Folks at LA Eco-Village tease me for my infatuation with yarrow… a wonderful plant that I will expostulate upon here.
Yarrow’s fancy official name is Achillea millefolium. Achillea refers to Achilles – the Greek warrior and later Greek myth – who was a soldier who took yarrow into battle, as was the custom in those days, to be used as a coagulant for applying to cuts and other wounds. Millefolium means “thousand leaves,” referring to yarrow’s multi-part leaves. Yarrow is found in many places around the globe, but the yarrow that I plant, grow, and propagate is California native yarrow, originally from the nursery at the Theodore Payne Foundation.
It’s a low-profile perennial. The leafy plant gets to about ~6-10-inches tall, and will send up a ~2-foot-tall flower stalk with dozens of small white flowers. Some other yarrows I’ve seen have had yellow or pink flowers. The small flowers attract beneficial insects, such as bees, ladybugs, and wasps.
Though I grow it mostly for its looks (it’s always green and needs very little water,) yarrow has all kinds of medicinal qualities. As I mentioned before, it’s a coagulant, plus it’s medicinal – used, often in combination with other medicinals, to treat colds and flus. I remember reading somewhere that it’s good for rejuvenating one’s skin, if one adds it to one’s bath. I tried this once, and didn’t notice much. The flower-stalks are very straight and were used by Chinese to practice I Ching. The yarrows stalks were tossed onto a diagram to generate divinations of the future.
According to the book Companion Plants and How to Use Them by Helen Philbrick and Richard Gregg (printed by the Devin-Adair Company originally in 1966):
“Yarrow increases the aromatic quality of all herbs. In small proportion, as in a border, Yarrow helps most vegetables. Yarrow will grow in a narrow bed as it does not mind being trampled.”
“Yarrow is in general a good companion for medical herbs.”
I first learned about yarrow as a suggested drought-tolerant alternative to a grassy lawn. I think that was around the early 1990’s. I remember someone describing a yarrow lawn, with its small white flowers as looking like the stars in the night sky. Here are links to photos of a successful yarrow lawn and a blog about another “almost like a turf lawn, if viewed from a distance”. About 8-9 years ago, I tried doing a small area as a yarrow lawn. The area I chose was a small parkway (between the street and the sidewalk) on Bimini, near the fire hydrant and telephone pole more-or-less at the property line between the two buildings that eco-village owns. The area is subject to quite a bit of foot traffic, hence held very compacted soils which grew lots of weeds. The yarrow didn’t do too well underfoot, but did just fine right around the hydrant and pole, presumably because it wasn’t stepped on as much there. It grew there for a few years fairly happily, though it did need quite a bit of weeding, lest devil grass and other weeds reclaim the spot. I let it go when I severely neglected my garden while writing my LA River book in 2005, and that small area was actually paved as part of the Shared Streets project earlier this year.
Even when most of my garden looked awful from neglect (in the aforementioned 2005), I grew a few things (nothing better than home grown tomatoes), and suprisingly, my neglected yarrow survived in few spots in my garden. It’s a plant that can take a lot of abuse and come back. In some spots, it appears to have died off on the surface, then it grows back up from the roots after fall rains.
Yarrow Edge (in foreground of picture - note that it's very happy though most of the rest of the garden is pretty sparse)
It is very easy to propagate – just dig it up from the roots, then stick it back in wherever you want it. Most of the time even very small pieces will root and survive. It likes being crowded in next to solid things like rocks, pavers, sidewalks, etc. You can see it growing through the interstices of the broken concrete trincheras. It’s ok in full sun and tolerates quite a bit of shade. I tend to grow it around the edges of my garden and don’t really water it, but it gets some (usually too much) when I am watering the veggies around it. In areas where I have it growing and established by itself, I tend to water it less than once a week and it does fine. In fact, it gets so much water when it’s in the edge of the vegetable beds that it spreads out… at some points becoming a nuisance (dare I say… a weed?) In those cases, I just pull most of it out and plant it elsewhere.
A few years ago, when Bip and Raul were visiting from Mexico City, we did a silkscreen workshop. At the time, I did a t-shirt design that some folks have been calling the eco-village logo (it’s really another story, but I am not that comfortable with calling something I’ve designed a logo – logos tend are about paring down and simplification of identity into a highly readable brand, and I am more interested in expressing complexity, diversity, and funkiness.) Anyhow, for the silkscreen design, I hand-lettered the words Los Angeles Eco-Village and then I took a flowering stalk of yarrow and put it onto a photocopy machine. I thought that the design turned out well. Federico later adapted it to a design that graces our wiki, skillfully building the word “wiki” out of pieces of other letters.
One of the things I like to do when I am not sure what to do in my garden – often when I am contemplating a big project, but am procrastinating on starting it – I will pull some yarrow and start it in pots, so that I will have plenty to plant in the future. When I get around to that big project, yarrow is usually one of the first things I will plant there. So… I usually have quite a bit of it rooting and ready to give away whenever anyone expresses interest. Feel free to drop by and I can give you a complimentary starter.