If there’s one flower I will always grow, it’s the incomparable and steadfast yarrow.
The name Achillea comes from Achilles, the mythological war hero who treated his troops with it. This plant has anti-septic and anti-inflammatory properties, good to know if ever you find yourself bleeding to death on the battlefield. To access this medicine in a hurry, you can chew on its leaves a bit (but not to pieces), and wrap the soggy foliage around your wound.
It’s a blood purifier, and has folk names galore: nosebleed plant, old man’s pepper, devil’s nettle, sanguinary, milfoil, soldier’s woundwort, thousand-leaf, and thousand-seal.
But even before those names came about, the First Nations people used it for a huge range of medicinal aid, and 366 documented uses can be found from dozens of tribes here.
To clarify, Achillea is a genus of close to 1000 species or varieties, but most of the nursery plants you’ll come across are descendants or crosses of A. millefolium, A. clypeolata, A. filipendulina, and A. tangutica.
The ideal growing situation is a light (aka sandy, gravelly, rocky, poor) soil in full blazing sun, where it won’t wither nor wince under the most extreme conditions. If you’d like to see this plant do poorly, plant it in rich, fertile, moisture-retentive soil. It will grow like a behemoth and promptly flop over under its own girth before rotting away.
THE NATIVE WHITE ACHILLEA
Achillea millefolium or common yarrow is the white wildflower found throughout North America, Asia and Europe (it’s circumboreal). It doesn’t have an outstanding reputation with gardeners because of its rather weedy tendencies and falls under the dreaded category of “rhizomatous”. Like quack grass, it sends out sideways subterranean shoots that will sprout new growth.
As is, the plain ol’ Achillea millefolium is indeed a bit too weedy for the urban or small perennial garden, but know that most kinds you’ll find at nurseries have had all the bad behaviour bred out of them.I grow the native anyway for three reasons. One: because I have sandy soil so I laugh with joy while pulling rhizomes (on a fire sign day); I harvest a lot of it for bouquets, and lastly, because you never know which raucous son of mine will start bleeding profusely from a head-wound.
I also divide my clumps of common yarrow every year, and thus hope to populate half the planet with one strain of it by 2030.
Cutting blooms in July will give you more in September.
From a landscaping perspective, if we forget the flowers for just a moment, we’d see that its foliage (millefolium: thousand-leaved), is ferny, soft, and of the freshest, most tender green even under the snow. This benefit feels particularly bankable at the ends of the season’s spectrum, in early spring and late autumn, when fanciful foliage of any variety is in short supply.
MOON GARDEN MAGIC
I’ve chosen to line my garden paths with excesses of native achillea as kind of placeholder, as a weed barrier to worse things, and especially so that the brilliant white, flat-topped flowers (blooming pretty much all summer) reflect moonlight and make it for easier night strolling, which is a thing I do in my gardens, ok?
Native achillea will bring loads of hovering metallic tiny wasps and other winged creatures to bless your gardens. Here is a list of yarrow pollinators for all the bug geeks out there (TLDR in a Donald Trump voice: it’s very long, all kinds of bugs, the best bugs).
I’m steeped in rural bias here, but I feel like it would be a disservice to shy away from this native perennial for fear of its rhizomes. It stands to reckon that if you are on a rural property, have some ghastly dry, barren patch between two sheets of concrete, or are in the path of some encroaching, mean weeds, planting native white achillea is a better bet than leaving the gap for some other invader equally as tough, totally useless to you, and ten times the ugly.
Altogether I grow five kinds of achillea, and by the time I finish this sentence I’ve vowed to grow ten.
One I’ve been installing for two years now is the ‘Colorado Mix’ which has a kind of bleached-out, antique look that suits a sun-baked, country garden.
‘Summer Pastels’ is another popular mix. It gives more of a deeper rose pink and magenta in the mix with less beige and white.
Achillea comes in about a billion different colour variations ranging from wine red, burgundy, crimson, magenta, rose, salmon, peach, citrus orange, TERRACOTTA, as well as 24K gold, lemon, butter, and antique yellow. Some colours fade more than others in the sun, and each bloom opens and fades at different rates.
Cutting for dried use, I find yellow keeps its colour the best.
WINTER SOW IT
All achilleas seem to be happy cold germinators, so a February start in an outdoor cell tray buried in snow will do you just fine. You should see seedlings emerging in early spring in your unheated greenhouse – yes, seedlings can freeze.
MAJOR BONUS: they’re keen to flower in their first year, too.
Look at this ‘Terracotta‘ achillea tho: