Permaculture Plant: Yarrow

yarrow
Photo by Robyn Rosenfeldt
yarrow
Photo by Robyn Rosenfeldt

Clockwise from above: The fern like leaves can be added to the compost for added nutrients; Yarrow flowers; Yarrow growing at the base of a fruit tree in an orchard.

yarrow
Photo by Sunbunny Studio

Yarrow Achillea millefolium is a tough, perennial herb with multiple permaculture uses.

It is a low-growing, spreading, rhizomatous plant with fernlike leaves and clusters of small flowers making up a larger composite flower.

In permaculture systems, yarrow is commonly used as an understorey in food forests and orchards. It could also be grown as part of a dedicated herb garden, a pretty but practical perennial flower garden, or incorporated into pastures and poultry systems. It can also be part of a mixed herbal lawn tolerating moderate foot traffic and occasional mowing, though if it is kept low, it will not have the opportunity to flower.

Grow

Yarrow is easy to grow and adaptable to a wide range of conditions in climates from alpine to subtropical. In the tropics it can be grown as a shorter-lived plant. It likes sun, but tolerates semi-shade. It copes well with poorer soils and dry periods, although it prefers rich, moist soils. While it can be grown from seed, it is most easily propagated by division of the whole plant.

Harvest

The flowers and the leaves may be harvested and processed together or separately, depending on the use. Pluck leaves and flower heads from the fibrous stems and, if needed, dry them in a shady area with good airflow for use in teas, or in medicinal and cosmetic preparations.

Uses

  • Soil improvement: yarrow is a useful mineral accumulator and is used in biodynamic preparations. Put handfuls into your compost at regular intervals to add nutrients and speed up the composting process. As a hardy ground cover it also acts as a living mulch, providing physical protection to soils.
  • Food: yarrow can be chopped finely into salads, sandwiches and other dishes, or used as a garnish. It has an aromatic, slightly bitter taste. It has a long history of use as a flavouring in beer and mead, where it is said to increase the effects of the alcohol on the consumer.
  • Medicinal: there are many traditional medicinal uses for yarrow. Dried leaves of yarrow are commonly combined with peppermint and flowers of elder to make a tea used for colds and flus. Holding a freshly crushed leaf onto a bleeding cut or graze will stop the bleeding very effectively. The original white-flowered plant is best for medicinal purposes.
  • Fodder and tonic: most livestock will appreciate yarrow to eat and/or self-medicate. It can act as a general tonic to improve animal health. As it is a favoured plant, it is unlikely to last long in a heavily grazed paddock, and thus may need to be brought to the animals by hand. With some protection for the roots, it is a good addition to poultry systems.
  • ‘Good bug’ attractor: the clusters of small nectar-rich flowers are a useful nectar source for insects, such as the tiny predatory wasps that help control caterpillars and aphids.
  • Insect repellent: whilst the flowers are attractive to many insects, the leaves are repellent to others, making it a good companion plant. It has been used in herbal mosquito repellent preparations.
  • Cosmetics: a range of hair and skin preparations can be made from yarrow.
  • Aesthetics: various cultivars and hybrids of yarrow are available in shades of pink, purple, red, cream and yellow, which can make a decorative addition to the garden or be used as cut flowers.

Pests And Problems

Yarrow has few pests. The major problem with yarrow is its tendency to spread to areas in which it is not wanted. In higher rainfall areas it is sometimes regarded as a weed, and should be kept away from cultivated annual beds where it is likely to become problematic.

It should not be consumed during pregnancy and some people have had allergic reactions to the leaves, although this is rare.

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