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Yarrow blooms all summer, loves hot and dry conditions, thrives in impoverished soils, and is frost hardy, what more could you want from a perennial!

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Achillea' Summer Pastels' mix. Picture courtesy www.ballstraathof.co.zaAchillea' Summer Pastels' mix. Picture courtesy www.ballstraathof.co.zaAchillea millefolium, a beautiful herbaceous perennial commonly known as yarrow or common yarrow, is a member of the lovely Asteraceae family, and a close relative of Chamomile and Chrysanthemums. It is native to temperate regions of the Northern Hemisphere; in Asia, Europe, and North America. Today yarrow can be found growing all over the world; occurring from sea level to 3,500 metres in elevation. It is most frequently found in the mildly disturbed soil of grasslands and open forests, and survives in various habitats: forests, meadows, grasslands, mountains, coastal areas, and arid regions.

In North America both native and introduced genotypes are found; and yarrow is found growing in every habitat throughout California, except for the Colorado and Mojave Deserts. It has been introduced as a feed for livestock in places like New Zealand and Australia, producing an average yield of 43,000 plants per acre, with a total dry weight of 10,500 lbs. Gardeners cultivate yarrow for its beauty and ease of growth, as well as to attract beneficial pollinators like bees and butterflies to the garden, as a first aid herb, and a pretty little cut flower.

Millefolium means “a thousand leaves,” referring to the small, antler-shaped leaves growing along its thin, light green stems, giving the plants a delicate feathery appearance. Early in the growing season the leaves grow in a mound near the ground, but during the flowering season the slightly hairy flowering stems reach upwards, reaching heights of anything from 30 to 90cm, to display their characteristic blossoms, reminiscent of tiny, flattened daisies, growing in large, flat-topped clusters above the wispy leaves. The wild flowers may be cream, white, rose, or lilac coloured, and the plants will flower repeatedly throughout summer.
 
Yarrow has a long history of use in many cultures around the world, and human relationships with this healing plant reach back to very ancient times, with the fossilized pollen of yarrow, found in Neanderthal burial caves, dating as far back as 60,000 years. Yarrow's generic name "Achillea" is most likely taken from the mythical legend of the Greek war hero, Achilles, and although he may be best known for his so called "Achilles heel," he really should be most renowned for his use of yarrow. Achilles is said to have used yarrow in the Trojan War to staunch the blood flowing from the wounds of fallen comrades. He even covered his body with a tincture made from the leaves, believing it made him invincible against arrows! According to herbal legend, Achilles medicinal knowledge of yarrow actually came from his mentor, the mythological centaur Chiron, who taught Achilles how to use the herb, which was said to have grown from the rust on his spear. Yarrow is also associated with Aphrodite, Hermes, and the European Horned God.

In classical times it was known as "herba militaris" (the military herb) because of its ability to stop bleeding on the battlefield; and was carried by soldiers, who relied upon yarrow for its haemostatic action to treat wounds. Haemostasis is a process to prevent haemorrhage by arresting and keeping the blood within the damaged vessel walls. As recently as World War I (1914–1918) yarrow was still used in the battlefield as a first aid remedy, so it’s no wonder that today, when it comes to medicinal plants, yarrow stands out as a top remedy to stop wounds from bleeding.

Achillea in old-fashioned coloursAchillea in old-fashioned coloursAchillea in old-fashioned coloursYarrow was used in many traditions, and has many different meanings. No monastery or abbey garden would be without it during The Middle Ages; and in the Victorian language of flowers, yarrow can represent both war and healing. The herb was also believed to be useful in love charms and in conjuring. Yarrow was also seen as one of the best ways to ward off insects, and sprigs of it would be embroidered onto clothes, or pressed between the pages of books to keep insects at bay. During the crusades, knights would always carry two herbs - yarrow for its wound-healing abilities and borage for courage. Yarrow has also long been associated with magic and divination, and it was not just in the West that yarrow was revered, in ancient China it was considered a valuable part of the divination ritual, and yarrow stalks are still traditionally used to cast the I Ching, the Chinese book of prophecy. In ancient Asia there was a saying stating: “Wherever yarrow grows, one need not fear wild beasts or poisonous plants.” Yarrow is still considered by some folk herbalists today to be a sacred plant with special spiritual powers to offer protection.

