YELLING ABOUT YARROW
No matter where I am, I always try to notice what is growing around me. Last week I was stuck in traffic on a busy commercial street not far from
my house. Gazing at the gas station
on the other side of the intersection, I noticed that the owner had installed a
long raised planting bed, about 18” high, made of the brown cast stone blocks
that the mega-merchandisers sell for edging and do-it-yourself walls. What interested me about this particular raised bed was that it was not
planted with the usual impatiens or petunias or marigolds or ageratum. It was chock full of tall, glorious golden yarrow.
Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) allegedly got its Latin name because
Achilles, fabled in Greek mythology as the hero of the Trojan Wars, used fresh
yarrow leaves to staunch his soldiers’ bleeding wounds. The plant is both useful and ornamental, and has been cultivated for
centuries. Yarrow, interestingly
enough, is a member of the Compositae family, an enormous clan, whose members
are recognizable by their daisy-form flowers. If you look closely at common yarrow, you can see that hundreds of tiny
daisies make up their flat flower heads.
Whoever installed the yarrow at the gas station was right on the mark as
far as plant selection goes. Raised
beds usually have excellent drainage, and this one is situated in a sunny spot. Yarrow is extremely drought tolerant, making it much more likely to
survive the heat and dryness that is undoubtedly an integral part of life on the
nether side of a gas station.
The first time I saw yarrow in this part of the world, it was growing in
a grassy strip between the street and sidewalk near my daughter’s elementary
school. Since the strip was mowed
with admirable regularity, the plant probably never flowered. Still, the ferny foliage was unmistakable. Yarrow is such a free-range plant that more than a few people
think it is a native American wildflower. Like
many other all-American things, it actually originated in Europe and West Asia. Fortunately, the plant is so useful, that it has been welcomed wherever
it has set seed.
I remember reading that Rasputin, the “Mad Monk” of Czar Nicholas
II’s court, reputedly had the ability to stop the hemophiliac hemorrhaging of
the Czar’s young son. Yarrow can
also stop bleeding, without the undesirable attributes of Rasputin. If you are in a situation where someone is bleeding, and there
are yarrow plants nearby, simply make a poultice of the leaves and apply it to
the affected wound. The leaves are
also edible, and the flowers, like many other herbal blossoms, can be cooked up
into a tonic that is mildly diuretic and supposedly helpful in lowering blood
pressure (don’t try this without your doctor’s blessing).
The yarrow that you find in fields, ditches and the strip between the
sidewalk and the street is usually white, and relatively low growing. Hybridizers have gotten hold of Achillea, however, and now it
is available in a multitude of colors. In
my yard I grow Achillea taygetea ‘Moonshine’, which, as you might expect, is
pale yellow. It lurks attractively
next to some ‘Munstead’ lavender and a dark purple Canterbury bells plant. Next year I might mix in a ‘Coronation Gold’ yarrow for a nice
If yellow is not for you, try ‘Fireland’ or ‘Paprika’, which are
red, or the time-tested Achillea ptarmica ‘The Pearl’, a double white
cultivar. If you like a nice mix of
pastel colors, try ‘Summer Shades’ in tones of white, pink, lavender, yellow
and red. Unlike some other Achillea,
‘Summer Shades’ has dark green foliage.
Someday, after you have installed Achillea in your garden,take a whiff of
the leaves (especially if your yarrow has gray-green foliage). They smell good enough to justify their existence, even if
you never have to make a yarrow poultice to stop someone from bleeding.
One more thing. Yarrow also
is a great addition to dried arrangements. The flower heads hold their shapes and colors all winter long. To dry them, harvest as many as you need, tie them together and then hang
them upside down somewhere with decent air circulation. After a few weeks they will be dry enough to use.
Yarrow is one of those indispensable plants that does everything but load
the dishwasher. Achilles was right,
you shouldn’t make a garden without it.