Vulnerable yet Sturdy

by | Jun 1, 2014 | Backyard Living

For a few years now I’ve been smitten with the yarrow plant, a common wildflower with a thousand uses. Known by the scientific name of Achillea millefolium, this plant grows wild all over Asia, Europe and North America, and takes to a variety of soils. Considered by many to be a weed, these prolific plants grow about knee high and produce beautiful fern-like leaves topped by clusters of disk-shaped white, red, yellow or pink flowers. The leaves have a lace-like cascading appearance, making the plant appear both vulnerable and sturdy at the same time. And perhaps this is what I admire most about this utilitarian beauty. The leaves may be feathery but the stalks are firm and nearly impossible to crush. Once established, they’re as hearty and tenacious as a dandelion. Forget them and they’ll still probably come back year after year. In other words, you’d have to work hard to kill them off. What’s not to love?
For as long as anyone can remember, herbalists and healers have been using yarrow for a host of medicinal purposes including treating fevers, blood clots, common colds, stomach problems, toothaches, hemorrhoids, cramps, even hay fever. Yarrow is as versatile as it is strong. The herb was popular among many Native American tribes across the continent, and supposedly the Cherokee used it as a tea to bring restful sleep. Yarrow is perhaps best known for its power to stop bleeding and is therefore named achillea millefolium in honor of the Greek Trojan war hero Achilles, a mythical figure who inspired the oft-used term Achilles heel. Homer tells us Achilles used yarrow on the battlefield to save his soldiers even if it didn’t save him from his own poisonous arrow.
I first started growing yarrow when I bought a few plants at the farmers market in Fayetteville a decade ago. When we moved from Arkansas to Kentucky, we left those plants growing at the base of the rock garden we loved so dearly. Several years ago, after returning to Arkansas, I was riding with my cousins to the Cotton Town cemetery near Cardon Bottoms in Yell County where we stopped near my grandfather’s boyhood home. As we walked along the side of the road, I saw a patch of skinny, sparse yarrow growing in the grainy soil at the edge of the pavement.
During my grandfather’s day, the road would have been dirt and gravel, and lined with mosquito-filled rows of cotton where poor residents eked out a living as sharecroppers and tenant farmers. Who knows where that yarrow came from, but I wondered if its roots dated to my grandfather’s time. Maybe he had once picked some for the young woman who become my grandmother. Given the tenacity of yarrow it’s not unthinkable. So I took some back to my own garden in Dardanelle. I’ve since moved from that garden to a new home in Little Rock where I recently decided to try my hand at growing the plant from seed, hoping to experiment with my own salves, teas and tinctures from the nutrient rich leaves.
Last year as part of our work with the McElroy House: Organization for Cultural Resources and Community Action, we decided to host a small heirloom seed sale, and yarrow was among the butterfly and bee attracting plants we included in the sale. There were literally thousands of seeds that came in the packets we ordered from Baker Creek Heirloom Seed company, much more than anyone could ever use. For the sale I started the seeds in tiny planters made from recycled newspapers and sprinkled a few straggling seeds across my multiple flower gardens to experiment with growing conditions. In all cases they came up quickly, springing forth tiny delicate wisps and forming a fern-like base. They were popular at the seed sale even though they’d yet to produce any flowers.
The ones in my garden continued to grow over the winter, becoming larger and more expansive. Even this year’s harsh snow and ice didn’t seem to faze the lacy leaves. Like many perennials, yarrow doesn’t bloom until the second year. So this spring I watched them closely as they seemed to grow inches overnight. I thought my daughter might be born before the yarrow bloomed, but I soon realized they’d be here before the end of May. I even started to divide a few, adding them to my growing butterfly gardens and lining parts of my walkway. By early this month the flower heads began to ascend from the center of the plant and for a few days before the blooms came forth the buds appeared almost covered in tiny, silky cloud like spider webs. Within a few days, the fuzzy spider webs had given way to an explosion of white blooms, a simple, creamy color that picks up the hues of the cottony spring clouds overhead.
I’ve heard from many people who acquired yarrow during our McElroy House plant sale that those little seedlings are now growing by leaps and bounds in gardens ranging from Dardanelle to Little Rock. As our work at the McElroy House progressed we started to include a hand drawn version of the yarrow that Bryan Moats’s made for both our webpage and printed materials. It seemed a fitting symbol. Our work at the organization is largely about growing and supporting intergenerational connections and taking notice of what grows here—our histories, our stories, our plants and mountains, the futures we want to create. After all, sometimes the most overlooked weeds are the strongest healers, and yarrow has a way of reminding us to pay attention to the things that grow heartily and come back year after year.
If you’re a beginning gardener yarrow is a great choice, especially if you’re looking to bring pollinators to your yard. You can also easily grow your own yarrow from seeds which can be purchased from many seed companies and in local co-ops or plant nurseries. Pine Ridge nursery in London carries a local variety as well. We will also be having another McElroy House Seed Sale sometime next month in connection with the Russellville Community Market, and will have a yellow variety on hand this year. But there’s no need to go out and spend money on a patch of yarrow. Ask a friend to divide some of theirs and you’ll find they’ll quickly be enough to pass around the neighborhood. The great thing about yarrow is you’d be hard pressed to not get at least a few to take root. Forgiving and magical, the yarrow really wants to grow, making it a great starter plant for your budding wildflower garden. And it’ll come back year after year, capable of creating medicine, attracting butterflies, and growing despite the long summer droughts.
Do you grow yarrow in your garden? Do you make your own medicine or salves? I’d love to hear about it. You can visit me online at to see more photos and read more about this plant. If you want to know more about our work with the McElroy House: Organization for Cultural Resources and Community Action please check us out online at or follow us on facebook at McElory House: Organization for Cultural Resources and Community Action.

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