There are many species and subspecies of yarrow, including a similar North American variety known as Achillea millefolium var. lanulosa. Common yarrow (Achillea millefolium) was introduced to North America by early colonists, and soon became naturalized throughout North America. Yarrow was a valued remedy used by many tribes of Native Americans, who embraced its medicinal properties and used it to treat a large number of external and internal ailments including; wounds, burns, toothaches, arthritis, digestion, and sore throats. Yarrow was also listed in the official U.S. Pharmacopoeia from the mid to the late nineteenth century.

Today yarrow is mainly cultivated as an ornamental plant, or perhaps to attract butterflies, bees and other beneficial insects to the garden, but it certainly deserves a place in the modern garden as a first aid plant, as a hemostatic (blood coagulation,) analgesic (pain reliever) and antiseptic (antibacterial.)   

Plant breeders have been hard at work hybridising these little beauties and today they are available from garden centres in a wide range of pastel and brighter shades, including: lavender, purple, white, apricot, cream, yellow, red, rose, and pink flowers. Whether you grow yarrow as a decorative plant or an herb, you can be sure that it will add beauty to your garden, and since it is so easy to care for, you have nothing to lose by giving this ancient herb a small place in one of your flower beds.

Achillea Flowerburst 'Red Shades' is a perennial which stands up to wind, drought, heat and humidity, blooming tirelessly through the summer, even in poor, dry soils.

Achillea Summer Pastels ‘Mixed’ is a heat and drought-tolerant variety with lavender, purple, white, apricot, cream, rose and pink flowers. Its tall flower stems also make this lovely border plant suitable for cut flower production, and for drying.

Health Benefits:

In modern herbalism yarrow has many uses, and one of the most popular forms of yarrow used today is yarrow oil, which is extracted from the dried plant through steam distillation. This essential oil has a penetrating, sweetly herbaceous smell, and is a vivid blue colour. This colour is mainly due to the chemical chamazulene which is released from the plant during the heating process. Yarrow oil is known for its multiple healing effects, particularly for circulatory disorders, skin conditions, and digestive ailments. Its anti-inflammatory properties may also alleviate the pain from arthritis and rheumatism. Yarrow oil is mainly used in vapour therapy, or added to massage oil or carrier oil before being used topically.

It is only the old-fashioned pink and white varieties that are actually worth using medicinally, and gardeners around the world grow them as a first aid plant because all the plant parts can be used for medicinal applications, both internally or externally. It’s a great first-aid treatment for wounds, and to help stop nosebleeds, apply dried or powdered yarrow leaves inside the nostrils. The fresh stalks can be pounded into a pulp and applied to swollen body parts, sprains and bruises. Yarrow tea helps fights bacteria and viruses, and if taken hot, will help to break a fever by inducing sweating.  

Yarrow tea is also a great digestive and detoxifier, because yarrow’s bitter components and fatty acids encourage proper bile secretion from the gallbladder, which can then improve digestion and prevent gallstones from forming. It is beneficial for a wide range of menstrual problems, relieving cramps and menstrual pain; as well as helping to regulate menstrual periods, particularly controlling heavy flow. Yarrow tea can be used as first aid for ulcers; and the tea or tincture helps relieve haemorrhoids. A yarrow poultice or compress placed over the affected area will also help soothe this health problem.

Yarrow has larger uses as a circulatory system remedy which both stops bleeding, and at the same time moves stagnant blood, thus both preventing and clearing blood clots. It tones the blood vessels, especially the smaller veins, and lowers blood pressure by dilating the capillaries. This means it benefits the whole-body through the blood system, and is therefore especially good for conditions related to hypertension (high blood pressure,) including coronary thrombosis (blood clots.)

Yarrow is an astringent and makes a good facial wash or shampoo, so add some yarrow tea to your shampoo, and splash your face with cool yarrow tea, diluted with water.

To make Yarrow Tea: 1 teaspoon dried or 2 pieces fresh large yarrow leaves, 1 cup boiling water. A slice of lemon and raw honey can be added, but are optional. Put the yarrow leaves in a mug of boiling water and let steep for 10 minutes. Strain the leaves and add lemon and honey to taste.

In the Kitchen:

If you bruise a leaf of yarrow its scent is sweet and potent, something in between liquorice, anise, and flowers, and if you taste a small bit of the leaves, your sinuses will be flooded with a perfume very similar to cardamom. You've never tasted anything quite like it! However, before you use it in recipes, bear the following tips in mind:

Remember that yarrow is a soft herb, not unlike tarragon - in fact these two can be substituted for each other. On his website “Forager Chef,” Minnesota-based chef Alan Bergo gives some easy pointers on how to use yarrow for cooking.

