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March 5, 2008 > Pat Kite's Garden: Yarrow

Pat Kite's Garden: Yarrow

By Pat Kite

The older I get, the more I want flowers from my childhood. Of course, some of my childhood was spent in Southern California, where my non-gardening parents regarded the manual lawn mower as the ultimate in garden delight. However, some plants survived where the mower couldn't reach. One of them was a rose-purple yarrow, which festooned every neglected soil corner. So, of course, here in Northern California, I should be able to grow this easily. Hah!

Now there are about 85 Achillea species, and they come in shades of white, yellow, orange, pink, and red. One esteemed garden reference proclaims, "These hardy perennials are easily grown and tolerant of poor soils, but they do best in sunny, well-drained sites..." Most are well behaved, but my yarrow, Achillea millefolium, is not. Actually it's listed in my "weed" book, with alternate names such as Nosebleed, Soldier's Woundwort, Knight's Milfoil, Carpenter's Weed, Sweet Nuts, and Old Man's Pepper. However, every time I tuck a piece into the selected cozy restricted garden area, it stares at me for a while, then says "nanny, nanny goat, you can't catch a Billy goat," and disappears.

Yarrow has a 60,000-year history according to fossilized pollen found in Neanderthal burial caves in Iraq. The name Achillea comes from Homer's novel "The Iliad," and its hero Achilles. Achilles, the bravest of Greek warriors, used his healing knowledge to help soldiers on the endless battlefields. Achillea leaves were used to stop bleeding. Whether that tale is true, or not, Achillea millefolium was part of medical equipment during the Crusades in Europe and in America until after our Civil War. In the Victorian language of flowers, yarrow = healing.

Yarrow was once used in beer brewing. It is still used as a dye, and is fine for fresh or dried floral arrangements. More fun, it once was a love token. According to one folklore ritual, a young lady could see her future husband in dreams if she sewed an ounce of yarrow in a piece of flannel. This flannel was placed under her pillow at bedtime while she simultaneously recited this verse: "Thou pretty herb of Venus' tree, Thy true name it is Yarrow; Now who my bosom friend must be, Pray tell thou me tomorrow."

Apparently, if she really wanted to do it up correctly, the next day she had to put the yarrow in her shoe and ask it to guide her to her future husband. The first single man she meets is the one recommended by the yarrow. If you think this is amazing, how exactly did you meet your spouse?

On the gardener's side, some feel yarrow is great in the herb and vegetable beds. It attracts beneficial insects and supposedly wards off the pesky ones. I can grow grey-green woolly yarrow, A. tomentosa, and bright yellow A. "Moonshine," no problem at all. But the "weed" A. millefolium reminds me of long-ago home and I shall grow it, yes I will.

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