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 contrast.
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.
by E. Ginsburg