Herb Profile: Common Yarrow

Medicinal plants of old, now glories of the garden

| August/September 1996

• Learn More: A Guide to Yarrow Varieties 

Common yarrow grows wild in fields, meadows, and dry wastelands, and I often see its dirty white flowers alongside country roads here in Oregon. This is the herb whose leaves the Greek hero Achilles reputedly bound on his soldiers’ battle wounds to stop the bleeding during the Trojan War, whose stripped stalks the Chinese tossed to divine the future, whose tops the Swedes used to flavor their beer. For centuries, healers in various cultures have recommended it as a cure for dozens of ailments.

As a garden subject, common yarrow (Achillea millefolium) leaves a lot to be desired. It’s weedy and invasive, and its muddy white or pink flowers are unattractive. If you’ve balked at adding this herb to your garden, you may be happy to learn that breeders have recently expanded its color range to include clear whites, carmines, and an assortment of pinks and lilacs in between—lovely colors that will grace any garden. And common yarrow has many gardenworthy relatives, including those with flowers in classic yellows and golds.

Easy To Grow

The genus Achillea (named in honor of Achilles) comprises some eighty-five species native to the North Temperate Zone. More than half have been grown in gardens. Most have soft, often aromatic, fernlike foliage that is evergreen except in the coldest climates. Creeping rhizomes tend to form mats of ­foliage, and some forms can be quite invasive. Erect stems from 2 inches to 5 feet tall support flat-topped clusters of small, often densely packed, daisylike flowers. All species require a sunny ­location and well-drained soil. Established plants of many species are drought tolerant, although some species prefer moister soil. Many of the larger yarrows tolerate salt spray.

The native habitats of yarrows range from dry or wet lowland areas to alpine rocks and meadows. Most species prefer acid soil, but some tolerate a soil pH up to 7 (neutral), and a few must have alkaline soil. Yarrows are among the few herbs that support the contention that herbs thrive in poor, infertile soils. Applications of manure or other fertilizer, too much shade, or summer night temperatures above 70°F all can cause weak stems that are likely to flop over under the weight of the flower heads. Plants grown under such conditions are short-lived and are less hardy than plants grown in poorer soils.

Nearly all yarrows are carefree, pest-free, and winter-hardy in USDA Zones 3 to 9. The finely divided leaves of some species trap moisture and make these plants prone to mildew in hot and humid regions. I divide the clumps every three to four years (every other year for A. ptarmica and A. tomentosa) to renew their vigor; a sharp shovel is handy for curbing the more vigorous species. Where summers are short and relatively cool, removing spent blooms promptly will encourage and prolong summer blooming well into autumn.

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