplants, place them about 18 inches apart for them to fill in quickly. Seeds are also available and can be direct seeded after danger of frost has passed. Favorite colors can be propagated by taking and rooting cuttings and mature clumps should be divided every three to five years. Yarrow is easy to grow, useful in many ways and is a beautiful little piece of history. With all of that going for it, why not include some in your next garden?