Because of its sharp taste, mixing yarrow with other soft herbs like chervil and parsley will slightly “dilute” its strong flavour.

Also, yarrow and high temperatures do not mix well for two reasons: The high heat not only destroys the herb’s delicate flavour, but will also impart bitterness into your food, so add this herb at the very end of the cooking process.

Yarrow works great in cold preparations, such as for making gravlax - a Nordic appetiser consisting of raw salmon, cured in salt, sugar, and dill, and can also be added to vinaigrettes.

This herb is naturally sweet if it is not overheated, and blends well in desserts like sorbets, and complements the flavours of fruits like plums, peaches and nectarines, so be adventurous and try your hand at cooking with some yarrow!

Achillea 'Flowerburst' Red Shades. Picture courtesy www.ballstraathof.co.zaAchillea 'Flowerburst' Red Shades. Picture courtesy www.ballstraathof.co.zaAchillea 'Flowerburst' Red Shades. Picture courtesy www.ballstraathof.co.zaIn the Garden:

Garden hybrids of yarrow have become staples in gardens around the world, because of their tough nature and ease of growth, and their beautiful foliage and flowers which are excellent to cut for the vase, or to dry for winter arrangements. Since they can take heat, drought, and even poor soil, they are a natural choice for difficult areas, and perfect to stabilise sandy soils and prevent soil erosion, especially on slopes.

With their sprays of soft, feathery foliage, and their tendency to stay in tidy clumps, yarrow plants make perfect filler plants, and are great in the mid-border, where they will add season-long colour if planted in large clumps.

The flat flowers and soft foliage contrast nicely with plants with spikey flowers or leaves. Try planting them with: Aloes, Dwarf New Zealand Flax, Hairbells (Dierama,) Lilyturf (Liriope,) Restio (Elegia,) Sedges (Carex,) and Veronica (Hebe) varieties.

Members can click on highlighted text to read more about the plants mentioned

Although they are now available in many exciting colours, the softer white and creamy-yellow colours are perfect to brighten up flowers with darker tones in the garden, and contrast beautifully with blue flowers like: Dwarf Blue Agapanthus, Balloon Flowers (Platycodon,) Chinese Plumbago (Ceratostigma,) Kingfisher Daisy (Felicia,) Blue Sage (Salvia,) and Spider Wort (Tradescantia)

Yarrow is not just popular with people; it is also popular with bees, and having it near the vegetable or fruit garden, will attract these vital little pollinators. Yarrow is also well-known for its ability to improve the condition of impoverished or clay soils, so if you have a patch of soil that needs improving and conditioning, let yarrow take over for a season or two in the area, and then dig it over into the soil as a green manure. It also makes a really valuable compost activator and increases the nutrient value of any compost heap.

Companion Planting:

Yarrow acts as a good companion for many plants, and especially vegetables and fruit, helping to keep aphids away and improving the general health of plants growing nearby, even ailing plants. It is especially good for corn and cucumbers, and compliments roses well. Remember, if you prick or cut yourself when pruning roses, crush a yarrow leaf to rub on the wound – it will stop the bleeding, ease the sting, and disinfect the wound.

Cultivation/Propagation:

Yarrow plants are easy to find in most garden centres, and although the best time to plant them out is in spring, in order to take advantage of the cooler temperatures and any early rain, yarrow is a tough customer and can be planted or moved at any time, as long as you give it some extra water while it gets established. It is frost resistant and will add some greenery to the winter garden if you have mild to moderately cold winters. However, if you are in a region that experiences severe frost or snowfall, the plant will die down completely in winter; but if the roots are kept warm underneath a thick mulch of compost or bark chips throughout winter, yarrow will readily pop up again in spring.
 
Yarrow plants love heat and sunshine, so give them a spot where they will receive full sun. If they do not get enough sun, the plants will become leggy and flop over. No special planting instructions are needed - just make sure the plant is at the same depth in the ground as it was in the pot. Yarrow's hardy rhizome, or underground stem, develops from underground runners as the extensive root system spreads; so make sure you allow at least 60cm between each plant, so they can spread.

