Each year the International Herb Association chooses a plant as the ‘Herb of the Year’, to focus on the medicinal, culinary, crafting and gardening aspects of a particular popular herb.  For 2024 the Herb of the year is yarrow.  The most common yarrow found in the wild and in our gardens is Achillea millifolium, a European native and North American native that grows just about everywhere as a weedy plant.  It typically has feathery, toothed leaves and small white flowers that may be lightly fragrant and is attractive to insects.  The white flowered variety is not terribly beautiful, but is useful as a medicinal plant.   There are endless possibilities of colors available now though, and the butterflies, bees and other insects will thank you for including this easy to grow perennial in your garden.

Yarrow has a very long history of use.  Fossils of yarrow were found in 60,000 year old burial caves of Neanderthals in northern Spain, indicating it was used for medicine and ritual.  The most authentic way to cast the I Ching, an ancient Chinese method of answering questions about the future, was to use 50 stalks of dried yarrow flower stems.  And the most famous ancient use of yarrow was during the Trojan War over 3000 years ago, when Achilles packed leaves of the plant into the wounds of warriors to staunch stop bleeding.  Yarrow was used even during the American Civil War in the battlefields.  A number of Indigenous tribes throughout the continent used yarrow to stop bleeding and heal wounds.

Yarrow is also considered a magical herb.  Sew up some yarrow in a bit of flannel, place it under your pillow and you will dream of your true love – unless you have a dream about cabbages, which means serious misfortune is ahead for you.  Wear an amulet of dried yarrow to ward off barking dogs, robbers and blindness. It’s believed that Satan would shake yarrow flowers at the doors of those he intended to bedevil, hence the common name for yarrow, ‘the devil’s plaything’.  Place yarrow flowers on your doorstep to stop witches from entering.

Yarrow has a bitter fragrance and flavor, and is used sparingly in cooking and teas.  Because it is a bitter it is often included in digestives.  It can increase sweating and reduce a fever.  Externally it is useful for many skin conditions, and is quite soothing.

Before the introduction of hops for beer making, yarrow was a common ingredient in beer making, adding bitterness to the beer.  Because of this ancient use one of the common names of yarrow is ‘field hops’.  It isn’t found in many beers now, however a local San Francisco brewery, Woods Beer and Wine, makes an interesting brew called ‘Local Honey’, made with yarrow, eucalyptus, lavender and honey.

If you are a crafter of natural dyer, yarrow is very useful.  Many of the flower colors, especially the yellows and reds, dry beautifully and can be used in dry arrangements and wreaths.  The flowers will produce a yellow dye and the entire plant will produce light green or olive green dye.  And for fresh flower arrangers the color possibilities are endless!

Yarrow is very easy to grow, it only has a few absolute requirements.  All yarrows prefer full sun, and will get rangy and produce fewer flowers if grown with less than 6 hours of sun.  Yarrow prefers average to well drained garden soil, so the addition of compost, or planting on mounds or hillsides, will keep your plants healthy.  Because yarrow tends to quickly produce a clump and then creep out, over time the root system will become very compacted.  Digging and dividing the clump every 2 to 3 years will keep your yarrow healthy, both plants in the ground and in containers.  Yarrow doesn’t need much in the way of fertilizers, preferring to be on the ‘lean’ side.  Fertilizing with a side dressing of compost or slow release organic fertilizer once a year is generally plenty for plants grown in ground.  Even in containers plants only need to be fertilized every 3 to 4 months.  Once established, keep the plants on the dry side, watering deeply and infrequently. 

Yarrow is also easy to propagate.  Its one of those herbs that will grow using multiple methods – seeds, cuttings and division.  If you are growing from seed, be sure to sow the seed on the surface of the soil and don’t cover completely with soil, as light is required for the seed to germinate.  Often seed grown plants don’t flower heavily until the second year they are in the ground, so don’t be disappointed if you don’t have a bumper crop of flowers the first year.  Divisions can be from dividing the crown, or if root runners have started off across your garden you can always divide the runners as well.  Cuttings from active non blooming tips will also root fairly quickly with a bit of rooting compound and small pots of very well drained soil.

The fun part of growing yarrow is all of the beautiful colors available for your garden.  If you are interested in medicinal use, the common white yarrow is preferred by herbalists, but if you are looking for a riot of color in your garden there are so many choices!  My favorite is a variety called ‘Pomegranate’, which produces large flat flower heads of deep pomegranate red, drying down to deep pinks.  The flower stems are thick and upright, so the plant always looks tidy in the garden and as a cut flower it is stunning.  And all the insects swarm to it, including hummingbirds, which is very unusual.  Other lovely choices are ‘Pink Grapefruit’ with many shades of pink on the same plant, ‘New Vintage Violet’ with deep violet red blooms, and ‘New Vintage Red’ with true red blossoms.  Hybrid yarrow varieties such as ‘Moonshine’ produce deep golden yellow blossoms, and seed grown yarrows such as ‘Summer Pastels’ will produce a huge range of flower colors.  Most of the Achillea millifoliumvarieties will grow between 2 to 3 feet tall when blooming.

There are 85 species of Achillea, although in our gardens we only see several species.  While Achillea millifolium is the most popular, Achillea tomentosa, which is a fuzzy leaved groundcover, is another yarrow that is beautiful for a hot dry area.  The variety ‘King Edward’ has soft butter yellow blooms and only grows 3 to 4 inches tall, terrific in the front of a border or even a well drained rock garden.   And yes, some people will seed Achillea tomentosa or millifolium seed as part of a lawn substitute that can be mowed and walked on occasionally. 

It’s difficult to cut off flower heads, but if you prune the spent flower heads all the way down to the base it will encourage rebloom. Most varieties will bloom two or more times from April through November.  Your beneficial insects will love you for the lengthy bloom season, and your garden will look great!

Just in case you needed more benefits from yarrow, it is deer and rabbit resistant.  Many ‘old time’ gardeners believe that companion planting with yarrow will increase the essential oil of the other herbs (such as lavender and rosemary, both which have similar growing requirements).  And yarrow will definitely encourage the ‘good bugs’ to visit your garden.

During our Open House celebration on Saturday, May 4th, we will be giving all Mothers (in advance of Mothers Day!) a complimentary yarrow plant.  We think every mom should have this care free, easy to grow herbal gem growing in their garden.