Meet Yarrow: 2024’s Herb of the Year

I was so happy to see that yarrow, one of my favorite plants, is being recognized as the Herb of the Year for 2024 by the International Herb Association. 

This herb is being celebrated for its ornamental appeal, drought tolerance, and attractiveness to pollinators. Those are all the reasons why I love it and grow it in my garden too! 

Yarrow Plant Profile

Yarrow just as it's flowering
Yarrow is one of my favorite plants to have in the garden. It has ecological value, ornamental beauty, medicinal value, and a history of folklore.

In the wild, yarrow can be found in meadows and forest edges. Known scientifically as Achillea millefolium, this perennial combines ornamental beauty with historic medicinal uses. 

Although native to Europe, yarrow has naturalized throughout much of the United States. It is often seen as a weed but is valued in gardens for its spring blooms. 

I love its delicate fern-like foliage, resembling a thousand tiny feathers, as much as I enjoy the flowers. From June to September, it shows off its tightly branched flower heads with numerous small flowers, primarily white with yellow-tan centers.

You can also find cultivated varieties bred with yellow, gold, pink, or red flowers,

Yarrow foliage close up
Yarrow foliage is just as beautiful to me as the flowers. Here it is growing amongst wood sorrel in my garden.

Yarrow in Ecological Gardening

Yarrow’s contribution to an ecological garden is multifaceted. According to the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center, this plant is valuable to Beneficial Insects.

It is recognized by pollination ecologists as attracting large numbers of native bees and is a plant that is known to attract predatory or parasitoid insects that prey upon pest insects.

The way the flower stalks branch from various points along the main stem but are all approximately the same length, make the top of the flower relatively flat, creating an excellent platform for feeding pollinators.

It’s dense foliage also creates a great ground cover to keep soil covered and cool or to provide shelter for small wildlife.  I’ve observed rabbits’ nests under yarrow branches and found toads sheltering under them as well.

A fiery skipper on yarrow flower
The flowers form platforms that are easy for pollinators to land on.

Medicinal History

Yarrow has long been a favorite in folk medicine for its powerful healing properties. It’s particularly known for its ability to quickly stop bleeding and heal wounds, earning it the nickname “soldier’s woundwort.”

This herb goes by many names—old man’s pepper, devil’s nettle, milfoil, soldier’s woundwort, and thousand seal—but its scientific name, Achillea, hints at a more mythical origin.

According to legend, the great Greek warrior Achilles used yarrow to treat his soldiers’ wounds during the Trojan War. The myths surrounding Achilles don’t stop there. They say that his mother, trying to make him invincible, dipped him into the River Styx. She held him by his heel, which the magical waters didn’t touch, leaving that one spot vulnerable.

Native American tribes have also found it just as indispensable. They applied the crushed plant to wounds and burns and brewed the dried leaves into teas to ease colds, fevers, and headaches.

According to The Scots Herbal: The Plant Lore of Scotland, on the Isle of Skye, yarrow was traditionally boiled in milk with a healing quartz stone to create a remedy for consumption. In Fife, the herb was commonly used to treat coughs and colds. Patrick Neill, the Secretary of the Natural History Society of Edinburgh, documented his observations during a tour of the Orkney and Shetland Islands. In his 1806 publication, he described seeing yarrow laid out to dry at a cottage door. He noted that it was often made into a tea, a beverage highly regarded for its ability to alleviate melancholy.

And let’s not forget about yarrow beer. Yarrow was used in Europe to make Old World beers before the introduction of hops. 

White yarrow flowers.
Yarrow is known for its small white flowers with tan centers.

Folklore and Culture

Over the years, as I’ve grown and studied herbs in my garden, I’ve discovered that many are steeped in folklore. Whether used to ward off evil, weave into spells, or enhance dreams, herbs have been a significant part of our ancestors’ lives, serving purposes beyond just culinary uses.

Yarrow is no different. Its strong protective qualities made it a popular choice for amulets against negative energies. Yarrow has played a role in love divinations and charms and was used during the Victorian era as a symbol of healing and love in the language of flowers.

In Scottish Folklore

In the Hebrides, it was believed that holding a yarrow leaf against the eyes could grant the gift of second sight.

During the witchcraft trial of Elspeth Reoch in March 1616, she was accused of using a plant referred to as “melefour” (likely yarrow) while reciting “In nomine Patris, Fiili, et Spiritus Sancti” to gain the ability to cure ailments and to predict the future.

Recently, while I was researching ancient herbs used in Scotland, I learned that part of Gaelic tradition was using charms and incantations in conjunction with the harvesting and use of herbs.