Yarrow grows best in hot and dry conditions, thriving in impoverished, well-drained soils. It will adapt to most well-drained garden soils, even clay soils which are amended with lots of compost, but the one thing it cannot tolerate is heavy, wet soil, so if your soil is heavy and rainfall abundant, it may be best to grow yarrow in raised beds or planters, adding generous amounts of washed river sand to the planters, together with smaller amounts of compost and top soil. In normal garden beds, simply loosen the soil to about a spades depth, sprinkle some bone meal and plant. In very poor soils a good dressing of compost will suffice to get your plant established. Supplemental feeding is not necessary, unless your soil is extremely poor, and an annual side-dressing with compost should be sufficient to keep yarrow blooming beautifully. Although yarrow is drought tolerant once established, watering moderately during long hot and dry summer spells will keep it looking at its very best.

If you can find yarrow seed, it can be started early indoors, about 8 to 10 weeks before your last frost date. Just sprinkle the seeds on the surface of the soil and gently press them down. Don't cover with soil because yarrow needs light to germinate. The seed will germinate faster if kept warm, so you could use a heating mat under the seed tray or pot. Place the tray or pot in a sunny and warm location, and keep the soil moist but not soggy until germination. The seeds should germinate in 14 to 21 days, depending on the conditions. You can speed up germination by covering the top of the tray with plastic wrap, to keep in moisture and heat, but remember to remove the plastic wrap once the seeds have sprouted. You can also sow yarrow directly into garden beds at any time of the year, but spring is best.

Because yarrow blooms repeatedly throughout summer, regular deadheading will keep the plants looking neat, and encourage even more blooms. If your plants become tired looking by mid-season, prune back the foliage a bit to refresh the plants and keep them looking full and bushy.

In ideal growing conditions, yarrow can spread rapidly, and may become aggressive, and under these conditions it may be advisable to contain its growth.

Divide the clumps every three to five years, or as required. Lift in early spring or autumn and remove any dead stems from the centre of the clumps before replanting in well-prepared soil.

Warning: In ideal growing conditions this plant reproduces quickly and easily occupies new habitats (acts like invasive species.)

Problems, Pests & Diseases:

Very few problems plague yarrow plants, and it is rare to see any insect damage. The most common problem is fungal diseases of the leaves, but full sun, and allowing for good air circulation can prevent this.

Pets:

While yarrow is often used by humans for its many medicinal benefits, the toxins within the plant do provide a risk of potential poisoning if a cat or dog were to eat copious amounts of it. However, this is unlikely, as yarrow plants contain hydrosoluble tannins that are very bitter to the taste, preventing most pets from eating more than one bite. Symptoms of yarrow poisoning are generally limited to the digestive system and consist of vomiting or diarrhoea. There is also a risk of increased complications in cats or dogs which have many allergies; are pregnant or nursing, or who acquire wounds or incisions after yarrow consumption. Sesquiterpene lactones may also cause adverse skin reactions. Treating a pet which has been poisoned by yarrow will mainly have to do with managing the symptoms, so take them to a veterinarian, but do not panic, as most yarrow poisonings are relatively mild.

Symptoms of yarrow poisoning in horses may present with irritation to the mucous membranes, particularly in the mouth, and gastrointestinal upset which could include the development of diarrhoea or colic. Signs of photosensitization can occur on any part of the body but are most often found in places where the hair is sparse or in in areas of low pigment. These signs can include: bumps on skin, mouth ulcers, oozing sores, peeling or reddened skin. In the past and even today, if used by a veterinary professional, yarrow can be used to heal horses. It is known as an excellent external treatment for bruising, reducing both the pain and the swelling; and can also be used eternally as a hemostatic to slow or stop bleeding as well as supporting circulation to the peripheral blood vessels. In small amounts, it has been known to reduce or eliminate internal bleeding as well. The scent of yarrow is also said to soothe horses and may be planted near pastures to ease anxieties.

Caution:

Despite its benefits, yarrow may have potential side effects for some people. If you’re allergic to any member of the aster family, like chrysanthemums and other daisies, do not ingest or apply yarrow topically, as you may have allergies to it as well. To be safe, do not use it for extended periods of time, and do a ‘skin patch test’ before applying this oil to any part of your body. Yarrow may also make your skin more sensitive to sunlight, so be cautious when using it, whether in plant or essential oil form.

Pregnant women and breastfeeding mothers should also refrain from using yarrow, as this herb may induce a miscarriage and may have unknown effects on an unborn child.

Before applying yarrow topically or ingesting it, consult your health care provider, especially if you are suffering from any health problem, to ensure that this herb is safe for you to use.

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