Have You A Brown Thumb? Try Killing a Yarrow Plant!

The Cheerful Gardener says...

When I talk to friends about using California native plants in their gardens, the most frequent response is, "I have a brown thumb, I killed the cactus in my kitchen window, so give me a native plant that even I can keep alive for a few years in my garden". Having therefore thought about this for a bit, I have the answer, "yarrow"!

Achillea millefolium 'Moonshine' yellow flower Except in the desert and high up in the mountains above 11000 feet, yarrow grows almost anywhere in Western United States, is easy to grow, easy to propagate, provides beautiful cut flowers, has a long flowering season, has medicinal value, and provides food to insects, butterflies, and birds. What more can one ask? Achillea millefolium (yarrow) is a must in every California garden.

I have three colors of Yarrow in my garden, the yellow one is a hybrid called 'Moonshine', which is ironically a brilliant yellow like the mid-day sun, a pure white form called 'Snow Sport' that glows in the dark, and a pink form that looks like a toddler that got into her mother's make-up kit. The combination of white, yellow and pink reminds me of Monet's paintings, so I leave them alone and simply enjoy them. I hope you will enjoy reading my article on the yarrow.

How hot is it where you live? Is it time yet to sit in the shade, take long sips of cool lemonade, and find a nice book to read? I am currently reading Noah's Garden-Restoring the Ecology of our Own back Yards by Sara Stein. I am upto chapter 4 and so far it is most informative and moving. Sara Stein makes the point that there has been almost total destruction of the local ecology in Northern America. She says, "Extinction is now approaching the rate prevalent during the catastrophe that killed the dinosaurs. For the first time in Earth's history a major plant extinction is also under way". I will write a more detailed review once I am done reading.

Another pleasant activity, (that requires not much movement in the heat), is to plan your Fall garden, the plants you want to buy, plant sales you would like to visit and so on. There are several plant sales in the fall that you can visit for native plant selections. These are offered by various CNPS chapters, check their websites, UC Berkeley Botanic Garden has one on August 29th, from 10:30-1:30pm, and in Southern California, Theodore Payne's Fall Festival Plant sales are in October.

Enjoy the rest of this summer!

Founder--Native Again Landscape LLC

Yarrow in Your Garden

Achillea millefolium 'Snow Sport' (Yarrow) with its fantastic white flower Named for Achilles, the Greek hero of the Trojan war, the plant was named for its healing properties. This plant was used as a balm for battle wounds. It's various names include woundwart, bloodwort, milfoil, and Nosebleed. Now what is the connection with war-wounds and Achilles? I am not sure, but my best guess comes from a story where Achilles is said to have healed the King of Telphus after inflicting him with a battle wound that would not heal. King Telphus learning from the Oracle that his wound could only be healed by the giver of the wound, returns to Achilles who then proceeds to heal him. Achilles apparently used this plant to staunch the bleeding in his wounded soldiers during the Trojan war.

And millefolium refers to the leaves that are finely divided into thousand little fern-like soft strands.

Medicinal Value of Achillea millefolium

Dried yarrow was found in a 50,000 year old Neanderthal grave in Iraq. Read this article for a reference to a report of this finding. In modern days Yarrow Tincture in herbal or naturopathic stores is used topically to relieve minor pain, prevent infection, stop bleeding and heal skin wounds. Yarrow leaf tea is also used to cure colds and flus and is effective when a brew of the leaves is imbibed in the early stages of infection. Since it is an anti-inflammatory, it also helps with stomach ulcers and other internal wounds. I found this herbal remedies website, click here which has a long list of yarrow's almost miraculous healing properties.

Characteristics of Achillea millefolium

Yarrow spreads by rhizomes and will soon cover an area about 3-4 feet across. Because of this, you can use yarrow as an easy and colorful lawn substitute. You can even mow the plant low and walk on it like grass. And since the leaves are fragrant, the mild crushing of the leaves can bring up a wonderful aroma as you walk. The foliage can be woolly and grey or green, and very lacy.

Achillea millefolium (Yarrow) seen here with last year's brown flower head and a budding new flower Blooms are common from May until September and dead-heading will produce more flowers. After the last Fall bloom, you can leave the flowers on the plant as winter food for the birds and then cut them off sometime in early Spring. The evergreen foliage also provides food to birds in the winter, while bringing a nice green/grey look to the garden.

During the summer months it is common to find the plant covered with beetles, butterflies, and birds. It should make you proud to think of the food and shelter that you are providing to the local fauna. And all this by simply substituting even a small piece of your barren lawn for some beautiful yarrow plants.

Achillea millefolium (Yarrow) growing in the wild in serpentine soil in Ring Mountain in the Tiburon 
peninsula Yarrow is easy to propagate. To start a plant in another part of the garden or to give a plant to a friend, just dig up a piece and re-plant, and voila you just made a baby.

I once sold a small piece of my pink variety to a woman who came to our last yard sale. She was clearly more interested in my front garden than the knick-knacks spread out invitingly in our driveway. Peering over to my planted area she asked me, "How much for that yarrow?" I confess I laughed out loud, and she looked at me a little surprised that I found the question deserving of such mirth. I replied, "$4 for a piece". She tried to bargain me down, but I held firm, "The pink one is very nice," I said, "and besides, I have to bring a shovel and dig up a piece for you".

Growing Achillea millefolium

Achillea millefolium (yarrow) brilliant white flowers are seen in the foreground of this garden bed The plant needs full sun near the coast and part shade in the inland heat. I have seen this plant almost everywhere, in the coastal hills, in the eco-transition vegetation between serpentine and woodland, in the meadows in Yosemite valley, and in the Sierra Nevada foothills. It is flexible with respect to soil; sandy loam, clay and alkaline soil will work. It tolerates people, deer, mowing, summer water, winter flooding, and summer drought.

It is a good plant to use to control slope erosion and as a meadow foundation. Use it in combination with some slow-growing species of shrubs and trees when you are starting out a native garden, to provide some quick cover for color, beauty, and high degree of tolerance to neglect. It should not be fertilized separately, just use some mulch and leaf litter to provide natural compost and nutrition to the soil. Use new growth at the fringes of the current growth to restore the original centers when it starts to look worn out and brown.


    Achillea millefolium var. californica is the basic white variety that grows it seems, almost all over the state and elsewhere in the Western United States. It spreads from about 1-4 feet and has 3-4" cream or off-white colored flowers in the summer.

    If you live on the coast, and are looking for a yarrow that will grow in salt-spray, use Achillea millefolium var. arenicola. This grows on coastal bluffs and will stay very low in the ocean spray. It will get much larger if you grow it out of these harsh conditions. Achillea millefolium (Island Pink) with its light pink flowers will bring a smile to any garden patch

    Achillea millefolium var. rosea is the popular Island Pink Yarrow that comes from the Channel Islands off Santa Barbara. Although referred to as Pink Yarrow, the color can actually vary from white to red.

    Achillea millefolium var. lanulosa is the Mountain Yarrow with smaller leaves and is the one that you would find when you hike in the meadows in Yosemite Valley. The plant is low to the ground with large, pure white flowers. It is actually found everywhere in the mountains except over 8000 feet.

    There are other selections such as 'Canyon Snow', 'Calistoga', 'Sonoma Coast' etc. that can be stunningly pretty and wonderful additions to your garden.

Try growing a few, you won't regret it.

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The Cheerful Iris Issue#003: July 31st, 2009

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