One particular charm was collected by Alexander Carmichael, a Scottish folklorist and antiquarian, who devoted much of his life to preserving the oral traditions of the Scottish Highlands and Islands. His work, Carmina Gadelica, is a comprehensive collection of hymns, prayers, charms, and songs that provide invaluable insight into the spiritual and cultural practices of the Gaelic-speaking people.

He includes the verse below that was said while harvesting yarrow.

I will pluck the yarrow fair,
That more benign shall be my face.
That more chaste shall be my speech.
That more sweet shall be my lips.
Be my face the beams of the sun,
And my lips as sweet as the strawberry.

May I be an isle in the sea,
May I be a hill on the shore.
May I be a star in the waning moon,
May I be a staff to the weak.
Wound can I every man,
But no man can wound me.

Yarrow flowers before fully opening up.

Growing Yarrow in the Garden

Starting from Seed Indoors

Many years ago I planted yarrow from a plant I bought at a local garden center.  It was probably common yarrow but I am not totally positive about that. I have since divided and relocated that plant a couple of time over the years to build new beds where it grew.

This year, in honor of yarrow being the 2024 Herb of the Year, I decided to start it from seed and add even more around my garden and to share with other gardeners. I source most of my medicinal seeds from Strictly Medicinals and have great luck with their seeds and plants.

I sowed seeds in a 50-cell flat on the soil surface since they germinate best with light and timed the seed starting about six to eight weeks before my last frost. The seed packet said they take about 8 days to germinate but I was surprised to see germination in as little as three days!

Once they were outgrowing those tiny cells, I bumped them up to individual 3.5 inch square pots into Happy Frog potting soil. 

Small yarrow seedlings in a seed tray
Tiny yarrow seedlings I started from seed.
Planting Out in the Garden

About mid April for me is when it’s relatively safe to plant. You just never know when a late frost can happen. I did finally get around to transplanting herbs in late April and added my little seedlings to the garden.

Yarrow prefers full sunlight and well-drained soil but adapts well to partial shade and various soil conditions. You don’t have to go to great lengths to provide yarrow with super nutrient rich soil.  

In fact, I find it popping up in all kinds of places around the yard and garden.

When it’s time to plant out, space seedlings about 18 inches apart. Yarrow spreads quickly and can grow up to four feet tall.

Yarrow seedling just planted.
Here's one of my yarrow seedlings just after transplanting to the garden.
Plant Care

Regular deadheading spent flowers will help to encourage more growth and prolong blooming. Dividing yarrow every three to five years keeps plants healthy and vigorous.

Don’t be surprised if you find yarrow trying to make a foothold in your lawn or in other parts of the garden. I embrace its roaming nature. 

In fact, I would love to have yarrow be the majority of my lawn. It makes a very cool, cushy carpet for bare feet. 

Yarrow leaves emerging in spring
Here's yarrow emerging in early spring in a corner of the yard not even close to where I have it planted. The wind or birds must have brought seeds to this location.

Harvesting and Using

Harvesting yarrow is best done when in full bloom, usually mid-summer, which is when the concentration of medicinal oils is highest.

Drying the leaves and flowers is a breeze: spread them out in a cool, dark place and let the air do its work. You can also hang dry or use a dehydrator on low.  Store the dried yarrow in an airtight container for year-round use.

I am not an herbalist but I have utilized yarrow for a cut to stop bleeding, which is what it’s known for. Yarrow powder can be made by finely grinding dried yarrow leaves.

To help stop bleeding with yarrow powder, simply sprinkle it directly onto the wound. Alternatively, you can apply wet, fresh yarrow leaves to the area and then press firmly.

I like to use yarrow in flower arrangements. It is relatively easy to work with and has sturdy stems that can be cut to various lengths to fit different styles of bouquets and arrangements.

Those small, tightly-packed flowers of yarrow form flat, umbrella-like clusters that add an interesting texture to bouquets, taking the place of something like baby’s breath. The flowers are not only a staple in cut floral arrangements but also retain their beauty when dried.

Yarrow blooming in the garden
Yarrow is a drought tolerant plant that requires little care from the gardener but gives back much in return with its beauty and support of pollinators.

Final Thoughts

Yarrow is one of my favorite herbs.  Surely I came across it as a child playing in meadows and fields but didn’t know it’s name. I never even heard of this herb until about 10 years ago, so I am happy I stumbled upon it and decided to invite it into my garden.

It’s a welcome green sight in early spring when it starts to emerge from the ground where the brown stems of last year’s plants still poke up from the soil.

As the Herb of the Year for 2024, yarrow invites us to share in the legacy of one of the world’s most cherished medicinal plants.

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Cultivating Nature's Wisdom

I’m a nature photographer and gardener sharing how I created an ecological garden in a small suburban backyard. I also share a few tips for growing and using herbs to craft your own homegrown spice blends.

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