Some Notes on Yarrow
Yarrow is a perennial, rhizomatous plant that can grow in precarious places (I’ve seen it growing on seemingly sheer cliff faces on the coast of Maine) or, given more favorable conditions, can quickly spread to take over an entire garden bed. The flowers of the native species are white or cream and flat-topped, though various colored species have been introduced as garden staples.
Often confused with carrot family flowers such as Hemlock or Queen Anne’s Lace, yarrow lacks the characteristic umbel flower formation of the carrot family, and is actually part of the Asteraceae (i.e., Sunflower) family. If you look really closely, you’ll see many small daisy like flowers. Because it grows throughout North America, yarrow is one of those plants that I search for whenever I travel because it immediately gives me a sense of familiarity no matter how unfamiliar the ecosystem I’m in. From the chilly beaches of the Oregon coast to the rolling hills of Driftless Wisconsin to the metallic cityscapes of New York City, you can find the feathery leaves of Yarrow nearly anywhere if you take a moment to look.
Yarrow’s scientific name, Achillea millefoilium, is one of the easiest to remember because it so directly correlates to the plant. Achillea, as in Greek soldier Achilles, is apt because yarrow has historically been used as a “battlefield herb.” The chewed or crushed leaves have been commonly used to staunch wounds and stave off infection. Millefolium comes from French and can be translated to “thousand leaves,” which is appropriate for the feathery, many fingered leaves of Yarrow that you can see in clumps long before the flower stems begin to shoot upwards and bloom.
Yarrow has a rich history of herbal use, and a fair amount of folklore attached to boot. Its use as a blood coagulant is perhaps the most commonly known. Yarrow tea has also historically been used for colds and fever symptoms, as it causes sweating and helps cool fevers. It is an extremely bitter plant, and was used before the ubiquity of hops in Western European beer-making (called Gruit) during the Middle Ages. According to old English lore, carrying small pouches of Yarrow will bring far away friends back to you and cause a love to last for seven years (but after seven years, you’re on your own).
Yarrow is a great plant for pollinators and benificial insects, including both lady bugs and syrphid flies, which eat lady bugs. These perennial flowers make a great addition to gardens and landscaping, but beware: it can spread like a weed, so it's best to keep yarrow on the edges of your garden bed, where it will help compete with spreading grasses.
You can find yarrow at most of the community gardens, featured prominently in the perennial beds. Feel free to gather a few leaves for tea or some flowerheads to bring about your own seven years love!